Friday, May 3, 2013

Ross on What Makes Right Acts Right

**This is from guest blogger, Cassy K.**

Briefly, Ross puts forth a non-absolutist theory revolving around prima fascia duties that are permanent but not always decisive. Those duties are fidelity, reparation, gratitude, justice, beneficence, non-maleficence, and self-improvement. He admits that this is not an exhaustive list, but each is necessary. In particular scenarios, some duties may be outweighed by others but they are always important regardless.

Shafer-Landau points out three primary difficulties with Ross's theory: 1. Arbitrariness: there's no apparent reason for why these particular duties are included. 2. Balancing: it's not clear why some duties take priority in certain cases, if they are not ranked. 3. how do we come to know these duties and the final duty to act on in specific cases?

While I think these are certainly good to point out, I personally don't think they're true objections. Each of them can simply be deduced to intuition. When you really think about it, why do we do anything? Regardless of what might be truly behind our actions, we do things because something (whatever that may be) compels us to do so. There are many days when I don't feel like going to work, but I still go. If I didn't find any compelling reason to go--even though I say I don't "want" to--I wouldn't. I think what we're discussing here is similar.

Presumably, Ross included these prima fascie duties because that's what his intuition instructed him to include. The only reason that we see this as a "difficulty" is because it's not as satisfying as we'd ideally like it to be. We dislike admitting that some things may happen by chance for the same reason--as human beings, "by chance" and "intuition" aren't satisfying answers, even if we make the majority of our decisions based on intuition. That's the reason that I decided to go to work even when I didn't feel like it, whereas my roommate often calls into work when she doesn't feel like going. We're wired differently; our decision-making is necessarily affected by our individual intuitions and dispositions. So while appealing to our intuitions might not be as ideal as a solid, empirical explanation, morality is not a science.

It would, of course, be nice if Ross's theory gave us a methodical way to calculate the absolute moral decision in every case. But given the complexity of the world, ourselves, and the decisions we face, is that even a feasible demand? I would argue that it absolutely is not--that when you really think about it, it's almost silly to ask. Utilitarianism is an interesting and thought-provoking theory, but the fact of the matter is that very little of that is actually going through my head when I'm contemplating a moral decision. I might be thinking about whether or not it will hurt or help others, but I'm not calculating hedons in my head. (Nevermind that I don't even know what that would look like in practice.)

I think Ross is onto something here. By focusing on what actually goes through our heads when we're making a moral decision and considering the complexities we face, he's conjured up something that actually seems to make sense in the real world as it really works, even if it hasn't allowed us to "close the book" on our discussion of morality. 


J P H Stephens said...

I come to the same conclusion as you...Ross seems to have come up with something that makes sense in the real world...but I think that he does something that goes even further. While we can't "close the book" on morality, I think that Ross' view arguably leaves us closer to science than anything we've seen thus far.

When scientists attempt to determine something about the world around us, they see the problem as one with an objective truth. When it comes to, say, the position of the Earth within the solar system and its movement relative to other planets, science has always attempted to determine the objective truth about where the Earth is and how it moves. When a bird leaves a tree branch, it does not fly off into space. A very long time ago this was taken as reason to believe that the Earth does not rotate, which in turn led us to believe that the sun rotated around the Earth, etc. These ideas came about from intuitions, not so unlike the prima facie duties put forth by Ross. While our beliefs changed with time, it was not the case that scientists believed that the motion of the Earth relative to other planets was subjectively so, depending on our thoughts on the matter, but instead they believed that further inquiry into the subject had led us closer to knowing the objective truth.

It seems to me that moral "intuitions" can change in the same manner. A man might intuit that slavery is provides for the owner in the form of labor, and it provides for the slave in the form of protection. Today this idea seems BOGUS...but it didn't always seem so. In the same way that the scientist has come closer to the truth concerning the Earth, it seems that the ethicist has gained ground on the objective truth concerning the morality of slavery. It is unfortunate for ethics, however, that science is always to be blessed with the upper hand when it comes to empirical evidence.

Erik V said...

My gripe about Ross is pretty short and hopefully someone has an answer for it, but doesn't it seems like there is always going to be one value or pair of values that seem to trump all the other ones? This may vary person to person, but couldn't it be in practice that one always seems to yield better options/results than the others?

I feel like all Ross did was give a place for those who aren't sure of the ethical camp they're in to shack up for awhile until they find one they like the most. For example, by taking bits from a lot of other theories, he gives solace to those who aren't sure, but to those who already made up their minds it seems rather unconvincing. For example, the egoist is always going to have the duty of self-improvement beat out any other competing duty, the utilitarian will always pick out the duties of beneficence/non-maleficence as the ones to adhere to, the deontologist to a duty of fairness and others. I like the idea of what he tried doing but I don't think it can convince those who made up their mind already.

Eric Bumbaca said...

I agree with Erik here, in that I find Ross's theory to be interesting and informative, but in no way does it help me choose between various ethical schemes. It seems to be an all-encompassing theory, and here I believe lies both its weakness and its strength. The strength of the theory is that it allows the agent to decide which of these duties is most important. Thus it allows for some level of flexibility for individual thoughts/desires/motives.

The weakness of this theory also lies in its flexibility. It does not seem to present any strong resolution about the order of these duties. If I am a morally incompetent person (in that I cannot make moral decisions for myself, and i struggle with even the slightest moral dilemma) then this theory would prove insufficient for me. Ross's theory does not stress some duties more than others, and thus seems weak in some circumstances.