W. D. Ross

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
(Redirected from W.D. Ross)
Jump to: navigation, search
William David Ross
Born (1877-04-15)15 April 1877
Thurso, Scotland
Died 5 May 1971(1971-05-05) (aged 94)
Oxford, England
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Analytic philosophy
Main interests
Ethics, Greek philosophy
Notable ideas
'Pluralist' or 'generalist' deontology; prima facie moral duties

Sir William David Ross KBE FBA (/rɒs/; 15 April 1877 – 5 May 1971), known as David Ross but usually cited as W. D. Ross, was a Scottish philosopher who is known for his work in ethics. 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 ethics in response to G.E. Moore's intuitionism. Ross also critically edited and translated a number of Aristotle's works, in addition to writing on Greek philosophy.


William David Ross was born in Thurso, Caithness in the north of Scotland. He was a cousin of Berriedale Keith. 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 in 1900, followed by a fellowship in 1902.

Ross joined the army in 1915. During World War I, he worked in the Ministry of Munitions and was a major on the special list. He was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1918 in recognition of his services during the war, and was promoted to a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1938.[1]

Ross was White's Professor of Moral Philosophy (1923–1928), 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 elected a Fellow of the British Academy and was its President 1940–1944.[2] Of the many governmental committees on which he served was as chair of the Civil Service Tribunal, on which one of his two colleagues was Leonard Woolf, who thought that the whole system of fixing governmental remuneration should be done on the same basis as the US model (of dividing the civil service into a relatively small number of pay grades).[3] Ross did not agree with this radical proposal. In 1947 he was appointed chairman of the first Royal Commission on the Press, United Kingdom.

He married Edith Ogden in 1906 and they had four daughters, Margaret (who married Robin Harrison), Eleanor, Rosalind (who married John Miller Martin), and Katharine. Edith died in 1953 and he died in Oxford in 1971.

Ross's ethical theory

W. D. Ross was a moral realist, a non-naturalist, and an intuitionist.[4] 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.[5]

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.

Ross rejected Moore's consequentialist 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 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, a 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 over-rules 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:

It may be helpful to note explicitly that in distinguishing between pro tanto and prima facie reasons I depart from the unfortunate terminology proposed by Ross, which has invited confusion and misunderstanding. I take it that – despite his misleading label – it is actually pro tanto reasons that Ross has in mind in his discussion of what he calls prima facie duties.[6]

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".[6]

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 favour 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: Nicomachean 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
  • 1949: Aristotle's Prior and Posterior Analytics
  • 1951: Plato's Theory of Ideas
  • 1954: Kant's Ethical Theory


  1. Cooley, Ken. Sir David Ross's pluralistic theory of duty (the beginnings)
  2. Proceedings of the British Academy Volume LVII
  3. The Journey not the Arrival Matters by Leonard Woolf, 1969.
  4. Stratton-Lake, Philip. (2002). 'Introduction'. In Ross, W. D. 1930. The Right and the Good. Reprinted 2002. Oxford: Oxford University Press: ix.
  5. Ross, W. D. 1930. The Right and the Good. Reprinted with an introduction by Philip Stratton-Lake. 2002. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Shelly Kagan, The Limits of Morality, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989) p. 17n.

Further reading

External links

Academic offices
Preceded by
Lancelot Ridley Phelps
Provost of Oriel College, Oxford
Succeeded by
George Clark
Preceded by
George Stuart Gordon
Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University
Succeeded by
Richard Winn Livingstone