Sir William David Ross KBE (April 15, 1877 – May 5, 1971) was a Scottish philosopher, known for work in ethics and for his work on Aristotle. He also published a book on Plato's theory of ideas (or forms) that understands and presents Plato from the point of view of an Aristotelian. His best known work is The Right and The Good (1930), a treatise on ethics. Ross's ethics is a form of intuitionist ethics, combining some aspects of consequentialism with some aspects of deontological ethics; his ethics sprang partly from a response to G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica. Ross's ethics also provides a response to the limitations of and even some possible perversities that could arise from acceptance of Immanuel Kant's deontological ethical system.
Ross also wrote books on Kant's ethics, each of Aristotle's writings, and a work about English philosopher-theologian Clement Charles Julian Webb; he also edited a study of Spinoza's Tractatus. He did a vast amount of work on and translations of Aristotle; this work is probably of equal importance to his work in ethics.
William David Ross was born in Thurso, Caithness, in the north of Scotland. He spent most of his first six years as a child in southern India. He was educated at the Royal High School, Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh. In 1895, he gained a first class MA degree in classics. He completed his studies at Balliol College, Oxford, and gained a lectureship at Oriel College, Oxford, in 1900, followed by a fellowship in 1902.
Ross was Provost of Oriel College, Oxford (1929–1947), Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford from 1941 to 1944, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (1944–1947). He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1939 to 1940. He was knighted in 1928.
He married Edith Ogden in 1906 and they had four daughters (Margaret, Rosalind, Eleanor, Katharine). Edith died in 1953 and he died in Oxford in 1971.
The relationship of Ross's ideas with Moore's stems from Ross's agreement with Moore that any attempt to define ethical predicates wholly in terms of natural predicates commits the naturalistic fallacy. But, Ross argued, Moore's consequentialist ethics actually commits its own fallacy in positing good-maximization as the only content of the moral ought.
Ross criticized consequentialist ethics—theories of ethics that make the determination of the rightness or wrongness of acts or decisions based on the consequences of those acts or decisions—for several reasons. Ethical egoism (the view that an action is right if it serves the interests of the agent performing it) is mistaken, Ross claimed, because a large part of duty consists of respecting the rights and serving the interests of other people without regard to the costs to us of doing so. Hedonistic utilitarianism (the view of Jeremy Bentham) holds that what is good is pleasure, and, when there is a choice between different actions, the action is right which yields the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of people. But, Ross objected, we recognize that there are other things besides pleasure that are intrinsically good, such as, for example, possessing a good character and having an intelligent understanding of the world. Ideal utilitarianism (such as was advocated by John Stuart Mill) holds that an action (or rule—there are two versions of this theory: act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism) is ethically right if and only if the net amount of intrinsic value it produces (i.e. adding up all the plusses and subtracting all the minuses of happiness or good produced by the act or rule) is at least as great as that produced by any other possible alternative act or rule. Ross objected that producing maximum good is not what makes all right actions right, i.e. it is not the whole of ethics, as utilitarians must hold if they are to be faithful to their utilitarian theory.
Why, according to Ross, is producing maximum intrinsic goodness not always what makes an action right? Here Ross appealed to common sense (or intuition), which tells us, he claimed, that some actions, such as keeping promises, are right not because they produce good consequences, but because of what happened in the past, i.e. the making of the promise. In other words, there is a logical and ethical connection between the past promise and the present responsibility for keeping that promise that is not comprehended just in considering the consequences. Common sense also tells us, he held, that sometimes we have more than one duty in a particular circumstance, and that one of these duties (e.g. relieving someone's distress) may be more of a duty in that circumstance than another (e.g. fulfilling a promise).
Ross offered several criteria for what would count as a good or adequate moral theory. It should "fit the facts" of our pre-theoretical analysis and intuitions, even if this means that the resulting theory is less simple—more complicated—than would otherwise be the case. These facts that the theory should fit are, he said, "the moral convictions of thoughtful and well-educated people." In cases where there are conflicts or inconsistencies between the moral convictions of such thoughtful and well-educated people, we should keep or attend to those that "stand better the test of reflection" and ignore or discard the others.
Against utilitarianism and consequentialist theories, Ross argued that the maximization of good is only one of several prima facie ("first face" or ostensive) obligations which play a role in determining the content of the moral ought in any given case. Ross gives a list of other such obligations, a list that he does not claim is all-inclusive; he explicitly admits that other things may need to be added to his list. In any given situation, he noted, any number of prima facie obligations may apply, and in the case of ethical dilemmas, they may even contradict one another. The solution to the problem, Ross claimed, comes from bringing to light and ranking those prima facie duties, and then doing the one that ranks highest.
Ross was well aware that his theory does not tell us absolutely what we are to do in any given situation. In that respect the theories of Kant and Mill seem superior because they tell us in any case or situation—or at least claim to be able to tell us—absolutely what we must do; Ross's theory seems to suffer in comparison because it does not give us what is often called a decision procedure. Ross was also aware that for many acts, depending on how one views them, that act may be prima facie right or prima facie wrong. Ross's reply to those objections to his view was that
Every act therefore, viewed in some aspects will be prima facie right, and viewed in others prima facie wrong, and right acts can be distinguished from wrong acts only as being those which, of all those possible for the agent in the circumstances, have the greatest balance of prima facie rightness, in those respects in which they are prima facie right, over their prima facie wrongness, in those respects in which they are wrong.... For the estimation of the comparative stringency of these prima facie obligations no general rules can, so far as I can see, be laid down. (The Right and the Good, 1930 ed., p. 41)
It can be said, therefore, that Ross's ethics succeeds in bringing together certain aspects of consequentialism and certain aspects of non-consequentialist (deontological) theories. Ross was also astute enough to recognize that it is almost certainly the case that no general rules sufficient to solve all ethical problems can generally be given.
Immanuel Kant's ethics, based on what he thought is the absolute value of a good will, the rejection of consequences as having any relevance to ethical evaluations, and what he called the categorical imperative, did not admit that one ethical duty could be overriden by another because, in Kant's view, ethical duties are categorical, meaning without exceptions. Thus Kant argued, for exmple, that it is always wrong to tell a lie. That ethical stance or principle against ever telling a lie, however, could lead to perverse consequences, as in the case, for example, where you are hiding an innocent person in your house, and his enemy who is trying to hunt him down and kill him comes to your door and asks whether he is there. By Kant's ethics you could not tell the pursuer a lie and say that the person being sought is not in your house. But Ross's ethics, based on prima facie duties, creates a hierarchy of duties, so that, in the case mentioned, the prima facie duty not to tell a lie is overridden by a higher duty, namely to protect the innocent person from his enemy who wants to kill him.
Aristotle's work is frequently difficult for students to grasp for various reasons, not the least of which is the state of the text that comes down to us as the work of Aristotle. Thus students of Aristotle usually need help in undertaking a study of his work, and numerous such works on Aristotle have been produced. Ross's short book—just under three hundred pages—entitled simply Aristotle (first pub. 1923) is one of the best short expositions of and introduction to Aristotle ever produced. In the "Preface" to that book Ross wrote, "I have ... tried simply to give an account of the main features of his philosophy as it stands before us in his works. I have written little by way of criticism."
Ross carries through with that. Chapter 1 is entitled "Aristotle's Life and Works." Succeeding chapters are: "Logic," "Philosophy of Nature," "Biology," "Psychology," Metaphysics," "Ethics," "Politics," "Rhetoric and Politics." In each of those chapters, Ross summarizes what Aristotle wrote under that heading. As a book jacket blurb says, "It is thus a discussion of those branches of science and learning which were at the centre of the thought of the ancient world...." (Methuen paperback edition, 1985)
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