Prima Facie Duties

Prima facie is a Latin term used in the practice of law and in academic philosophy meaning “at first glance,” or “apparently correct.” 1

The notion of prima facie duties in philosophy originated with Sir W. David Ross (1877-1971), a Scotish philospher best know for his book, The Right and the Good(1930). Ross was a great proponent of the theory of ethical pluralism, also known as Intuitionism, which holds that "Good" is indefinable, that there are objective moral truths, and that moral truths are self-evident.

Identifying the Duties

Prima facie duties, according to Ross, recognize that individuals are faced with daily moral choices where certain duties are either carried out or weighed against one another using our intuitive judgment.2 Ross developed his theory based on prima facie duties because he was dissatisfied with the Utilitarian idea that morality could be reduced to a single question: Does this action maximize utility?

Ross proposed that there are certain binding prima facie duties we can use to determine what it is we ought to do. He grouped these duties into six categories: 3

  1. Fidelity and Reparation – keeping promises made or implied and compensating for wrongdoing
  2. Gratitude returning favour for favour
  3. Non-maleficence – avoiding injury to others
  4. Justice fair distribution of pleasure or happiness
  5. Beneficence improving the condition of others
  6. Self-improvement making ourselves better

In addition to prima facie duties, there are also priority rules that can give us guidance when the basic prima facie duties seem to be in conflict. For example, “Non-injury normally overrides other prima facie duties and Fidelity normally overrides Beneficence (e.g. keeping contracts, which falls under Fidelity, normally overrides random acts of kindness).” 4

Ross more appropriately referred to these duties as guidelines. 5 Unlike teleological ethical theories which are based only on maximizing the good and minimizing the bad, prima facie duties and its overarching Intuitionist theory are considered pluralistic in that they aren't rules without exceptions and deontological in that they focus on the rightness or wrongness of the action itself instead of the consequense of the action.

Ross himself admitted his was an incomplete list of duties 6 and in 2004, Dr. Jan Garrett, Professor of Philosophy at Western Kentucky Universityproposed three possible additional duties to Ross’s list: 7

  1. Respect for Freedom – empowerment and non-coercion
  2. Care – concern for and attendance to the needs of family
  3. Non-partisanism – participation in society and law abidance

Critiques of the Theory

The primary criticism of Ross’s prima facie list includes an assumption that a certain level of moral maturity is attained so prima duties can be recognized, applied and acted upon when making moral decisions. A secondary criticism includes the notion of intuition itself, which is rejected outright by ethical theorists like Immanuel Kantand John Stuart Mill because principles that claim to be self-evident are too vague. Intuitionists themselves have not found agreement on what is self-evident. 8

Interestingly, Intuitionism was the main moral theory in Britain for two millennia, but lost favour among most philosophers shortly after the publication of Ross’s book in 1930, The Right and the Good. 9 However, modern-day theorists like Garrett and Phillip Stratton-Lake may be restoring new life into Ross’s theory.

[1] Wiktionary
[2], [4], [7] A Simple and Usable (Although Incomplete) Ethical Theory Based on the Ethics of W. D. Ross
[3] Waluchow, W.J. (2003). The Dimensions of Ethics, An Introduction of Ethical Theory: Broadview Press, Ltd.
[5], [6], [9] Stratton-Lake, P. (Ed). (2002). The Right and the Good. New York: Oxford University Press.