The Call of Duties (Thoughts on W.D. Ross’s The Right and the Good) pt I

duty lol

 

For a person who professes to be a proponent of ethical pluralism (which posits the CALL OF prima facie DUTIES), I am surely among the few who have not read W.D. Ross’s The Right and the Good from cover to cover (I have read excepts in anthologies, and secondary sources, of course). I was gifted a copy of the book by my lovely girlfriend for Christmas, and thought I might share some of my notes on Ross’s work as an entry here, due to the frequency with which this blog touches on pluralism, and moral realism.

The most recent edition of the Right and the Good. Features a good introduction from Philip Stratton-Lake.

The most recent edition of the Right and the Good. Features a good introduction from Philip Stratton-Lake.

Notes on The Right and the Good section I: The Meaning of Right

Ross Against Monistic Deontology, Particularly Kantianism

Ross begins The Right and the Good by noting that the meaning of right is not the same as the meaning of good, such that it is not true that the morally right act is the morally good act. This is done to refute Kantianism, due to Ross’s interest in rejecting Kant’s monistic deontological view for the pluralistic deontological view Ross hopes to prove true.

The argument is as follows:

1. If ‘right’ and ‘good’ have the same meaning, and rightness confers an obligation, then it is obligatory to do good acts.

2. If an act is good then it is from a good motive.

3. If it is not obligatory to act from a good motive, then it is not obligatory to do good acts.

4. It is not obligatory to act from a good motive.

5. So it is not obligatory to do good acts (modus ponens from 3).

6. Thus, is it not the case that ‘right’ and ‘good’ have the same meaning (modus tollens from 1).

W.D. Ross

W.D. Ross

In Ross’s own words his argument is thus, “If, then, we can show that action from a good motive is never morally obligatory, we shall have established that that what is morally good is never right, and a fortiori that ‘right’ does not mean the same as ‘morally good’” (TR&TG, page 4). Ross thinks that all can agree to premises one and two, and that premise three logically follows from premise two, such that if premise four is true, affirming the antecedent in premise three to confirm the consequent, the argument goes through. So the entire argument rests on premise four. Ross provides two arguments for why premise four is true.

The first argument is that it is not obligatory to act from a good motive because of the Kantian principle “ought implies can” or “‘I ought’ implies ‘I can’”. In order to be obligated to act from a good motive implies that I can choose to have a good motive for an action. Ross denies that one can make this choice; it seems to him that this would require more control over our motives than we have. Thus, for Ross, because I cannot choose to act from a good motive, I cannot be obligated to act from a good motive.

I’m not very convinced by this argument for premise four, because I think Ross is demanding too much for what I can and cannot do. It doesn’t seem necessary that I can choose which motives I have in order to be obligated to act on good motives. The required ‘I can’ seems to be the ‘I can’ of it being possible for me to have good motives for acts. In other words, if it is possible for me to have good motives for acts, then I am obligated to act from good motives. On the other hand, if it is not possible for me to have good motives for acts, perhaps due to some cognitive disorder, then I am not obligated to act from good motives. From this it doesn’t follow that I am not obligated to do morally good actions, I still have this obligation; I am just not obligated to have good motives for those actions, as it is not possible for me to. But note what has now been said negates premise three of Ross’s initial argument, one of the two premises that is necessary for Ross’s argument that right and good have different meanings to go through. So, in order to Ross’s main argument to succeed he must not rely on Kant’s “ought implies can” principle, as I have argued that it causes more problems than it solves for Ross’s view.

Kant

Kant

Fortunately for Ross, his second argument for the truth of premise four is superior to his first. The bare structure of the second argument is that if it is our duty to act from a certain motive, and this certain motive is to act in accord with duty, then it seems we reach a reductio ad absurdum, and this principle become vacuous. Consider: if my duty is to do act A from a certain motive, and that motive is my duty to do act A, then what explains my motive to act on a duty to do act A for the duty of act A other than the motive to act for a duty to act for a motive to act for a duty to do act A? But what explains this motive to act on a duty for act A other than another motive to act on a duty, and so on, ad infinitum.

I think this argument is successful in showing that one is obligated to do good acts, but not obligated to act from a good motive, such as acting for the sake of duty, as acting for the sake of duty never completely explains why we would perform acts for the sake of duty. As Ross notes, “the only conclusion that can be drawn is that our duty is to do certain things, not to do them from a sense of duty” (TR&TG, page 6).
Concluding Notes on the Matter

So, Ross’s reductio ad absurdum argument gives us reason to accept premise four, and assuming the truth of the other premises, reason to accept the conclusion that ‘right’ and ‘good’ do not have the same meaning. However, I argued that a correct usage of the “ought implies can” principle serves as evidence against premise three, an essential premise to Ross’s desired conclusion.

Given the strength of Ross’s reductio ad absurdum argument, I think Ross would be well advised to change his argument to rely more on that argument, and less on the premise that “if it is not obligatory to act for a good motive then it is not obligatory to do good acts”. I do think this is possible.

Here is the revised argument as I would state it:

1. If ‘right’ and ‘good’ have the same meaning, and rightness confers an obligation, then it is obligatory to do good acts.

2. If it is obligatory to do good acts then it is obligatory to act from a good motive.

3. It is not obligatory to act from a good motive.

4. So, it is not obligatory to do good acts (modus tollens from 2).

5. Therefore, ‘right’ and ‘good’ do not have the same meaning (modus tollens from 1).

This argument is very similar to Ross’s, except while Ross’s troublesome premise was premise three, the corrected premise is here premise two. Ross’s premise had the unsightly consequence that if a person could not have good motives then they were not obligated to have good motives, and thus, they were not obligated to do good acts. Here, in premise two, all that is being claimed (with the “ought implies can” principle in the background) is that if a person can do good acts then they are obligated to do good acts, and thus, they are obligated to act from a good motive if they can. This premises avoids the problems that arose for Ross by his selected premise, thus making it part of a revised argument superior to Ross’s original, making use only of the reductio ad absurdum argument as evidence for the essential premise (four in the original, three in the revised) and avoiding the problems caused by mistakenly uses the “ought implies can” principle.

 

 

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  1. #1 by Marvin Edwards on January 3, 2014 - 9:05 pm

    Wow, that’s a pretty strange confusion of “right”, “motive”, and “duty”. Let’s see if I can simplify it somewhat:

    The semantic nugget embedded in all uses of the term “right” is “things as they ought to be”. There are two courts that decide how things ought to be: personal conscience and social rules. Both courts command certain action to be your duties. Usually, conscience and law agree, but sometimes conscience makes a stronger demand, resulting in civil disobedience.

    I would assert that “things ought to be” such that everyone experiences the best good and the least harm. How we get there from here is a matter of evolving moral sense and the adjustment of rules to adapt (ending slavery, ending gender discrimination, etc). Social law is constantly in flux, but hopefully moving toward the best for everyone.

    The ethical person seeks to follow the rules. The moral person seeks the best good. The ethical person might tell the Nazi soldiers that Anne Franck’s family is living in the attic, but the moral person would lie for their safety.

    Motivation is a spiritual thing. We can either do the right thing as an onerous duty or in a spirit of service and love. While it benefits the person to have the right motivation, it benefits the rest of us that the right thing or the moral thing is done, regardless of motivation.

    Hope that helps.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on January 3, 2014 - 10:02 pm

      Ross’s point is that the ‘right’ is not the same as the ‘good’ because while there may be multiple morally good actions to take in a situation, there is only one morally right action, such that while we have a prima facie duty to do any of those morally good acts, we only have one actual duty, and that is to do the right act. Ross is trying to provide a metaethical background that explains the common man’s intuition that he is obligated to do the right thing, and Ross does this by inverting that claim: the right thing to do is what he is obligated to do. This leads him to look at duties as the basis of morality, as duties seem obviously to be the foundations of obligations. For him, consequentialist ideas of “experiencing the best good and least harm” do not explain our moral intuitions of how obligations motivate us to act morally, where duties do adequately explain our moral psychology. I agree with Ross in this regard.

      • #3 by Marvin Edwards on January 3, 2014 - 10:30 pm

        Morality is the intent to achieve good (and reduce harm), for others as well as for ourselves.

        Duties, rights, responsibilities, ethics, principles, etc. all serve this single purpose. And they are judged to be better or worse by this criteria.

        If you ask yourself “why are their duties?” and come up with a different answer, let me know.

      • #4 by ausomeawestin on January 4, 2014 - 4:32 pm

        If you read the entry at all you know that Ross thinks that morality is not about the “intent” to achieve good, but just the doing of right action. The main point of the entry was that what makes an act right, (that is, the right action to be done in the situation, that is all that Ross has been talking about) is acting on the duty that is the most commanding in the situation, not the Kantian idea of acting on the motive of acting for the sake of duty.

        You are correct that we have duties because of goodness — Ross thought there were three simple intrinsic goods: virtue, pleasure, and knowledge. It is these values that make actions worth doing, from a moral perspective, such that actions’ possessing these values make these actions prima facie duties, such that they are morally good acts. But there is one morally right action, and that is one’s actual, and not prima facie, duty, because that duty is most commanding in that situation. So yes, goodness underlies all morality, I was just dealing with Ross’s more focused claim on what action is the right action for a situation, that is, after all, what we are concerned with in creating moral principles in normative ethics. So spare me your indignity.

      • #5 by Marvin Edwards on January 4, 2014 - 7:01 pm

        At this point I think that what Ross thinks is less valuable than what I think. For example:

        There is a difference between morality and ethics. Morality seeks the best possible good for everyone. Ethics seeks the best possible rules. The moral person will want to help feed the poor, for example. The ethical person will obey the rules.

        If the Nazis come to the house, the ethical person may feel compelled not to lie, and report that Ann Franck and her family are living in the attic. The moral person would see that a lie in this case would serve the best good for everyone. The moral person cares about the welfare of others, and may even commit acts of civil disobedience rather than obey a law that produces evil results.

        Oddly, the case of the nuns refusing to purchase health insurance because the policy includes covering contraceptive drugs may be seen as putting their ethics ahead of their moral sense. But that’s another discussion.

        As to “intrinsic goods”, we may first define “good” as “something that meets a real need that we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species”. An “intrinsic” good would therefore match an “intrinsic” need. For example, to the thirsty man in the desert, water is “intrinsically” good. To the undernourished child, food is “intrinsically” good.

        Virtue and knowledge have value to the extent that they assist in attaining good and avoiding harm. To the extent that they produce harm, their value diminishes (for example, truthfulness that leads to Ann Franck’s family falling into the hands of the Nazis would be a questionable virtue).

        Pleasure is often deceptive. We crave many things that are actually quite bad for us. So it cannot be said to be good in and of itself (that is, “intrinsically”).

  1. The Call of Duties pt II (Thoughts on Ross’s The Right and The Good [on partial knowledge, epistemic access, and luck]) | ausomeawestin
  2. W.D. Ross | Media Ethics in the Afternoon

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