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Sir William David Ross was a British moral philosopher who wrote in the first half of the twentieth century.

Ross defended ethical intuitionism. He argued that there are objective ethical truths, that the basic ones are self-evident, and that skeptical attacks on morality fail. He further argued that our ethical intuitions are best captured, not by utilitarianism, but by a set of "prima facie" duties that hold other things equal.

These summaries and problems deal with Chapter 2 of Ross's The Right and The Good. These materials are copyrighted (c) 1998 by Harry J. Gensler but may be distributed freely.

Right actions

Utilitarianism says that we ought to do whatever maximizes good results. This violates common sense. Imagine that we could bring about slightly more good by breaking a promise to benefit someone to whom we had made no promise. Ought we then to break the promise? Surely not.

Kant, on the other hand, held that there are exceptionless duties, such as the duty to keep promises. But common sense recognizes exceptions to these duties. Imagine a case where keeping a trivial promise would cause much harm. Ought we then to keep the trivial promise? Surely not.

It accords better with common sense to recognize various prima facie duties. Other things equal, we ought to do good to others, keep our promises, avoid harming others, and so forth. When these duties conflict, we have to weigh one duty against another and see which is stronger in the situation.


Following common sense, we should recognize an objective moral order. The basic principles of ethics, like those of math and logic, are self-evident truths. These principles become clear to us when we reach sufficient intellectual maturity.

While skeptics doubt these first principles, we all rely on them in daily life. We can't rid ourselves of such commonsense intuitions -- nor should we try. Our considered commonsense intuitions are the data to which ethical theory must conform.

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This set has 27 problems.