Philosophy 173 - 9.3.2 Pluralism

Some philosophers argue that classic utilitarianism (e.g., Mill) and deontology (e.g., Kant) offer accounts of morality that do not adequately explain our common experience of morality in practice. Do we, like Mill, really think that morality is all about increasing happiness? Do we, like Kant, really treat all moral rules as absolute and always binding? Deontology and utilitarianism seem to offer an overly simplistic account of what is good.

Pluralists offer a more complex, complete account of morality that explains our common experience. In contrast to classic utilitarianism and deontology, pluralism recognizes a plurality of intrinsic values and moral rules.

William David Ross

Sir William David Ross (1877–1971) believed (classic) utilitarianism and deontology fail because they “over-simplify the moral life” (Ross 1939, 189). He thought each of these earlier moral theories reduced morality to a single principle (e.g., Mill’s greatest happiness principle and Kant’s categorical imperative), leaving them unable to adequately account for our common experience of morality. Ross also thought Mill was wrong to assume that rightness is reducible to simply the production of good, just as Kant was wrong to assume that moral rules are absolute and never admit any exceptions. Ross therefore set out to create a moral theory that was not susceptible to the shortfalls of these earlier positions, one that would make sense of our common sense moral life (Skelton 2012).

Competing Duties

Pluralists point out that most people do not treat moral obligations as equally weighty or pressing. Doing so would make it difficult, if not impossible, to determine our moral duty in situations where two or more competing moral obligations are applicable. Let’s say you are approached by a woman carrying a gun who asks you what direction your neighbor ran off in. You know in what direction he was headed. Do you follow Kantian moral law not to tell a lie? What if she intends to use her gun on your neighbor? Do you potentially risk your neighbor’s life? This example and others suggest that we must consider factors beyond the (relevant) moral rule or weigh more than one rule when we determine our duty in a specific situation. For example, the rule “don’t lie” might compete with the rule “don’t take actions that will get innocent people killed.”

Prima Facie Duties

Ross argued that our obligations are not absolute and derived from pure reason, as Kant would have it, but rather are prima facie duties (Ross 1930, 33). He called them prima facie, which means “at first sight,” because he believed these duties to be self-evident. They are moral commitments that we come to recognize through experience and maturity.

Ross identified five prima facie duties that represent our main moral commitments: (1) a duty of fidelity, or to keep promises and be truthful; (2) a duty of reparation, or to make up for wrongs done to others; (3) a duty of gratitude, or to express gratitude when others do things that benefit us and to reciprocate when possible; (4) a duty to promote a maximum of aggregate good, or to increase the overall good in the world; and (5) a duty of non-maleficence, or to not harm others (Ross 1930, 21, 25; Ross 1939, 65, 75, 76; Skelton 2012).

Ross believed each duty each represents an important moral commitment, but they are not absolute or equally important. He thought our duties of gratitude and reparation, for example, are generally more pressing than our duty to promote a maximum aggregate of good, and a duty of non-maleficence is weightier than a duty to promote maximum good (Ross 1930, 19, 21, 22, 41, 42; Ross 1939, 75, 76, 77, 90).

Resolving Conflicts between Duties

Our prima facie duties represent our moral responsibilities and commitments, other things being equal. In situations where two or more prima facie duties are relevant and our actual duty is not clear, Ross argued that we determine our duty using a quasi-consequentialist approach that accounts for a plurality of intrinsic goods. When we face such situations, Ross argued that our duty is whatever action will result in “the greatest balance of prima facie rightness . . . over . . . prima facie wrongness” (Ross 1930, 41, 46).

Police officers and first responders stand on a sidewalk next to an overturned car.
Figure 9.6 If you are the only witness to a bad car accident on your way to get your hair cut, William David Ross would argue that you might judge that your prima facie duty to help anyone who might be injured in the accident outweighs your prima facie duty to be on time for your appointment. (credit: “car accident @ vestavia hills” by Rian Castillo/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

In life, it is not always clear what morality requires of us, especially when we face situations where we have multiple, conflicting moral responsibilities and must figure out which one is our (actual) duty. In other words, our actual duty will be whichever duty is most pressing and immediate, the one that we are most responsible for (Ross 1939, 85).

Imagine, for example, that you make a promise to meet a friend after work. As you leave your office building after work, however, you discover a coworker on the ground who is experiencing chest pains. You have a duty to keep your promise, but you also have a duty to help your coworker. You help your coworker because, given the circumstances, it is more pressing than the duty to fulfill your promise. It is clear which obligation is your actual duty in this example. When you are able to, you apologize to your friend and explain what happened. Your apology, Ross thought, is in part motivated by a recognition that you were prima facie wrong; that is, you recognize that had your coworker not needed help, your actual duty would have been to fulfill your promise and meet your friend.

The Role of Judgment

Judgment, Ross thought, plays an important role in moral life. We will often need to determine our actual duty in situations where multiple contradictory prima facie duties are relevant. Ross thought we rank the relevant prima facie duties and use facts of the situation to determine which duty is our actual duty.

In the case in which you are approached by a woman with a gun who seems to be chasing your neighbor, your duty to protect your neighbor from harm probably outweighs your duty to tell the truth. But what if the woman is wearing a blue uniform and wearing a badge indicating that she is a police officer? What if you know that you watched your neighbor carry a carload of computers, televisions, expensive jewelry, and nice paintings into his apartment last night? In this case, to make the best decision, you must make a judgement informed by your own experience and observations.

In practice, it can be difficult to know what our actual duty is in a situation. Sometimes, the best we can do is make an informed decision using the information we have and keep striving to be good. Indeed, this uncertainty can, for pluralists, be an important part of the experience of a moral life.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax