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William David Ross

Provost of Oriel College, Oxford
1877 to 1971

William David Ross was born in Thurso (Scotland), 15 April 1877. He spent the first six years of his life in India, when his father became the Principal of the Maharajah’s College. He received his early education from the Royal High School in Edinburgh and began his academic career at the University of Edinburgh. In 1895 Ross graduated from Edinburgh with a first in classics, and entered Balliol College, Oxford to continue his education. At Balliol he received two further first-class degrees (classical honour moderations in 1898 and literae humaniores in 1900), which, alongside an number of other distinctions, set him up for a lecturing position at Oriel College, Oxford, in 1900. Soon after taking up the post at Oriel, Ross was elected fellow of Merton College (also) Oxford until 1902. In 1902 he firmly established his connection with Oriel, holding a post there until 1929.

Ross’s career was not entirely academic; indeed, he had an ability to juggle academic life with a whole host of other esteemed responsibilities. In 1915 he began a career in the army, where he was soon promoted to the rank of major and where in 1918he was honoured as Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Ministry of Munitions from 1918 to 1919, and in 1938, after a whole host of contributions to public services, he was made Knight of the Order of the British Empire (KBE). On the academic front, Ross was made fellow of the British Academy (FBA) in 1927, serving as its president between 1936 and 1940, and, throughout his career, received numerous honorary degrees from a number of respected establishments across the British Isles and Europe.

Influenced in his intellectual thinking most notably by G. E. Moore and H. A. Prichard, Ross subscribed to a form of ethical intuitionism. However, his work stood in its own right in maintaining that, where ethical intuitions are concerned, what we intuit are prima facie obligations to act dutifully, duties which can be overridden by stronger duties, as the situation dictates. In his Gifford Lectures ‘The Foundations of Ethics’ (published under the same title in 1939) Ross sets out a systematic attack on G. E. Moore’s non-naturalist ‘consequentialism’ whilst making a case for a pluralistic deontology in accordance with his account of prima facie obligations. Throughout his life, Ross maintained a keen interest in Aristotle and an enduring interest in Kant’s ethics. His work has been described as an attempt to find a middle way between Aristotle and Kant, which ultimately falls into deontology.

Ross married Edith Helen Ogden, the daughter of a solicitor, in 1906—their years together brought four daughters. Edith died in 1953 some 18 years before her husband, who died 5 May 1971 in Oxford.

Some of Ross's works include Aristotle (1923), Translation of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (1925), The Right and the Good (1930), Foundations of Ethics (1939), Alfred Edward Taylor 1869-1945 (1945), Plato’s Theory of Ideas (1951), The Development of Aristotle’s Thought (1957) and Kant’s Ethical Theory: A Commentary on the Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (1954).

  • Jon Cameron, University of Aberdeen