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A Metaethics for Rossian Deontology

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I have titled this paper A Metaethics for Rossian Deontology. I will be doing four things in this talk. First, I will be giving a few reasons as to why deontological theories are superior to utilitarian theories. Secondly, I will be presenting Kant’s arguments from the Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals and showing that they leave out important moral considerations. Thirdly, with this Kantian backdrop in mind, I will show why Ross has advantages over Kant. And finally my overall aim is to give Ross a foundation for his ethical theory which will be grounded in God.

Utilitarianism is the view that an action is good if and only if it maximizes happiness. It looks forward to the consequences of actions in order to determine their moral value. There are two problems for a utilitarian ethical theory. The first is that it has problems of predictability. It is hard to have knowledge of the future and all the outcomes a given action will bring about. You can bring forth an action thinking that it will have good consequences but it might turn out to have negative consequences. You can also bring about an action that you think will have bad consequences but it in fact promotes a good outcome. There seems to be a problem of having knowledge of future contingent events for utilitarianism. The second problem is that it leaves out intrinsic human dignity. We can think of an example of a woman in a coma who gets raped by a man. From a utilitarian perspective the man’s action has only produced a good outcome – that of pleasure. The woman is unconscious so his actions do not affect her. He is clearly violating her dignity as a human regardless of the outcomes. It is for these two reasons why I see we have grounds to reject utilitarian theories and favor deontological ones.

Deontology is the view that an action is right only if we fulfill our duty for that action. Immanuel Kant, in the first section of the Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals, makes an argument that our morality must be based in duty and reason and not in wants or inclinations. He argues that the good will is one that is good in itself, namely, that it is intrinsically good (740). The good will must have reason central to its nature. Kant thinks that our moral reasoning must be a priori. This is because we need moral certainty and deductive reasoning is the only thing that can give us certainty (741). A will is good if it acts on the basis of duty. Kant uses the example of a philanthropist that has sorrow and probably does not feel like being charitable. This person still gives to others not on the basis of his feelings but on the basis of his duty to help others. His action has genuine moral worth (742). Emotional reactions cannot give us a genuine moral standard on how to live. Following the rules out of duty allows us to act morally regardless of how we feel. Kant wants us to abandon our emotions in regard to moral reasoning and cling solely to reason. Kant says the following in respect to our emotions and how they relate to moral worth:

“An action done from duty derives its moral worth, not from the purpose which is to be attained by it, but from the maxim by which it is determined, and therefore does not depend on the realization of the object of the action, but merely on the principle of volition by which the action has taken place, without regard to any object of desire” (743).

Kant argues that not only should desire be disregarded when one is producing an action of moral significance but also that our actions are good or bad in itself regardless of the outcome. This is in stark contrast to any utilitarian theory. Kant argues that we should will that our maxims become a universal law (744). This is what is called the universalizability principle and is fundamental to the categorical imperative as we will see later.

For Kant moral statements come in the form of commands or also these could be understood as ought-statements. You ought to be honest is an example of a moral statement. These statements are called imperatives. There are two types of imperatives: hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives. If the action is good as a means to some end then that imperative will be hypothetical. Conversely, if the action is good in itself then that imperative will be categorical (Kant 749). Kant has two main formulations of the categorical imperative. The first is, “act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature” (Kant 753). This is a more concise statement of the universalizability principle. It is the base formulation for the categorical imperative. When we think of our maxims becoming universal laws we should not think of it in a pragmatic sense. For example, if I universalize the maxim “one ought to steal from others” it seems that the world would become chaotic because everyone would be stealing from everyone and thus I should not act upon that maxim. This is not a correct interpretation of Kant’s first formulation. Kant says something much stronger. He thinks of this imperative as being something that is logically coherent. He uses the example of a hypothetical maxim of “one ought to lie.” This cannot be universalized because it leads to a logical contradiction. The maxim would be a lie and therefore violate itself (Kant 753). Another way Kant wants us to think of this first formulation of the categorical imperative is that “every rational being must act as a universally legislating will” (757). We must view ourselves as the moral legislators – the supreme lawgivers. Kant wants us to think of ourselves as autonomous rational agents.

The second formulation of the categorical imperative is to “act as to treat humanity whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only” (Kant 756). Human dignity is a central formulation of the categorical imperative. We should never use people as only a means to an end. Kant uses the example of suicide to show how this formulation could be understood. A person who is contemplating suicide should not act upon it because they would be using themselves as only a means to some end namely death (Kant 756). In the same way lying is always wrong because it involves using people as mere means (Kant 757). It is trying to intentionally deceive people into thinking something other than the truth. This duty we have for humanity must also harmonize with our duty to care for ourselves (Kant 757). We need to treat all persons as ends in themselves with intrinsic value and dignity. Kant tells us that we need to “always regard [ourselves] as giving laws either as a member or as a sovereign in a kingdom of ends which is rendered possible by the freedom of the will” (758). He expands the initial formulation to have us view it with the scope of humanity. We do not just treat people as ends in themselves; we treat humanity as an end in itself.

While Kant’s view is an incredibly rich and thought out theory, it has some major problems. One problem is that Kant reduces morality down into this emotionless acting upon the maxims. This is effectively the same as Stoicism (Kant’s Ethical Theory 92). By getting rid of emotion, Kant gets rid of a key feature of what it means to be a human being. Another problem is that you can never lie because by doing so it would be violating the categorical imperative and you would be treating someone as a mere means. This seems problematic in cases in which it seems not only morally permissible to lie but morally mandatory to lie. If a murderer comes to my door and is looking for my friend who I know is in my house, am I ethically mandated to tell him where he is? Kant would say that we would have to tell the murderer where he is if he asks us. For Kant, we are rational agents and we cannot make other agents act in compliance with the categorical imperative. Our concern ultimately should rest upon how we act and not how others act. Lying is not the right course of action. If we lie for our friend we are looking at the outcomes of the action rather than the intrinsic rightness or wrongness of lying. But it seems clear that we have an obligation and a duty to protect our friend from harm. Ross avoids this problem because he allows for the prima facie duties of non-maleficence and justice. We have an obligation to prevent the harm and also an obligation to punish vice and give the murderer his just deserts. Given these problems we must abandon Kant’s view. His view is too narrow and does not explain other ethical considerations.

20th century British philosopher W.D. Ross is in the deontological tradition of ethical theory. He is fundamentally rooted in the deontological camp because he rejects the idea that actions are moral merely on the basis of their outcomes. When a man fulfills his promise he is looking to the past rather than to the future. At the same time, it seems reasonable for Ross that one could break their promise in order to save the life of a person (The Right and the Good 17-18). Ross is an ethical pluralist and a non-absolutist. He thinks that there is more than one fundamental moral rule. Furthermore, these rules can be broken under the appropriate circumstances (Shafer-Landau 220). This gives him a philosophical edge in the normative ethical theory debate. In his work The Right and the Good, Ross calls the plurality of rules prima facie duties. He lists seven of them: fidelity, reparations, gratitude, justice, beneficence, self-improvement, and non-maleficence. He thinks that this might not be a complete list but that these duties he puts forth have to be on the list (Shafer-Landau 221). “There is nothing arbitrary about these prima facie duties. Each rests on a definite circumstance which cannot seriously be held to be without moral significance” (The Right and the Good 20). But, he does not take the meaning of these duties as Kant thought. These duties are strong permanent moral reasons rather than absolute, unbreakable, moral rules (Shafer-Landau 221). Ross thinks that we know these duties intuitively in their prima facie state. They are so fundamental and known so clearly in a similar fashion to how we know the axioms of mathematics (The Right and the Good 29-30). These duties are basic to our belief structure. For a belief to be basic means that it does not depend on evidence or argument in order to be held.

Let’s examine some problems for the Rossian ethical framework. Ross says that one objection could be an Ockham’s Razor objection to ethical pluralism. Ockham’s Razor is more of a methodological critique rather than a knock-down objection to any system. It’s generally stated in two different ways. One way to think of Ockham’s Razor is that we should not multiply entities excessively. This places a methodological limit on our ontological commitments. Ockham’s Razor can also be stated that when we’re confronted with two explanations, the simplest explanation is the best. This means that if a theory can explain the set of facts in the most minimalist way we should favor that theory over theories that require more explanations or commitments. This is an objection to Ross’s ethical theory because his theory isn’t as simple as Kantian ethical monism or any other monistic theories. Ross’s theory has more duties. But Ross says that this really shouldn’t be a problem. He says that “it is more important that our theory fit the facts than that it be simple, and the account we have given above corresponds (it seems to me) better than either of the simpler theories…” (The Right and the Good 19). Theories which are factual seem to be more important than theories which are simple. Another objection to Ross’s view is the problem of choosing when to break moral rules (Shafer-Landau 225). If the duties are not absolute then we can break them. Ross does not rank the rules in a hierarchal structure; they are all on an equal footing (Shafer-Landau 225-226). But maybe our moral reasoning can come into play when there is a moral conflict amongst the duties, for example, by intuitively knowing which duties to break and which to fulfill. We need to weigh the justification for acting upon one duty over another when moral conflict arises. This could be a plausible counter to the objection that has been raised. The greatest problem the Rossian view has is that there is no foundation for these prima facie duties. Ross just thinks we know them intuitively. This presents a gap in Ross’s framework. Kant gave us a ground in our rational faculties but Ross does not present any reason as to how the duties are intuitive. I hope now to give Ross a metaethical grounding in God.

Ross argues that the prima facie duties and intrinsic moral values must have a non-natural basis. His metaethics, which is foundational for his normative theory, is wholly non-natural. Ross says the following in regards to this point:

“Contemplate any imaginary universe from which you suppose mind entirely absent, and you will fail to find anything in it that you can call good in itself. …the value of material things appears to be purely instrumental, not intrinsic” (The Right and the Good 140-141).

There are two options for how one can ground an objective Rossian ethical theory. The first is to hold to a form of ethical naturalism and the second is to hold to a form of ethical non-naturalism. I will argue against the former in favor of the latter.

An ethical framework cannot be grounded in an evolutionary and naturalistic account. I think this type of account is fraught with problems. The first and I think biggest problem is that believing evolution and naturalism together is irrational. In his book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, Alvin Plantinga argues that belief in evolution and naturalism together leads to the belief that our cognitive faculties are unreliable and thus one cannot rationally affirm evolution and naturalism. This is known as his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. Our cognitive faculties are our belief producing faculties. They are said to be reliable if they produce more true beliefs than false ones, say 75%. Plantinga defines naturalism as the belief that there is no such person as God or nothing like God. Naturalism is a stronger position than atheism. Physicalism is also a necessary condition for naturalism (Plantinga 319). By evolution, we mean change in species over time by way of natural selection and genetic drift. Plantinga argues that the probability of the reliability of our cognitive faculties in regards to naturalism and evolution is low. Evolution only rewards behavior that is adaptive for survival and beliefs for the most part do not influence our adaptation. Patricia Churchland says that the essentials of “a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in the four F’s: feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing” (Plantinga 315). Just because evolution rewards adaptive behavior does not mean that the beliefs are true. Our body parts can be in the correct places for survival irrespective of our beliefs about many things. “All that’s required for survival and fitness is that the neurology cause adaptive behavior; this neurology also determines belief content, but whether or not that content is true makes no difference to fitness” (Plantinga 327). Consider the following example Plantinga uses: Let’s say you have a hominid named Paul. When Paul comes into contact with tigers he runs from them. But the beliefs as to why he runs from them is wholly independent of the fact that he runs from them. There might be many belief-desire pairs that lead to the same action. For example, he might run from tigers because he believes them to be an illusion and runs from them to keep his weight down. Maybe Paul thinks he’s taking part in a race with the tigers and wants to win. All these beliefs are false but still get his body parts in the correct places for survival. There is no basis for thinking that his cognitive faculties are reliable. If this is true then the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable is low. This produces a defeater for the reliability for our cognitive faculties. A defeater is a belief that causes one to give up another belief. For example, pretend I have the belief that Mt. Whitney is the tallest mountain in the world. My friend John, who also happens to be a geologist, tells me that Mt. Everest is actually the tallest mountain in the world. I consider John a reliable source on things in his field. Therefore, I have a defeater for my belief that Mt. Whitney is the tallest mountain in the world. So, if we have a defeater for the reliability for our cognitive faculties then we have a defeater for every belief we hold including beliefs about ethics and more importantly naturalism and evolution. Thus, naturalism and evolution cannot be rationally affirmed. If this argument is successful then we must reject naturalism and evolution. Any metaethical framework must have a correct epistemic framework.

Another problem for a naturalist ground for moral values is the is/ought fallacy. How do we derive ought-ness from is-ness? Just because it is the case that we’ve evolved to respect persons with dignity does not at all mean that we ought to respect persons with dignity. It is impossible to see the fact of the matter and derive an ought from it. At best, these ought’s would be arbitrary and dependent on a society. This is a secondary problem for materialist accounts of the universe. If moral realism is a logically necessary feature of a world containing personal moral agents then what is it that makes it necessary? Thus, it seems to me that we’re only left with a non-natural explanation to account for our prima facie duties.

I believe the only other option we’re left with is to ground the prima facie duties in God. When I talk about God I am talking about a person. I am also thinking of God in the same way Anselm thought about God as the greatest possible being. God’s commanding our prima facie duties gives us objective grounds because God Himself is good. Because we are all made in God’s image, we can grasp His moral law and trust it to be accurate. God has also guided history and ensured the reliability of our cognitive faculties. A divine command theory is compatible with Ross’s prima facie duties. This is also a solution to the is/ought problem. We allow the commands to come from God rather than the material universe. We derive the commands from God. This theological account seems to me to be the only solution to fit the state of the moral facts. .

The Rossian ethical framework is superior to the Kantian framework. I have presented arguments against utilitarianism and have shown why we need to hold a deontological view. I have shown and explained Kant’s theory in the Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals and why it is lacking. I have presented the Rossian theory and the central idea of the prima facie duties from The Right and the Good. I have argued that this theory is the correct one and defended it against objections. Given the non-natural source of these prima facie duties, I have presented my own theological explanation as to why they are intuitive and how they are grounded. Ethical theory is something the human condition longs for. We long for answers on how to act and how to be moral. By having a correct ethical foundation we hopefully can see real world ethical dilemmas clearer and become better people through our principles.

*Originally delivered at the CSUB philosophy undergrad conference on May 15, 2015.

Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

* P= Probability, R=Reliability, N=Naturalism, E=Evolution

  1. P(R/N & E) is low.
  2. Anyone who accepts (believes N&E and sees that P(R/N&E) is low has a defeater for R.
  3. Anyone who has a defeater for R has a defeater for any other belief she thinks she has, including N&E itself.
  4. If one who accepts N&E thereby acquires a defeater for N&E, N&E is self-defeating and can’t rationally be accepted.
  5. ■ N&E can’t be rationally accepted. (Plantinga 344-45)

 Works Cited

Hare, John E. The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.” Classics of Political and Moral Philosophy. Ed. Steven M. Cahn. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. 740-75. Print.

Plantinga, Alvin. “The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.” Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. 307-50. Print.

Plantinga, Alvin. “An Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 13 May 2015.

Ross, W. D. Kant’s Ethical Theory: A Commentary on the Grundlegung Zur Metaphysik Der Sitten. London: Oxford UP, 1965. Print.

Ross, W. D. The Right and the Good. Oxford: Clarendon, 1930. Print.

Shafer-Landau, Russ. “Ethical Pluralism: Prima Facie Duties and Ethical Particularism.” The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. 220-39. Print.


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