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Foundations of Ethics

1935 to 1936
University of Aberdeen

Ross’s series of lectures, The Foundations of Ethics, has as its starting point an acknowledgement of the moral consciousness, and proceeds to pursue a critical study of it in light of the two main moral theories. Ross asserts that the main strands found in common moral opinions are the idea of morality as obedience to laws and the notion that moral action is concerned with obtaining goods. Hence, his primary goal is to study the nature of and relations between rightness and goodness.

Lecture II examines naturalistic definitions of the notion of ‘right’. Evolutionary theories are rejected as plausible definitions or accounts of the ground of rightness. Attempts to explain ‘rightness’ away by highlighting the origin or the discovery of differences between moral codes are entirely unpersuasive. This leads to a discussion of various reaction theories, and subsequent objections to any view that defines rightness by reference to the reaction of an agent. Likewise, causal theories such as hedonism are equally implausible as accounts of the meaning of ‘right’. These views, Ross suggests, could only be plausible as attempts to explain rightness away, or more acceptably as attempts to state the ground of rightness.

In Lecture III, Ross considers non-naturalistic definitions of rightness and obligation, beginning with Moore’s claim that the right is that which is ‘productive of the greatest possible amount of good’. The difference between ‘right’ and ‘obligatory’ is examined in light of Broad’s discussion and his distinction between the senses and applications of ‘ought’. Ross notes that it seems as though emotions as well as acts may be right, but only acts can be obligatory. Yet talk of acts as obligatory is loose and misleading; rather, obligations attach themselves to persons.

The next lecture explores theories regarding the ground as distinct from the definition of rightness. This lecture follows more or less the same structure as Lecture II, while examining utilitarianism in more detail as a ground of rightness and highlighting objections to the notion that duties can be so grounded. Ross accepts Broad’s contention that utility, along with suitability, are what rightness partly depends on. This leads into intuitionism, whereby general principles do not state absolute truths but prima facie obligations.

Lecture V centres on the obligation to fulfil promises. This focus allows Ross to examine Pickard-Cambridge’s criticisms of the already considered form of intuitionism, and in turn to attack the utilitarian method that he advocates. To this end, Ross separates two questions, namely, ‘Can the keeping of particular promises be justified on utilitarian grounds?’ as distinct from ‘Can the general condemnation of promise-breaking by public opinion be justified on utilitarian grounds?’ He considers various cases and motivations for adopting the utilitarian approach before turning back to his intuitionist account of the duty of promise-keeping.

Lecture VI looks at some theories as to the general nature of what is right. The concept of motivation plays a significant role in the discussion. How motive relates to duty is examined with reference to Reid, Joseph, Kant and Aristotle. We act from duty and we act from motives, so questions regarding their potential overlap and interrelation become pertinent. After such considerations, the question surrounding the goodness of motives and the nature of choice in relation to an agent’s motive for action concludes the lecture.

These considerations lead smoothly into a discussion in Lecture VII of the objective and subjective components of the right. There is one sense in which the subjective element of the right is the most significant; that is, regardless of whether a man’s action brings about good or would be recommended by wiser men, it is in fact the subjective aspect regarding motivation and perceived circumstances that are the correct basis for evaluation. The significance of the objective aspect of right and duty is taken up in Lecture VIII in an analysis of our knowledge of what is right. Generally, Ross supposes, the rightness of particular acts is apprehended directly, whereas knowledge of general principles is attained through intuitive induction. In the following discussion regarding the sorts of reasoning used in establishing moral knowledge, Ross’s intuitionist view that we can at the very least discover our subjective duty but only in the attempt to discover our objective duty becomes apparent.

Lecture IX gives an account of the psychology of moral action, examining motivation, duty and desire. Ross takes Aristotle’s account of action as preceded by the desire of an end, deliberation about means and choice of means as the starting point. He rejects Kant’s picture, and suggests that while dutiful action involves the adoption of a means to an end, it does not involve the end being desired; rather, it is the adoption of the means to the end itself that is desired. That is, dutiful action is motivated by the desire to do one’s duty.

Lecture X moves from discussing motivation to the crucial related issue of determination. The notion of causation is examined, as is the significance of theories of indeterminacy in physics. Morality, Ross observes, seems to presuppose some notion of freedom. Yet freedom cannot be identified with complete indeterminacy, since whenever we choose an act, we act from some motivation. This motivation need not be desire: even if dutiful action is motivated by some unique emotion, it is still determined. The uniqueness of moral conduct, Ross asserts, does not require freedom from causation, but only that there is a unique nature of moral activity insofar as it involves choice, self-exertion and duty.

Lecture XI takes an extended look at the nature of goodness, given its necessary involvement in the study of ethics. The expression of the judger asserts a characteristic of the object. Ways of understanding goodness as a relation or a relational property are detailed and, from this, Ross considers how things may be good in themselves. While knowledge and artistic activity owe their goodness to their own nature, according to Ross, pleasure is not good in itself but is only ever so in relation to something else on the basis of what is right. There is no intrinsic duty to maximise pleasures, nor is anyone good in virtue of feeling pleasure. Good actions in contrast entail that there are duties and that the person performing them is good.

In the final lecture, ‘Moral Goodness’, Ross attempts to complete his outline of the foundations of ethics. The class of morally good things, he concludes, includes: (1) certain types of voluntary action, (2) certain desires, (3) certain emotions, and (4) certain permanent modifications of character. Actions, however, are usually held to owe their goodness to goodness of motive. There are many kinds of motive, with various degrees of goodness. A sense of duty is portrayed as the highest of these motives, although contra Kant, this is not the only motive with moral worth. Yet someone can act from a good motive yet not perform the right action in a given circumstance, hence the good and the right are not identical. A completely good act nevertheless must necessarily be a right one.

  • Sam Addison, University of Aberdeen