11 September 2007

W.D. Ross

Today I'm going to describe the ethical theory of Scottish philosopher W.D. Ross, author of THE RIGHT AND THE GOOD (1930).

Why? Well ... because Ross' view, which he called intuitionism, was for a time influential, although it has siince fallen into obscurity, and such Ozymandias-type theories are intrinsically interesting.

Also, because Ross' views seem a British-isles re-write of Jamesianism, of the sort of pluralism expounded in The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life.

Ross argued that there are several obligations that play a role in moral reasoning -- in deciding what we ought to do. Each of these obligations is in itself ony a "prima facie duty," because any of them can be counter-balanced by others. The "absolute duty" is by definition that which, in a given situation, outweighs any others.

How do we know which duty in cases of conflict is the absolute one? Our intuition (hence the name for the theory) will tell us case-by-case, which feels weightier.

Technically, Ross' views are classed as "deontology," that is an example of views in which the right dominates the good, duty exists separate and sometimes above the issue of making-the-world-better. Well, Ross' list of duties included at least two that a making-the-world-better philosopher would approve of. We have a duty of self-improvement and we have a duty of beneficience -- of improving the lives of others. Still, there are lots of other duties on his list that can run against these, such as fidelity and gratitude, so if he's right, then there will be times when my duty will be to act in such a manner as to decrease the amount of good.


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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.