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Ross Theory Of Prima Facie Duties

1444 words (6 pages) Essay in Philosophy

27/04/17 Philosophy Reference this

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Prima facie, a Latin name is mainly used in academic philosophy and law to mean apparently correct or at first glance. The idea of prima facie duties first originated with David Ross, who was a Scottish philosopher. Ross was among the great proponents of intuitionism or ethical pluralism theory. According to the theory, good is indefinable and there exist moral truths which are self evident (Ross, 2002 Pg 4).

According to Ross, there are various prima facie duties that people can use in determining the concrete thing to do. In this case, a prima facie duty refers to a duty that is obligatory or binding, holding other things equal, unless any other duty or duties triumph it (Ross, 2002 Pg 5). Whenever there is a prima facie duty to perform a given task, there is always a strong presumption that is in favor of performing it. An excellent example of a prima facie duty is the obligation to keep secrets and promises. People ought to keep promises unless a stronger moral consideration arises.

Concrete or actual duties are the duties that people undertake given a particular situation. This contrasts with the prima facie duties. Depending on the nature of the actual duties, one ought to perform it in a moral way. Prima facie duties have a close relationship with actual duties, in the same way that reasons have a close relationship with conclusions of reasoning.

Prima facie duties

According to Ross, prima facie duties recognize that people face a lot of daily choices where they have to act morally. In such cases, individuals weigh such moral choices using their intuitive judgment (Ross, 2002 Pg 10). Ross developed the theory because he was not satisfied with the utilitarian view that morality could be reduced on the basis of maximizing utility. He proposed six categories of prima facie duties that individuals can use in determining the right thing to do.


This involves a duty to safeguard one’s contacts, secrets and promises and avoiding deception. In this case, if an individual keeps a promise, then he or she has a prima facie duty to honor the promise.


This duty involves showing appreciation at all times. The duty advocates that individuals should be grateful for all good deeds toward them. The duty continues to add that such individuals should show appreciation by doing good deeds to others. For instance, if a person holds the door for an individual carrying a heavy load, then the individual should be grateful for that.


This duty is also referred to as non maleficence. It indicates the duty to avoid causing harm to others. The harm can either be physical or psychological. The actions of any individual should not harm the health, security, happiness, character, wealth or intelligence among others.


This duty requires that individuals should act in a way that leads to a fair distribution of both benefits and burdens. According to Ross, this duty can have negative effects. The duty rests on the possibility of achieving a distribution of happiness or pleasure, which is not in the interest of the individual concerned. This gives rise to the duty to avoid such a distribution, which can be termed as unjust (Ross, 2002 Pg 21)


This involves the duty to do deeds that promote the well being of others. This involves fostering their health, wisdom, security, happiness or moral goodness. According to Ross, this duty arises from the fact that there are individuals in the world who can use help in improving their current condition (Ross, 2002 Pg 22). The person holding the door for the individual in need shows the duty of beneficence.


This indicates the duty to act in a way that promotes one’s well being. This pertains to one’s security, wisdom, health, happiness and moral goodness. This duty calls for intelligence or virtue for it establish a strong connection (Ross, 2002 Pg 21)

Evaluation of Prima Facie Duties

The six duties as stipulated by Ross advocate for morality, but have proven to conflict with one another in some real life situations. For instance, an elderly woman collapses with a possible heart attack. A man who witnesses the situation realizes that the phone is a few blocks way. There is a child’s bike lying nearby, but the child is out of sight. A section of the prima facie duties suggest that the man should take the bike and call for help. On the other hand, some duties advocate that taking the bike is not right. This indicates a situation where the duties in the theory are conflicting and confusing at the same time.

In the real life situation above, the non injury and justice duties indicate that taking the bike will be unjust and will cause injury to the owner. On the other hand, the duty of beneficence and harm prevention will advocate that taking the bike would be morally right. The solution in such a case would lie in the prioritization of the duties. In this case, harm prevention and beneficence would have the first priority over the duties concerning justice and non injury (Pojman, 2011 Pg 139). The actual duty would be to take the bike and get help. In such a case, there would be a temporary loss of the bike for the bike owner, but this would prevent the death of the sick woman.

The theory presents duties that should guide moral doings in daily situations. However, it is evident that the prima facie duties are not sufficient to determine the choices that people should make. The efficiency of the theory lies in the priority of the different duties. Some duties are have more priority in given cases than others. For example, in our case above, the beneficence and harm prevention duties would come before the non injury and justice duties. This calls for priority rules to guide the duties in case they conflict. For instance, holding all other things equal, it would be crucial to avoid causing harm or injury that to do a positive deed (Timmons, 2002 Pg 193).

The priority rule indicates that the non injury duties override all other duties. Moreover, fidelity comes before beneficence. For example, keeping a promise or secret comes before any acts of kindness. Beneficence, skill and moral character override any other conflicting prima facie duty that involves one’s pleasure or short term pain. However, the most significant thing is to recognize that the theory cannot exist with exceptions. The duties therein and the priority rules are subject to exceptions.

Moral intuition

Moral intuition serves a significant purpose in the advancement of this theory. It has three major functions. First, moral intuition reveals when a prima facie rule does not apply despite signs that the duty was applicable in the beginning. In simple terms, it enlightens individuals if they have any exceptions. This kind of moral intuition depends on the morally significant aspects present in the situation, and the location of the chooser. Secondly, moral intuition explains the prima facie duties in detail. This way, a chooser will make the best decision based on moral intuition. Thirdly, moral intuitions clarify the propriety rules present in a situation. It allows the chooser to choose non injury over beneficence (Audi, 2009 Pg 67).

Moral intuition can vary from one individual to the other. The source of moral intuition is one that has received varying responses from scholars (Tropman, 2006 Pg 130). The ability to have upright moral perceptions depends on one’s moral upbringing and the resulting moral habits. Moral perception may be distorted or corrupted depending on the upbringing and moral environment.


The theory and its applications have worked remarkably in many situations involving moral problems. The theory specifies how individuals should tackle situations so as to make moral decisions (Waluchow, 2003 pg 78). However, the theory has led to conflicting sides in given situations such as an abortion. Some duties are in favor of the fetus while some are in favor of the mother. Such situations have revealed the loop holes in the theory. However, with effective moral intuition, the theory can help individuals make moral choices depending on their situation. Moral intuition interprets the prima facie duties for any individual in relation to a given situation. It also guides the chooser on the duties to give precedence over others. Therefore, the effectiveness of the prima facie duties depends on the one’s moral intuition.

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