Ross’s prima facie duties framework

Ross’s prima facie duties framework (1930)

Ross contended that there are self-evident (intuitive) prima facie duties that persons of mature thought will acknowledge.

His argument is essentially a study of obligations and is not a sequential decision making framework such as the Rion and the Langenderfer and Rockness models.

This framework is useful in helping a person analyse the prima facie duties that they should discharge. These are as follows:

1 Duties of fidelity. These duties apply to actions that have previously been undertaken, e.g. faithfulness to contracts; promises; truth telling and redressing wrongs (sometimes referred to as the ‘duties of reparation’ and classified separately).

2 Duties of gratitude. These duties also apply because of past relationships and their resultant obligations such as to family, friends, teachers, employers, colleagues, profession and the community that has nurtured one.

3 Duties of justice. These are the duties (obligations) to distribute rewards that are based on merit rather than on other considerations. ‘Justice’ here refers to moral law as distinct from legal law. The duty of justice in this sense goes beyond the letter of the law.

4 Duties of beneficence. Basically, these include the duty to do good for others, when the opportunity arises, so that their lives can be improved.

5 Duties of self-improvement. This notion has a long tradition, dating from the ancient Greek philosophers. It is that one has a duty to undertake one’s self-actualisation or self- improvement in personal virtue (integrity), expertise and happiness.

6 Duties of non-maleficence (non-injury). This is the only one of the duties that is stated negatively. It is the important duty not to harm or to injure others. This duty obliges one to do one’s utmost to avoid harming others.

It is important to note that Ross has distinguished prima facie duties from actual duties. Whereas he considered actual duties might have exceptions depending on particular circumstances, this does not apply to prima facie duties.

There are two main criticisms of this framework:
· The framework is not particularly successful in reconciling between conflicting duties. Ross’s advice was that conflicting duties should be reconciled on the basis of ‘utilitarian urgency’.
· The list is arbitrary and incomplete.

Frankena (1973) provides a fuller analysis of Ross’s prima facie duties.


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