Prima facie Duties and Ross’s Theory of Right Conduct

8 August 2016

“There are other beings in this world whose condition we can make better in respect of virtue, or of intelligence or of pleasure” (Ross). W. D. Ross was a philosopher who developed the Theory of Right Conduct. The seven prima facie duties are central in Ross’s Theory of Right Conduct. The purpose of these duties is to determine what people ought to do in questionable moral situations. “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” (Garrett). The purpose of this paper is to explain the prima facie duties and Ross’s Theory of Right Conduct.

To further demonstrate the theory it will be applied to a morally controversial case. In order to understand the concept of prima facie duties one must understand each of the seven duties. The first duty is Fidelity, this is the obligation to keep one’s promises and not participate in dishonesty. The second is Reparation, which is the duty to make up for any injuries one has caused others. The next duty is Gratitude, this states that one must show gratitude towards others for their help and if possible return the favor. The fourth duty is Harm Prevention that is the duty to prevent harm to others resulting from causes other than oneself.

Next is Beneficence this is the duty to do good to others in order to promote their overall wellbeing. The sixth prima facie duty is Self-Improvement that is literally the duty to act in a way that improves one’s self and promotes one’s own wellbeing. Lastly, Justice is the duty that requires one to act in a way that promotes justice in a just manor. While all of these duties appear to be self explanatory and straightforward it can be difficult to determine when one ought to or ought not to perform an action. Ross’s Theory of Right Conduct helps to clarify when two prima facie duties conflict.

Ross’s Theory of Right Conduct is a theory that demonstrates the burden to perform or not perform an action based upon the seven prima facie duties. His theory is broken down into actions that are obligatory, wrong or optional. The theory states that it is obligatory to perform an action (A) to uphold one prima facie duty over another, if (and because) action (A) satisfies the most stringent of the conflicting prima facie duty. To better illustrate this take the case of Mike. Mike promises his friend Sally he will give her a ride to work and is therefore obligated to uphold the prima facie duty of fidelity.

However, when Mike is driving to pick her up he sees a car crash on the side of the road. If he does not stop to help the victim of the car crash the victim will die. Now Mike has two conflicting prima facie duties, he has the duty of fidelity toward Sally and the duty of beneficence to the stranger. Ross’s Theory of Right Conduct would favor that he uphold the duty of beneficence because it is a more stringent duty. The second part of Ross’s theory states that it is wrong to perform action (A) if and because it would mean not upholding the more stringent of the conflicting prima facie duties.

In the case of the car crash this would mean that it would be wrong for Mike to leave the accident to uphold his duty of fidelity because it is not the more stringent of the two prima facie duties. Lastly, an action is optional if and because one of the two following scenarios are present: If one has no prima facie duties in the situation, or if there are conflicting prima facie duties and one or more favors each action. The main problem with Ross’s Theory of Right Conduct is how does one judge one prima facie duty to be more stringent than another.

In the case of conflicting prima facie duties one must rely on moral judgment. This means following one’s own intuition that has been shaped by experiences and obtained knowledge over a period of time. There is no formula or strict principle that can be applied in moral judgment one must rely on their own intuition. In the case of the car accident one can use their own moral judgment to determine that upholding beneficence and saving a life is more important than the duty of fidelity and making sure Sally gets to work on time.

In some cases it is not as simple to determine the more stringent prima facie duty. To illustrate the complexity of conflicting prima facie duties we will observe the case of George. George is a recent graduate with a Ph. D. in chemistry who is struggling to find a job. His wife is forced to get a job in order to support their family. As a result of an absent mother and the financial stress on the family the children have been experiencing damaging psychological effects. George is offered a job at a laboratory that researches biological and chemical warfare.

He is against accepting the job because he believes that the use of biological and chemical warfare is wrong. However, even if he refuses the job the lab will continue to research biological and chemical warfare. Furthermore, if George does not fill the position it will go to a more experience candidate that will speed up the research process. While George is against the research of biological and chemical warfare, his wife is not morally opposed to the idea of George taking the job.

This case has many conflicting prima facie duties in which moral judgment must be applied to determine weather George should accept the job or not. There are several conflicting prima facie duties that apply to this case. The first is the duty of harm-prevention. As previously mentioned this states that one must prevent harm to others from causes other than him/herself. In this case this duty applies to both the prevention of harm to George’s family and the harm as a result of his research on biological and chemical warfare.

The next duty is beneficence that is concerned with the promotion of the wellbeing of others that includes his family and the potential victims of his research. Lastly, is the duty of self-improvement, and George’s obligation to improve his own wellbeing. To find a resolution to this case I have evaluated each of the prima facie duties and their conflicts. The duty of harm-prevention is best satisfied if George accepts the job. By not taking the job he is not upholding his duty of harm prevention toward his family because they will continue to suffer.

On the other hand by refusing the job he is technically upholding the duty of harm prevention toward the potential victims of his chemical and biological warfare research; however, the position will be filled by a more qualified chemist that would cause more harm than if George were to accept the job. The next prima facie duty is beneficence. If George were to accept the job he would be promoting the wellbeing (health, security, and happiness) of his family; however, much like the duty of harm prevention he would not be promoting the wellbeing of the potential victims of his research.

The wellbeing of his family can be promoted if he accepts the job because he will be providing them with financial security that will contribute to their health (psychological and physical), and in turn their overall happiness. Also by accepting the position he can slow the progress of research and lessen the potential effects the research can have on the victims. Lastly, the duty of self-improvement can be satisfied if he accepts the job because he will be promoting his security (financially) and health (psychological and physical) because he will alleviate the stress of unemployment and the effects on himself and his family.

After a close examination and factoring the various effects of George’s decision he has a moral obligation to accept the job because it is in the best interest of himself, his family and the potential victims of the research. He will promote the wellbeing of him and his family, as well as lessen the unavoidable negative effects on the victims of the biological and chemical warfare.

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