Deontological ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L015-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

6. Justification and Ross’s list

There is another approach, however, that takes the notion of a practical reason as primitive and then asks what kinds of reasons there are. It does not define deontology relative to a backdrop, and does not attempt to justify morality in general, or deontology in particular, in extra-moral terms – such justification is seen as neither possible nor necessary.

We have practical reasons to act in various ways, some of which are moral and some not. You have reason to spend your extra cash at a restaurant (you would enjoy the meal). But you may have more reason to use it to buy a gift for someone who has done you a good turn. In the latter case you have a reason of gratitude to buy the gift – a moral reason. But the question of why you have reasons of gratitude is, on this account, on a par with that of why you have reason to enjoy yourself. And neither question is answerable by appeal to something more fundamental.

In regard to moral reasons, at least, Ross can be interpreted as adopting an approach along these lines. He offers a list of what he terms prima facie duties’, each of which may have a bearing on the rightness of an action. These are duties of fidelity, reparation, gratitude, justice, beneficence, self-improvement and nonmaleficence (not injuring others). These ‘duties’ can be seen as categorizing types of moral reasons – in the previous paragraph, for instance, we appealed to the duty of gratitude.

In any particular circumstance there may be more than one duty that beckons – more than one moral reason present. For example, a third option for your cash would be to give it to Oxfam, in accord with your duty to be beneficent. How does Ross propose that we work out which duty is the most stringent in a given circumstance? He denies that there is an algorithm for doing this – all you can do is contemplate your various courses of action and think about the various considerations in their favour.

(Reasons of self-interest are never, however, among these considerations, according to Ross – or, at the least, self-interest always lies idle in the sense that it should never be acted upon: on his account, if no more stringent moral duty beckons, the duty of beneficence requires that you do good.)

Citing this article:
McNaughton, David and Piers Rawling. Justification and Ross’s list. Deontological ethics, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L015-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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