Ethical Realism

May 18, 2011

W. D. Ross’s Intuitionism, a Moral Theory

Filed under: ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 6:00 am
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W. D. Ross‘s theoretical understanding of morality explained in The Right and the Good was not meant to be fully comprehensive and determine right and wrong in every situation, but he doesn’t think it is ever going to be possible to do so. He denies that there is one single overarching moral principle or rule. Instead, he thinks we can make moral progress one step at a time by learning more and more about our moral duties, and do our best at balancing conflicting obligations and values.

Ross proposes that (a) we have self-evident prima facie moral duties, and (b) some things have intrinsic value.

Prima facie duties

We have various prima facie duties, such as the duty of non-injury (the duty to not harm people) and the duty of beneficence (to help people). These duties are “prima facie” because they can be overriden. Duties can determine what we ought to do “nothing else considered” but they don’t determine what we ought to do all things considered. Whatever we ought to do all things considered will override any other conflicting duties. For example, the promise to kill someone would give us a prima facie duty to fulfill our promise, but it would be overridden by our duty not to injure others.

Ross argues that we have (at the very least) the following duties:

  1. Duty of fidelity – The duty to keep our promises.
  2. Duty of reparation – The duty to try to pay for the harm we do to others.
  3. Duty of gratitude – The duty to return favors and services given to us by others.
  4. Duty of beneficence – The duty to maximize the good (things of intrinsic value).
  5. Duty of noninjury – The duty to refuse to harm others.

Is this list complete? That is not obvious. We might have a duty to respect people beyond these duties, and we might have a duty to justice, equality, and/or fairness to praise, blame, reward, punish, and distribute goods according to merit. For example, it’s unfair to blame innocent people because they don’t merit blame—they weren’t responsible for the immoral act.

Self-evidence and intuition

Ross thinks we can know moral facts through intuition. What does it mean for these duties to be self-evident? It means that we can contemplate the duties and know they are true based on that contemplation—but only if we contemplate them in the right way. Ross compares moral self-evidence to the self-evidence of mathematical axioms. A mathematical axiom that seems to fit the bill is the law of non-contradiction—We know that something can’t be true and false at the same time.

Intuition is the way contemplation can lead to knowledge of self-evidence. We often use the word “intuition” to refer to things we consider “common sense” or things we know that are difficult to prove using argumentation. Ross thinks we can know things without arguing for them, and he thinks that anything “truly intuitive” is self-evident. Keep in mind that intuition doesn’t necessarily let us know that something is self-evident immediately nor that intuitive contemplation is infallible. Consider that “123+321=444” could be self-evident. We might need to reach a certain maturity to know that this mathematical statement is true, and recognition of its truth is not necessarily immediate. It requires familiarity with addition and some people will need to spend more time contemplating than others.

Intrinsic value

Many utilitarians agree with Ross that pleasure is intrinsically good and pain is intrinsically bad. Pleasure is “good just for existing” and is worthy of being a goal. The decision to eat candy to attain pleasure “makes sense” if it has intrinsic value, and we all seem to think that eating candy to attain pleasure is at least sometimes a good enough reason to justify such an act. We have prima facie duties not to harm people at least to the extent that it causes something intrinsically bad (pain) and to help people at least to the extent that it produces something intrinsically good, like pleasure.

What’s intrinsically good? Ross suggests that justice, knowledge, virtue, and “innocent pleasure” are all intrinsically good. However, minds, human life, and certain animal life could also have intrinsic value.

How do we use Ross’s intuitionism?

First, we need to determine our duties and what has intrinsic value. Second, we need to determine if any of these duties or values conflict in our current situation. If so, we need to find a way to decide which duty is overriding. For example, I can decide to go to the dentist and get a cavity removed and this will cause me pain, but it is likely that it will help me avoid even more pain in the future. Therefore, it seems clear that I ought to get the cavity removed. However, if I have two friends who both want to borrow my car at the same time and I won’t be needing it for a while, I might have to choose between them and decide which friend needs the car the most or randomly decide between them if that’s impossible.


Killing people – It is generally wrong to kill people because it (a) causes people pain, (b) prevents them from feeling future pleasure, and (c) destroys their knowledge. If and when killing people isn’t wrong, we will need an overriding reason to do it. Perhaps it can be right to kill someone if it’s necessary to save many other lives.

Stealing – It is wrong to steal insofar as it causes people pain, but it might be morally preferable to steal than to die. Our duties to our children could also justify stealing when it’s the only option to feed them.

Courage – Virtue has intrinsic value, and courage is one specific kind of virtue. Courage is our ability to be motivated to do whatever it is we ought to do all things considered, even when we might risk our own well being in the process.

Education – Knowledge has intrinsic value, so we have a prima facie duty to educate people and seek education for ourselves.

Promising – Keeping a promise is already a prima facie duty, but it can be easily overriden when more important duties conflict with it. For example, you could promise to meet a friend for lunch, but your prima facie duty to help others might override your promise when a stranger is injured and you can help out.

Polluting – Polluting violates people’s prima facie duty to noninjury, but polluting might be necessary for people to attain certain goods they need to live. In that case pollution could be appropriate.

Homosexual behavior – Homosexual behavior can be justified because it can help people attain pleasure, but we also have a prima facie duty to try not to endanger our own life or the life of others, so it’s better to take certain precautions rather than have homosexual sex indiscriminately. This is no different than the morality of heterosexual sex.

Atheism – Being an atheist doesn’t violate any of our prima facie duties, so it’s not wrong. Telling one’s parents that one is an atheist could cause momentary pain, but one’s prima facie duties to be open and honest seems to override that concern in most situations. Additionally, being open and honest in public about one’s atheism could risk one’s own well being, but it could also help create acceptance for atheists in general and help other atheists as a consequence.


Ross is less ambitious as other philosophers who thought they could prove that all right and wrong is based on a single moral principle and is sensitive to the difficulty of balancing our duties and values in everyday life. However, he also seems to be overly ambitious in much of his philosophical theorizing. Even if he’s right that there are multiple moral duties and intuition is the most reliable form of moral reasoning, it’s not obvious that intuition can tell us what’s self-evident. Instead, intuition might be our way of hypothesizing and maintaining logical consistency. Even so, Ross’s return to “common sense” is a welcome contribution because it seems likely that people tend to already know quite a bit about morality. If no one knows anything about morality except philosophers, then it seems rather convenient that almost everyone shares such a strong interest in it and have continued moral traditions despite knowing so little about ethics.

Ross’s moral theory has continued to have an impact and has been greatly developed by Robert Audi. I reviewed Audi’s The Good in the Right here.

Update (5/20/11): I added more information about prima facie duties including a list of duties provided by Ross.


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