W. D. Ross

W. D. Ross

Overview
Sir David Ross KBE
Order of the British Empire
The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is an order of chivalry established on 4 June 1917 by George V of the United Kingdom. The Order comprises five classes in civil and military divisions...

 (15 April 1877 – 5 May 1971) was a Scottish
Scotland
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

 philosopher, known for work in ethics
Ethics
Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality—that is, concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, etc.Major branches of ethics include:...

. His best known work is The Right and the Good (1930), and he is perhaps best known for developing a pluralist, deontological form of intuitionist
Ethical intuitionism
Ethical intuitionism is usually understood as a meta-ethical theory that embraces the following theses:# Moral realism, the view that there are objective facts of morality,...

 ethics in response to G.E. Moore
George Edward Moore
George Edward Moore OM, was an English philosopher. He was, with Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Gottlob Frege, one of the founders of the analytic tradition in philosophy...

's intuitionism. However, Ross also critically edited and translated a number of Aristotle's works, and wrote on Greek philosophy.

William David Ross was born in Thurso
Thurso
-Facilities:Offices of the Highland Council are located in the town, as is the main campus of North Highland College, formerly Thurso College. This is one of several partner colleges which constitute the UHI Millennium Institute, and offers several certificate, diploma and degree courses from...

, Caithness
Caithness
Caithness is a registration county, lieutenancy area and historic local government area of Scotland. The name was used also for the earldom of Caithness and the Caithness constituency of the Parliament of the United Kingdom . Boundaries are not identical in all contexts, but the Caithness area is...

 in the north of Scotland
Scotland
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

.
Discussion
Ask a question about 'W. D. Ross'
Start a new discussion about 'W. D. Ross'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
 
Unanswered Questions
Encyclopedia
Sir David Ross KBE
Order of the British Empire
The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is an order of chivalry established on 4 June 1917 by George V of the United Kingdom. The Order comprises five classes in civil and military divisions...

 (15 April 1877 – 5 May 1971) was a Scottish
Scotland
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

 philosopher, known for work in ethics
Ethics
Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality—that is, concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, etc.Major branches of ethics include:...

. His best known work is The Right and the Good (1930), and he is perhaps best known for developing a pluralist, deontological form of intuitionist
Ethical intuitionism
Ethical intuitionism is usually understood as a meta-ethical theory that embraces the following theses:# Moral realism, the view that there are objective facts of morality,...

 ethics in response to G.E. Moore
George Edward Moore
George Edward Moore OM, was an English philosopher. He was, with Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Gottlob Frege, one of the founders of the analytic tradition in philosophy...

's intuitionism. However, Ross also critically edited and translated a number of Aristotle's works, and wrote on Greek philosophy.

Life


William David Ross was born in Thurso
Thurso
-Facilities:Offices of the Highland Council are located in the town, as is the main campus of North Highland College, formerly Thurso College. This is one of several partner colleges which constitute the UHI Millennium Institute, and offers several certificate, diploma and degree courses from...

, Caithness
Caithness
Caithness is a registration county, lieutenancy area and historic local government area of Scotland. The name was used also for the earldom of Caithness and the Caithness constituency of the Parliament of the United Kingdom . Boundaries are not identical in all contexts, but the Caithness area is...

 in the north of Scotland
Scotland
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

. He spent most of his first six years as a child in southern India
India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

. He was educated at the Royal High School
Royal High School (Edinburgh)
The Royal High School of Edinburgh is a co-educational state school administered by the City of Edinburgh Council. The school was founded in 1128 and is one of the oldest schools in Scotland, and has, throughout its history, been high achieving, consistently attaining well above average exam results...

, Edinburgh
Edinburgh
Edinburgh is the capital city of Scotland, the second largest city in Scotland, and the eighth most populous in the United Kingdom. The City of Edinburgh Council governs one of Scotland's 32 local government council areas. The council area includes urban Edinburgh and a rural area...

 and the University of Edinburgh
University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh, founded in 1583, is a public research university located in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The university is deeply embedded in the fabric of the city, with many of the buildings in the historic Old Town belonging to the university...

. In 1895, he gained a first class MA
Master of Arts (postgraduate)
A Master of Arts from the Latin Magister Artium, is a type of Master's degree awarded by universities in many countries. The M.A. is usually contrasted with the M.S. or M.Sc. degrees...

 degree in classics
Classics
Classics is the branch of the Humanities comprising the languages, literature, philosophy, history, art, archaeology and other culture of the ancient Mediterranean world ; especially Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome during Classical Antiquity Classics (sometimes encompassing Classical Studies or...

. He completed his studies at Balliol College, Oxford
Balliol College, Oxford
Balliol College , founded in 1263, is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in England but founded by a family with strong Scottish connections....

 and gained a lectureship at Oriel College in 1900, followed by a fellowship in 1902.

Ross joined the army in 1915. During World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

, he worked in the Ministry of munitions and was a major on the special list. He received the Order of the British Empire
Order of the British Empire
The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is an order of chivalry established on 4 June 1917 by George V of the United Kingdom. The Order comprises five classes in civil and military divisions...

 in 1918 in recognition of his service during the war, and was knighted in 1938.

Ross was White's Professor of Moral Philosophy (1923–1928), Provost
Provost (education)
A provost is the senior academic administrator at many institutions of higher education in the United States, Canada and Australia, the equivalent of a pro-vice-chancellor at some institutions in the United Kingdom and Ireland....

 of Oriel College, Oxford (1929–1947), Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford
University of Oxford
The University of Oxford is a university located in Oxford, United Kingdom. It is the second-oldest surviving university in the world and the oldest in the English-speaking world. Although its exact date of foundation is unclear, there is evidence of teaching as far back as 1096...

 from 1941 to 1944 and Pro-Vice-Chancellor
Pro-Vice-Chancellor
In a university, an assistant to a vice-chancellor is called a pro-vice-chancellor . These are sometimes teaching academics who take on additional responsibilities. Some of these responsibilities are in charge of Administration, Research and Development, Academic and Education affairs...

 (1944–1947). He was president of the Aristotelian Society
Aristotelian Society
The Aristotelian Society for the Systematic Study of Philosophy was founded at a meeting on 19 April 1880, at 17 Bloomsbury Square which resolved "to constitute a society of about twenty and to include ladies; the society to meet fortnightly, on Mondays at 8 o'clock, at the rooms of the Spelling...

 from 1939 to 1940.

He married Edith Ogden in 1906 and they had four daughters, Margaret, Rosalind, Eleanor and Katharine. Edith died in 1953 and he died in Oxford
Oxford
The city of Oxford is the county town of Oxfordshire, England. The city, made prominent by its medieval university, has a population of just under 165,000, with 153,900 living within the district boundary. It lies about 50 miles north-west of London. The rivers Cherwell and Thames run through...

 in 1971.

Ross's ethical theory


W. D. Ross was a moral realist
Moral realism
Moral realism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:# Ethical sentences express propositions.# Some such propositions are true.# Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of subjective opinion....

, a non-naturalist, and an intuitionist
Ethical intuitionism
Ethical intuitionism is usually understood as a meta-ethical theory that embraces the following theses:# Moral realism, the view that there are objective facts of morality,...

. He argued that there are moral truths. He wrote:
The moral order...is just as much part of the fundamental nature of the universe (and...of any possible universe in which there are moral agents at all) as is the spatial or numerical structure expressed in the axioms of geometry or arithmetic.

Thus, according to Ross, the claim that something is good is true if that thing really is good. Ross also agreed with G.E. Moore's claim that any attempt to define ethical statements solely in terms of statements about the natural world commits the naturalistic fallacy
Naturalistic fallacy
The naturalistic fallacy is often claimed to be a formal fallacy. It was described and named by British philosopher G. E. Moore in his 1903 book Principia Ethica...

.

Ross rejected Moore's consequentialist
Consequentialism
Consequentialism is the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one's conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct...

 ethics. According to consequentialist theories, what people ought to do is determined only by whether their actions will bring about the most good. By contrast, Ross argues that maximising the good is only one of several prima facie
Prima facie
Prima facie is a Latin expression meaning on its first encounter, first blush, or at first sight. The literal translation would be "at first face", from the feminine form of primus and facies , both in the ablative case. It is used in modern legal English to signify that on first examination, a...

duties (prima facie obligations) which play a role in determining what a person ought to do in any given case.

Ross gives a list of seven prima facie duties, which he does not claim is all-inclusive: fidelity; reparation; gratitude; non-maleficence; justice; beneficence; and self-improvement. In any given situation, any number of these prima facie duties may apply. In the case of ethical dilemmas, they may even contradict one another. Someone could have a prima facie duty of reparation, say, an duty to help people who helped you shift house, shift house themselves, and a prima facie duty of fidelity, say, taking your children on a promised trip to the park, and these could conflict. Nonetheless, there can never be a true ethical dilemma, Ross would argue, because one of the prima facie duties in a given situation is always the weightiest, and overrules all the others. This is thus the absolute obligation or absolute duty, the action that the person ought to perform.

It is frequently argued, however, that Ross should have used the term "pro tanto" rather than "prima facie". Shelly Kagan, for example, wrote:
Explaining the difference between pro tanto and prima facie, Kagan wrote: "A pro tanto reason has genuine weight, but nonetheless may be outweighed by other considerations. Thus, calling a reason a pro tanto reason is to be distinguished from calling it a prima facie reason, which I take to involve an epistemological qualification: a prima facie reason appears to be a reason, but may actually not be a reason at all".

Ironically, Ross' prima facie duties are neither prima facie nor duties. They are not prima facie (which means something like 'appears to be at first glance') since Ross' prima facie duties are always and everywhere pro tanto reasons in favor of something's being a moral reason. They are not duties since duties are obligations that must be performed under any circumstances. Duties and obligations, strictly speaking, are never outweighed, but Ross' prima facie duties are often outweighed by other factors. This is why Kagan says that Ross was actually talking about pro tanto moral reasons, and not, strictly speaking, about prima facie duties.

Selected works

  • 1908: Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. Translated by W. D. Ross. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • 1923: Aristotle
  • 1924: Aristotle's Metaphysics
  • 1927: 'The Basis of Objective Judgments in Ethics'. International Journal of Ethics, 37: 113-127.
  • 1930: The Right and the Good
  • 1936: Aristotle's Physics
  • 1939: Foundations of Ethics
  • 1951: Plato's Theory of Ideas
  • 1954: Kant's Ethical Theory

Further reading


External links