McNaughton on W.D. Ross (and Particularism, Pluralism and the double weighing of duties)

One of the more interesting broad questions of metaethics is whether we can expect to craft moral theories that provide principles for right action that serve as guiding decision procedures. Moral pluralists argue that we can have a list of criteria for what makes actions right, but from there we must use practical judgment to decide what moral reasons are the weightiest, and act accordingly. Particularists deny that such a list can be formulated at all as no moral reason is always a reason for action. I want to consider David McNaughton’s argument in “An Unconnected Heap of Duties?” that W.D. Ross’s failure to show that some reasons can be intrinsically weightier than others suggests the truth of particularism.

Ross notes that some moral reasons are intrinsically weightier than others in consideration of the fact that an act being in instance of non-maleficence gives that action more reason to be done than an action that is an instance of beneficence. Now, as McNaughton makes clear, Ross thought that the strength of such moral reasons depends highly on the concrete circumstances the actor finds herself in, but in an attempt to accommodate the intellectual inkling that one has a greater duty to prevent harm than to create pleasure, Ross conceives of a sort of “double weighting”. There is a particular weight to the duty in those circumstances, but there is also a general weight to the duty in the abstract consideration of the intrinsic nature of the duty.

McNaughton argues that such a double weighting is unnecessary, and this intuition can be accommodated with more conceptual simplicity (which counts as a reason in favor of his view) by merely noting that the duty of beneficence is “distinct” from the duty of non-maleficence. Rather than saying that because it is more important to prevent harm than to cause pleasure the duty of non-maleficence is weightier than the duty of beneficence, we notice that for an action to be morally right, the amount of good created would have to be incredible in order to outweigh the amount of harm caused. What follows, says McNaughton, is not that the general duty of non-maleficence is weightier than the general duty of beneficence, but that, in particular instances, an act cannot create enough good in one respect to outweigh the amount of harm it creates in another area. Thus, for McNaughton, there is nothing about the intrinsic natures of non-maleficence and beneficence that makes one more commanding than the other, it is just that in the particular circumstances we never find that causing pleasure outweighs causing pain.

McNaughton’s critique of Ross’s pluralism entails that there are no generalized rules or principles to draft from the intrinsic natures of duties, but rather, we must look to the particular circumstances, and see what properties are relevant to the right-making or wrong-making features of possible actions (in this scenario the relevant differences are regarding pleasure and pain creating properties of actions, but it need not be these properties that make an action morally right or wrong for the particularist).

Nevertheless, I doubt the soundness of McNaughton’s argument because it entails that the weight of a duty is determined by the consequences of that duty when put into action. But this is a type of consequentialist weight to actions, when what we should be concerned with is the categorical and intrinsic weight of the duty. We have been trying, with Ross, to account for why the duty of non-maleficence just is weightier than the duty of beneficence; it is irrelevant to the axiological weight of the duty itself that its performance causes more of something of value than another duty. Far from McNaughton’s suggestion being more simple than Ross’s double weighing of duties, it takes us farther afield, where it creates unnecessary difficulties.

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  1. #1 by jmeqvist on February 12, 2014 - 10:40 pm

    Great post! I agree that McNaughton’s argument is problematic and seems to fail to address the question of the categorical, intrinsic weight of duty.

    However, MacNaughton’s flight to consequentialism reinforces my judgment that contemporary ethical philosophy, and contemporary culture for that matter has a difficult time with explaining why particular ends matter. We find it far easier to justify action in terms of appealing to consequences than by fleshing out why a certain end is worthwhile, or why a certain kind of value (non-maleficence) is more important at an abstract level than another kind of value (beneficence). This is partially due to the fact that most people have an impoverished ethical vocabulary, because our culture generally shies away from discussion and reflection upon abstract considerations of moral value. Furthermore, this impoverished ethical vocabulary is unfortunately reinforced by the fact that instrumentalism is a dominant form of thinking within societies like the US and Canada, and for that reason we tend to be more comfortable of addressing questions of what would lead to the “best” consequences, rather than addressing the question of the status of particular ends.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on February 13, 2014 - 11:32 am

      Thanks for the kind words!

      Excellent points, it seems to me that your insights are plausible explanations for the commonality of consequentialist thinking in academia and without.

      I also worry that this consequentialist phenomena might be explained by the mundanity of the denial of objective moral facts rooted in abstract concepts. Many people I have spoken with about morality think that morality is a human construction, such that these abstract concepts don’t hold any real value. Because we can more directly perceive when one outcome would be better than another, these moral skeptics favor consequentialist moral theorizing because it is less metaphysically extravagant. Of course ‘better than’ is an abstract concept, and I think most of these skeptics don’t realize the difficulty that lies in saying that some abstract concepts are real and some are not; I’ve never seen a convincing argument for such a position.

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