W.D. Ross was born in 1877 in Thurso, Scotland. Ross joined the army in 1915 and fought in World War I. In 1929, he he became Provost of Oriel College, the position he held until retirement. He also held the position of President at Fellow of the British Academy until 1940. According to Skelton (2012), during his time as President, he helped foreign scholars flee less liberal areas in Europe. Ross died on May 25, 1971. In his lifetime, Ross was considered a major figure in the study of Aristotle, holding the position as the General Editor of the Oxford Aristotle translation series, as well as editing some of Aristotle’s work in Greek for Oxford Classical Text series (Skelton, 2012). Much of Ross’ ideas is influenced greatly by Aristotle, H.A. Prichard, and G.E. Moore, and involved the study of duty ethics.
According to Olsen (2014), Ross is typically thought of as denying that there are any absolute moral principles, and believes in prima facie duties, meaning moral principles that are seen as correct unless proven otherwise. Garrett (2004) explained, “A prima facie duty is a duty that is binding (obligatory) other things equal, that is, unless it is overridden or trumped by another duty or duties.” These duties include fidelity, gratitude, reparation, to promote a maximum of aggregate good, and non-maleficence.
These prima facie duties can be considered moral requirements or obligations that we are bound by and that must motivate our behavior. For example, if you see someone carrying a heavy box, and your hands are free, you have the moral obligation of non-injury to hold the door for them. Ross was also interested in the right and the good. The right would be these prima facie duties, and does not see these duties as equally important, for example the duty of non-maleficence is more important than promoting a maximum of aggregate good (Skelton, 2012). Many philosophers believed that these duties were problematic because they are not systematic enough. With no real structure on which is more important than the other, it is hard to use this theory to make moral decisions since you don’t know what duty you should use above another.
Ross was also interested in the good, which he believed involved justice, pleasure, knowledge, and virtue (Skelton, 2012). He believed that for something to be good, it must truly, intrinsically be good. He argued that virtue and knowledge were “objects worthy of admiration,” and because of that, the goodness was intrinsic to them. He also suggested that justice and pleasure were “worthy objects of satisfaction,” and the goodness in them was not intrinsic, but the act of finding satisfaction in them was intrinsically good (Skelton, 2012). For example, pleasure is a good thing, and pain is a bad thing. So, if we find pleasure in eating cake, then eating cake to attain pleasure is a good enough reason to justify that action. When talking about goodness, Ross was interested in self-evidence, which involves knowing moral facts through intuition. According to Gray (2011), for duties to be self-evident, it means we “can contemplate the duties and know they are true based on that contemplation—but only if we contemplate them in the right way.” Ross believes that we can know things without arguing for them, and thinks anything truly intuitive is self-evident.
Ross’ guidelines, such as the prima facie duties and considering what is right and what is good, can be applied to making ethical decisions. What Ross would hope people would do when making decisions, according to his work and ideologies, would be to consider what promises we have made, what our obligations are, such as keeping those promises, not harming others, and giving gratitude, and measure what intrinsic good would come out of our choices.
Garrett, J. (2004). A simple and usable (although incomplete) ethical theory based on the ethics of W.D. Ross. Retrieved from http://people.wku.edu/jan.garrett/ethics/rossethc.htm
Gray, J.W. (2011). Ethical realism. Retrieved from https://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2011/05/18/w-d-rosss-moral-theory-the-right-and-the-good/
Olsen, K. (2014). Ross and the particularism/generalism divide. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 44(1), 56-75. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00455091.2014.891691
Skelton, A. (2012). William David Ross. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/william-david-ross/#RosDisMorFraRigGoo
W.D. Ross Image Retrieved from https://ausomeawestin.wordpress.com/2013/12/29/the-call-of-duties-thoughts-on-w-d-rosss-the-right-and-the-good-pt-i/