SIR DAVID ROSS'S PLURALISTIC THEORY OF DUTY (The Beginnings)
This project began in 1968 as an examination of Ross's fairness to Kant's moral philosophy in his little book, Kant's Ethical Theory: A Commentary on the Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten. Some of the obstacles encountered in that effort were due in no small measure to the futility of trying to make coherent the inadequacies in Ross's so-called "commentary," whether it is viewed as a commentary, summary account, or even as a polemical essay. I don't know whether my head made a dent in the brick wall I kept encountering, but the effort dulled my mind to the point of despair--with despair in this instance being a symptom of my own foolishness in failing to accept much earlier that the obstacles I was encountering were largely due to the deficiencies in Ross's little book itself.
Having grown frustrated and disillusioned with Kant's Ethical Theory, the question remained whether there is anything significant to be gleaned from Ross's interpretations, criticisms, and even his agreements with parts of Kant's moral philosophy. After all, twentieth century ethical intuitionism, of which Ross is an exemplar, had been declared a dead theory by Richard Brandt in 1981. However, if one acknowledges some relationships and affinities between ethical intuitionism and ethical or moral realism, which is very much alive today, Brandt's declaration may be doubted. Furthermore, ethical intuitionism in one form or another has resurfaced many times in British moral philosophy, and in moral philosophy generally. So, it may be that Brandt's assertion of the death of ethical intuitionism was at best premature. Even if Brandt's declaration had some point, it would have been that ethical intuitionism was dormant, not dead.
With such considerations before me, I decided to change the focus of my effort away from a concentration on Kant's Ethical Theory to Ross's other discussions and references to Kant's views in his other ethical writings. This change proved slightly more fruitful, and eventually reduced my focus to two topics in the moral philosophies of Ross and Kant: the foundation of duties and the nature of moral goodness. Most of the work that followed pursued this plan, and there are numerous traces of it in what follows. However, even this proved to be too ambitious. This realization led to a further narrowing of the topic to a concentration on Ross's theory of duty. Even though Ross's theory of duty is the final focus in the following work, I have not excised some portions of it which concern Ross's relation to Kant's theory and his theory of moral goodness. With appropriate background material to set the context, the result is what follows.I explore Ross's pluralistic answer to his theoretical question, what makes right acts right? This requires developing several contexts.
Moral philosophy begins with practical doubts in three ways, but ethical theory can resolve only two of them which create doubts about the authority of moral rules. Primarily, moral philosophy should be pursued in a purely theoretical spirit. Ross's ethics involves a synthesis of Aristotle and Kant, using Kant's view to "correct" Aristotle. This leads Ross to distinguish between the external and internal aspects of acts, claiming that acts (the thing done) can be evaluated according to their fittingness and independently of actions (the thing done plus its motive) which becomes more fully worked out through his analysis of the rightness of acts and the moral goodness of actions.
Ross's view is intuitionistic in three ways which have their roots in Sidgwick's methods of ethics. My critical analysis of Ross's basic distinction between act and action shows that it comes to require almost endless refinements partly due to his acceptance of the Kantian saying that "ought implies can" coupled with his determinism. This creates confusion about the fundamental distinction on which much of Ross's theory depends. My analysis of the necessary conditions of judgments about duties leads to my claims that moral judgments are judgments about types of actions and that the possibility of being mistaken in our moral judgments implies objective criteria.
Ross's answer to the theoretical question is his pluralistic theory of prima facie duties. I go beyond Ross's terse treatment and show, contrary to his claims, that at least one prima facie duty rests on insight into its truth, and not on empirical facts or definite circumstances. I have also explored why Ross thinks his theory is better than the "simpler" theories of Moore and especially Kant. The answer is shown to depend on the casuistry (cases of conscience) of conflicts of duties. My critical analysis Ross concludes that his theory involves an absurd moral imperialism and it does not preclude the view that there can be a more fundamental moral principle involved in the foundation of duty.
CHAPTER I - INTRODUCTION
Sir David Ross's pluralistic theory of duty has important things to say about how moral decisions are made and what makes right acts right. It also has significant implications in contemporary moral philosophy by virtue of the way it connects with current explorations of moral realism. This chapter will locate my topic in the area of theoretical ethics, introduce Ross's main theoretical question about moral duty or rightness, and lay the groundwork for the remaining chapters. This groundwork will include a brief discussion of moral goodness both because of its own importance and to distinguish it from questions about duty. Some of the complexities about moral goodness and duty are seen to stem from Kant's originality and insight about moral worth, which Kant claimed to take from ordinary morality. Setting aside questions about goodness, the chapter concludes by emphasizing the differences between theory and practice as well as those between moral goodness and duty.
Theoretical vs. Practical Ethics
Moral theory and practice need not be radically separated to acknowledge that questions about the practicality of moral principles are different from theoretical questions about their philosophical justifications. Rejecting practical concerns in favor of theoretical ethics, Herbert Spencer is surely incorrect when he asserts:
The moral law must be the law of the perfect man--the law in obedience to which perfection consists. . . . that the moral law ignoring all vicious conditions, defects, and incapacities prescribes the conduct of an ideal humanity. Pure and absolute rectitude can alone be its subject matter. . . . Or we may term it the science of social life; a science that, in common with all other sciences, assumes perfection in the elements with which it deals.
Spencer is, in effect, claiming that moral theory, or, in his terms, "a system of pure ethics," by prescribing conduct for "an ideal humanity," should be pursued independently of any practical concerns and applications, just as the science of physiology does not recognize, "and can therefore solve no questions concerning," disease. In a contemporary reversal of Spencer's approach, Jonsen and Toulmin use exactly the same analogy about the differences between medical science and clinical practice to support their contrary claim that modern moral philosophers have been remiss in their concentration on theoretical or scientific ethics to the neglect of the practical, "clinical" moral reasoning of casuistry, a neglect which they set about to correct. Notwithstanding their specific claims about the neglect of casuistry, the past fifteen to twenty years have seen a virtual explosion of moral philosophers dealing with so-called "applied ethics," and this suggests that the interests of contemporary moral philosophers have been moving in the direction Jonsen and Toulmin think they should go. Even so, this does not mean that theoretical questions about the foundations and justifications of morality are, or can ever be, philosophically unimportant or out of date. Rather, there is much to support the view that correct practical moral reasoning cannot contradict correct ethical theory. This implies that theory and practice must be complementary and that Spencer's attempt to divorce philosophical ethics from practical concerns is a mistake. In what follows I shall be concerned primarily with theoretical questions concerning the foundations and justification of moral judgment, but always with a view to the ways practical concerns shape, and are shaped by, ethical theory. After all, doubts, puzzles, and skepticism about practical moral matters are what provide the impetus for, and interest in, moral philosophy in the first place.
What Makes Right Acts Right
Accepting the arguments of his friend and Oxford colleague, H. A. Prichard, Sir David Ross insists that the primary philosophical or theoretical question about moral duty, or right acts, is not why ought we to do them, but what makes them what they are. This view of Prichard's and Ross's echoes (without mentioning) the view of William Whewell, an earlier rationalistic British moral philosopher, that "right, used absolutely, expresses an ultimate reason," indeed, it means "conformable to the Supreme Rule of Human Action." To recognize by a rational insight that an action is right means that no additional justification is necessary and no higher or more supreme reason for doing the act can be given. (The correctness of such a rational insight is, of course, a different matter.) Consequently, to the extent that the practical question 'why should I be moral' is really the question 'why ought I do what is right?' it has no answer other than repeating 'because it is right.' On this view, no higher reason, no more ultimate justification, can be given for doing what is right.
However, Ross insists that the fundamental theoretical question about rightness remains open after the questions 'why ought I do what is right?' and 'why ought I be moral?' are dismissed. This is the question 'what makes right acts right?' Ross's version of ethical intuitionism becomes clear in his clarification and analysis of attempts to answer this question about the Right (or rightness), and I will discuss this later. Also, Ross thinks that this theoretical interest in the Right has some practical import, and I will discuss this later as well.
The Nature of Moral Goodness
Due to a large extent to the remarkable influence of G. E. Moore's Principia Ethica, Ross's ethical theory also deals with the Good (or goodness). As is well known, Ross basically agrees with Moore's approach to goodness, finding it to be a simple unanalyzable property intuitively known, but he differs from Moore regarding the status of rightness. Rather than 'defining' right in terms of good with Moore, Ross builds on the standard Intuitionistic or deontological view of some earlier British moralists and holds that rightness is itself a simple unanalyzable property of acts. In short, against Moore Ross holds that goodness is not (always) what makes right acts right, that there is no natural or necessary link between goodness and rightness.
Nevertheless, along with rightness, the analysis of goodness occupies a good part of Ross's ethical theory. And once he presents his views about goodness, he prominently discusses moral goodness as if it were a species of goodness. Now I am not sure about treating moral goodness as a species of goodness, but this is of no matter here for I will be only incidentally concerned about Ross's analysis of goodness. However, ultimately (but not in this dissertation) I shall be concerned about his analysis of moral goodness, in part because there is a natural link between Ross's views about rightness and his views about moral goodness. In general, his view is that rightness attaches to acts whereas moral goodness attaches to actions, which he considers to be acts plus their motives. My ultimate topics in this discussion will involve duty (rightness).
Complexities About Moral Goodness.
What are the primary philosophical questions about the moral goodness or moral worth of persons or actions? This field, it seems to me, is more complex and difficult to chart than the generally acknowledged difficulties with questions about the foundation of the rightness of right acts. For instance, if, as mentioned earlier, the question 'why should I be moral?' is disposed of when it means 'why should I do what is right?,' it does not follow that it is disposed of when it means 'why should I be morally good?' In comparison with the way Ross deals with rightness, this means in part that theoretical questions about moral goodness may not be wholly contained in the question 'what makes morally good actions (or persons, or situations) morally good?' as they are in the question 'what makes right acts right?' Thus, questions about moral goodness are not only different from questions about rightness, they may involve a good deal more complexity.
Part of the difficulty stems from puzzles about identification of the subject matter of moral goodness. In the case of the rightness of right acts, the subject matter is acts, more or less objectively considered and publicly describable independently of people's motivations. In this sense, acts are much more akin to legal descriptions of behavior that is prohibited or required of people. I do not mean that identification of this subject matter (acts) is easy. To the contrary, even if we restrict ourselves to what is publicly observable, distinguishing an act from its consequences, for example, is extremely difficult to do. Rather, the identification of the subjects of rightness seems easier than the identification of the subject matter of moral goodness in part because at least some of this subject matter is not open to public description or observation. For instance, when we say that a person, or a person's action, is morally good or morally worthy, part of what we are referring to is the person's motives, intentions, or moral character, and these things are not ordinarily available for public description or observation.
Kant is partly the source of this problem.
When Kant distinguished between acts which conform to duty and those done from duty, and then reached the view that only acts done from duty have moral worth, he ushered in a new theoretical topic area for moral philosophers to consider. Prior to Kant's introduction of this notion into moral philosophy, moral philosophers had primarily considered only questions about the nature of the good, the nature of rightness, and their relations to each other. Indeed, the classical approach fairly consistently held that both general and particular practical questions about what one ought to do or be, or questions about how one ought to live, depend on what is good. Evidence of this tradition is indicated in the title of Ross's first book in ethics, The Right and The Good. But partly because of Kant's identification of this other topic, the topic of moral worth or moral goodness, Ross found it necessary to deal additionally with this third topic, which is not reflected in the title of his book (unless it is insisted that moral goodness is merely a species of good, which is the way Ross considers it but is also a matter about which I, and I think Kant would also, have some doubts).
The Originality of Kant's Insight
These days it would be difficult to imagine anyone trained in philosophy, or even undergraduates who have taken only a single course in philosophy, who had not read, or been exposed to, Kant's discussion of a good will at the beginning of the Grundlegung and his statement that only an act done from duty has moral worth. Because of this familiarity, the novelty of Kant's notions about moral worth or moral goodness may escape us. It does not escape Ross, however. He writes,
For clearly what makes us ascribe moral value to an action in itself is rather what it is meant to produce than what it in fact and perhaps by mere accident produces. Kant's intuition here is profoundly original; and against the egoistic utilitarianism which in the main characterized eighteenth-century ethics, and in some degree coloured perhaps every eighteenth-century theory earlier than his own, as well as almost all Greek ethics, his assertion is of the highest importance. It is this, rather than the subtleties of his theory, that makes his greatness.
Although there are parts of this passage which merit objections, such as Ross's easy, cavalier dismissal of the subtleties and arguments of Kant's view, I know of no reason to object to Ross's characterization of Kant's notion of the moral worth of actions as "profoundly original." Likewise, in explaining Kant's notion of a good will, Marcus Singer says,
To do what is right because it is right is to act from duty, and this is to be distinguished from acting merely in accordance with duty. It is not that acting in accordance with duty is wrong, and it is not that acting in accordance with duty is bad. But acting in accordance with duty has no moral value. Kant herewith introduced a new conception to the moral scene, that of moral worth as distinct from moral rightness.
This "new conception to the moral scene" which Kant introduced is precisely his concept of the moral worth of actions, what Ross calls their moral goodness.
Duty is Different from Moral Worth.
We now generally accept in moral philosophy that, however complex and difficult the relation between them may be, inquiring about the nature and justification of the rightness of right acts is different from inquiring about the nature and justification of the moral worth or goodness of actions or persons. That a person can do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or the wrong thing for the right reasons, is commonplace moral philosophy, thanks partly to Kant. However, this seems a bit odd when we recall that Kant professed to be inventing or creating nothing for or in morality. Rather, he professed merely to be drawing out what was already present in ordinary moral thought. And, indeed, he is right about this. It is simply that it had not previously been a significant point for moral philosophers.
An Aspect of Ordinary Morality.
The roots for Kant's introduction of the notion of moral worth into moral philosophy are found in Judeo-Christian 'ethics of the heart' and, at least in this sense, it is probably the significant feature Kant finds in 'the common rational knowledge of morals'. Kant entitles the First Section of the Grundlegung as the "transition from the common rational knowledge of morals to the philosophical." If we take this title seriously, and we should, we should expect to find identifiable links between ordinary morals and what Kant presents in the First Section. And, indeed, we do.
For instance, the basic distinction between rightness and moral worth or goodness may be discerned in the common saying of Christian morality, 'hate the sin, love the sinner'. This saying needs clarification, of course, but it is clear that it assumes the practicality of a distinction between a person and the person's act as well as between the moral quality of a person and the moral quality of the person's act. It further assumes that the two moral qualities can be assessed more or less independently of each other. Whether such distinctions are valid for moral philosophy is a further question, but Kant's distinction between a duty (i.e., an act which conforms to duty) and a good will acting under subjective hindrances and restrictions (i.e., acting from duty) is mirrored in this common saying.
Kant's distinction may also be rooted in 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you' and 'love your neighbor as yourself', which are obviously two other significant elements in ordinary Western morality developed under the influence of the Judeo-Christian heritage. On the one hand, the affinity of the Golden Rule with the categorical imperative is often noted, as well as the fact that the First Section of the Grundlegung, the transition from ordinary moral thought to philosophical moral thought, culminates in Kant's preliminary expression of the categorical imperative. If we consider the categorical imperative to be the criterion of moral duty, then it could be maintained that Kant's notion of duty, and what would be in conformity with duty, is taken from this aspect of ordinary moral thought. On the other hand, Kant explicitly discusses 'love your neighbor' in the context of explicating his claim that only acts done from duty have moral worth. Taken together, there is something more than a mere possibility that Kant's distinction between acting in conformity with duty and acting from duty are rooted in common rational knowledge of morals and that the First Section of the Grundlegung is, as he claims it is, a transition from ordinary moral thought to philosophical thought.
It would follow that Kant's originality in introducing the notion of moral worth into moral philosophy is based on his discernment of key features of ordinary moral thought. In this way, Kant can still claim to have presented nothing new to morals, even if his crystallization of what he discerned in ordinary moral thought into the notion of moral worth was new in moral philosophy.
Two Distinct Pairs of Concerns
In the preceding pages I have distinguished two different sets of considerations, on the one hand theory and practice and, on the other hand, duty and moral goodness. We have, then, to keep these two sets of concerns distinct.
Theory vs Practice.
On the one hand, we must be careful to distinguish issues for the theoretical aspect of moral philosophy from questions about the application of moral rules or principles in practice. This is not easy to do because moral theory (or ethical theory--I know of no good reason to distinguish these) is ultimately, as well as in its genesis, practical and normative. It begins with conflicting thoughts and then doubts about what is right or good to do or be. However far theory goes in clarifying, analyzing, criticizing, and justifying these normative thoughts, and however tenuous the connection between the higher, more abstract reaches of moral theory and practical problems may seem at times, it never discards (at least it should never discard) this basic normative, practical orientation. Even in Plato's Republic, when the prisoner who has gained release from the cave achieves direct knowledge of The Good, which seems about as far from genuine and particular practical concerns as one can get, it should not go unnoticed that the released prisoner with new-found theoretical wisdom about the source and cause of all good things, and who wishes to remain outside basking in the glory of knowledge of The Good, is required to return to the cave and to use this wisdom in dealing with particular, practical concerns. The prisoner's return to the cave is, of course, fraught with personal difficulties and dangers, but he cannot escape responsibility for the practical concerns and questions with which he began his pilgrimage. In a similar vein, the claim of meta-ethics from an earlier part of this century that the philosophical task of clarifying moral concepts and the logic of moral reasoning could be pursued without entailing any normative, practical views is and was mistaken.
Such considerations indicate why it is philosophically difficult to separate moral theory from moral practice. Yet, questions about the nature, validity, and rational justification of basic moral precepts, rules, and principles are different from questions about what is required for making sound moral judgments and for conducting oneself properly in actual practice in particular situations. The distinction is between foundational and what may be called casuistical questions in moral philosophy. But difference does not imply contradiction. I should think, perhaps 'hope' is a better word, that the two aspects of moral philosophy are complementary, but both are philosophical. Put differently, if practical moral dilemmas really entailed moral skepticism or relativism in theoretical (or foundational) ethics (i.e., in moral principles), it would be a most serious matter. Whether this is so, indeed whether it is possible, needs to be worked out. In any event, the distinction between theory and practice is an important one.
Rightness vs. Moral Goodness.
On the other hand, we must be careful to distinguish within each of these, theory and practice, questions about rightness, duty, or obligation, from questions about moral worth or goodness. Kant introduced this distinction into moral philosophy, and Ross accepts it and builds on it. My major task is to discuss and analyze their contributions in both these areas. Having made the distinction between duty and moral goodness, however, questions must arise concerning the relation between them. Are they totally distinct? Is one grounded in the other? Do they mutually imply each other? Are they, so to speak, two sides of the same coin? Is each grounded in some third moral principle or concept? My present purpose is the modest one of hoping that my discussion of Ross on the topic of duty will at least provide a foundation for dealing with these questions.
Questions about 'Good' are Set Aside.
In addition to the concepts of duty and moral goodness, a third possible topic concerns the nature of good or the good. After all, Ross's moral philosophy devotes a good deal of attention to this concept and, notwithstanding Ross's denials to the contrary, Kant is also centrally concerned about such concepts as the highest good and the supreme good. For present purposes, however, I shall be interested in this question only in terms of the further question of whether moral worth or goodness is a species of good in general. I do not intend to deal with the notion and status of goodness at this time, and I shall consider questions about 'good' only to the extent that they are necessary to discuss the topics with which I am primarily concerned.
Organization of the Remaining Chapters
The approach I shall take for exploring the topic of duty will be in part to consider Ross's views about Kant's position on the issues. More philosophical attention has been paid to issues about rightness or duty than to moral goodness or worth, so one might expect to find the going easier on rightness and more difficult on moral goodness. One question is which to take up first. In a sense, Kant begins the Grundlegung with the topic of moral worth, whereas Ross ends both his books, The Right and the Good and Foundations of Ethics, with the topic of moral goodness. Conversely, Ross begins with rightness, whereas Kant does not. I prefer to begin on the more familiar road, so I shall here discuss Ross's views on duty and his views of Kant's position on duty before taking up my ultimate concern with a discussion of their views on moral worth or goodness.
The context for this discussion will be provided by some biographical information about Ross and his concern with Kant's ethical theory, which supplies some insights for the following review of their understandings of the nature of moral philosophy in general and the theoretical issues involved with the topics of duty and moral goodness. After supplementing this with a quick look at Ross's Aristotelian leanings, I shall be ready for the substantive chapters on duty. In the end, the only thing remaining will be to draw some conclusions about all this.
CHAPTER II - SIR DAVID ROSS
After presenting details about Ross's life and career, some of which are shown to be related to his philosophical interests and methods, this chapter will be concerned about some aspects of the development of Ross's ethical theory. It will be shown that from the beginning Ross had an enduring concern, not only with Aristotle's ethics, but with Kant's ethics to the point of finally publishing a commentary on the Grundlegung. His Aristotelian leanings and his interests in Kant's ethics are explored on a number of specific issues, some of which are analyzed in detail. Ross attempted, I argue, to synthesize Aristotle and Kant on these issues.
Life and Career
In philosophical circles, there is general understanding about Kant's life and career, much less about Ross's. A review of Ross's life and career, including a review of his philosophical contributions, particularly in moral philosophy, may provide a useful balance to this state of affairs.
Born William David Ross on April 15, 1877, in Thurso, Caithness on the northern coast of Scotland facing the Orkney and Shetland Islands and the Norwegian Sea, Sir David Ross died May 5, 1971, in Oxford, England after a long and distinguished career in the academic world and in public service. Most of the first six of his 94 years were spent in southern India, in the state of Travancore, where his father, John Ross, having begun as a young schoolmaster of a village in Caithness, continued his educational career as Principal of the Maharajah's College. Ross did not altogether lose touch with the North; as a boy he once saw the midnight sun from the island of Unst in Shetland; but after he came back from India to Scotland for his education, his base was Edinburgh. He was the third of four sons who survived to manhood, and the only one who followed an academic career.
He attended the Royal High School in Edinburgh and then the Royal College of the University of Edinburgh where, in 1895, he took the M.A. degree with first class honors in classics. There were close personal ties between Balliol College at Oxford University and the Scottish universities. Ross's undergraduate studies (what, in the United States, would be called "graduate studies") at Balliol culminated in his winning several honors which led to his appointment as a Lecturer at Oriel College, Oxford, in September 1900, after having been elected a fellow of Merton College upon examination. In 1902 he became fully associated with Oriel as a Fellow and Tutor, a position he held for twenty-seven years, until 1929. He was also Deputy White's Professor of Moral Philosophy of Oxford University (1923-1928) and, at Oriel, Senior Tutor (1924-1929), Provost (1929-1947), Vice-Chancellor (1941-1944) and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (1944-1947). Ross retired from his college positions in 1947. He had married Edith Ogden in 1906, and they had four daughters. His wife died in 1953.
In 1928, William David Ross became Sir David Ross, being made K.B.E. (Knight of the British Empire). Earlier, in 1918, he had been made O.B.E. (Officer of the Order of the British Empire). Due partly, perhaps, to his academic work, these distinctions were primarily in recognition of his public service during and following World War One. In 1915 Ross joined the army and held several posts in munitions supply: secretary of the N.E. Coast Armaments Committee (1915-16); service in the Munitions Inspection Department (1916-18); and, just before the armistice, the rank of Major, the O.B.E., and the position of Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Ministry of Munitions (1918-1919). Although when the war was over Ross returned to university life, he was among those intellectuals who thereafter were "persuaded to accept part-time duties. He was never without some London engagements for the next thirty years, . . ." He served on various trade boards, often several at the same time, and chaired some of them. Early on he was Deputy Chairman of the Made-up Textile Trade Board, and later chaired the committees on Woollen Textile Trade in Yorkshire (1936) and Health of Cotton Yardroom Workers (1937). The Second World War brought other opportunities for service, and some of these continued well past his retirement from Oriel in 1947. He was a member of the Appellate Tribunal for Conscientious Objectors (1940-41), and the National Arbitrations Tribunal (1941-1952). He chaired the Civil Service Arbitration Tribunal (1942-1952) and crowned his distinguished record of government service as chairman of the important and extremely sensitive Royal Commission on the Press, popularly known as the Ross Commission (1947-1949). One of the most noteworthy aspects of this impressive record of public service, and I haven't mentioned an equally impressive record of scholarly production and service to professional associations, is that except for the duration of the First World War, all this was part-time work, secondary to his academic and administrative duties at Oriel and, after retirement, to his continuing scholarly activities.
Clearly Ross, like Kant, had an almost limitless capacity for work, but unlike Kant his sphere of notable endeavors was not restricted to university and academic interests. Kant, it will be recalled, was not only exclusively an academician and scholar throughout his life, he was the first great philosopher to be a full time professor. "No great figure in the history of modern philosophy before Kant made his living by fulfilling academic duties." Kant's "entire professional life was spent as a lecturer and professor in the University of Königsberg," although he did have a brief stint as rector of the university during 1786-87. Even granting Kant's reputed imagination, apprehension, and understanding of the far reaches of the world merely on the basis of his reading, his material for reflection regarding ethical concerns would be qualitatively different from Ross's. It may be noted that Ross added ethics to the areas of his professional publications after the First World War and during the period of his part-time public service following the war. This contrast between Ross and Kant parallels a point often made in comparing their moral philosophies, viz., that Kant is strongest with respect to the formal nature of duty while Ross is strongest with respect to the content of duty.
Ross apparently led two lives, one devoted to the academic work of study, scholarship, and teaching and the other devoted to the practical affairs of college administration, professional associations, and government service. This might give the impression that he had differing sets of talents. He certainly had the ability to keep the two lives, the contemplative and the practical, running simultaneously; maintaining his output of philosophical and scholarly work, and at the same time coping with the details of administration and the demands of decision in College, University and the wider world outside.
But the talents and abilities which served him in the one life were the same which served him in the other. "He was a single and consistent character, showing the same clear mind, the same conscientiousness and the same sense of justice in whatever he did." His students and colleagues at Oriel report many occasions which led them to realize "to what a degree he combined within himself the intellectual qualities of the philosopher and the practical wisdom of the man of affairs." A tall and impressive figure, Ross "had the serenity and equability of temperament which is one of the special rewards of a life devoted to scholarship, and perhaps, the special reward of a scholar who chooses Aristotle." More to the point is G. N. Clark's observation. "Perhaps it was easier for him to accept so many responsibilities because he simplified questions which others found complex, and one way of simplifying them was to disregard emotional or personal implication." This point may be worth exploring, for it underscores Ross's temperament and style in both his public service posts and in his writings in moral philosophy.
The part-time government service assignments which came to Ross have a common thread: most apparently were adjudicatory or quasi-judicatory in character. They "were of a kind in which his personal qualities were specially useful; that is to say they were quasi-judicial." In robust health most of his life, Ross had "powers of concentration and sheer industry, in which he was exceptionally favoured." Even in his everyday conversation "he was sparing of words, and he had no taste for personal gossip; . . ." He was not one of those students of human nature who try to penetrate to intimacies, or to collect all the available data about their subjects. He valued information only when it could serve a reasonable purpose. . . . in any case, it was not in Ross's nature to explore other men's secrets, and still less to write any introspective account of his own intellectual development. He does not appear ever to have kept a diary.
All these qualities impressed his colleagues and associates as those of a quasi-judicial temperament with a keen sense of fairness, and they reflect a style noticeable in his relationships with students as well as in his philosophical writings and conversations--disregard of emotional, personal, or introspective factors; sparing of words which is interpreted as evidence of his powers of concentration which enabled him to simplify what to others were complex matters--taciturn and to the point. As R. W. B. Burton reports,
We seldom if ever saw him put out by the unexpected problem or request for consultation. Behind his imperturbable countenance he would reflect and decide; and then deliver his opinion and act with speed where action was necessary.
While none of this suggests that Ross was not personable, affable, and pleasant in his personal relations, for there is plenty of indication that he was all of these, it does fit a pattern reflected in his philosophical enterprises. He reflects, decides, and then delivers his opinions.
Mary Warnock complained about this sort of method of philosophizing in her review of the Oxford moral philosophers, Carritt, Prichard, Ross, and Joseph, as well as C. D. Broad at Cambridge. Taking Prichard as the extreme case, she says,
". . . his appeal in making his points is seldom to reason but usually to 'what will seem obvious if the reader thinks clearly for a moment'; . . . that is, we are required to follow arguments less often than to make admissions of what we are supposed really to think, . . ."
In comparison to Prichard, she finds Ross to be "very careful and fair in his discussions of other philosophers" and in Ross's work "the tone is very different." Nevertheless, in her summary discussion of Ross's Foundations of Ethics she writes:
"In the whole book, the only arguments we find are those directed to the refutation of the views of other philosophers; for Ross, like Prichard and Moore, could not consistently argue for views which were supposed either to be self-evidently true, or at least certain, if one thought about the matter clearly."
Given these clues, if one tried to imagine the climate of philosophical discussions among Ross and the other ethical intuitionists at Oxford, perhaps it would not be very different from that reported by John Maynard Keynes in his recollections of his experiences in the circle of G. E. Moore's followers. As noted by Alisdair MacIntyre:
Keynes, in [his] memoir . . . My Early Beliefs, gives us a penetrating account of the consequent behavior of Moore's disciples. They would compare alternative possible situations and solemnly inquire in which there was most good, inspecting each in turn and comparing them. They would then announce what they "saw."
It would appear, then, that Ross's practice of reflecting, deciding, and then delivering his opinions, while it may have been a reassuring personal trait for those who sought his judgment (and who also shared his cultural and moral assumptions), is also related to the philosophical methods he and his philosophical cohorts used (or, rather, didn't use).
Kant Waiting in the Wings
It has been said that Ross's major concern in his ethical writing was to demonstrate the inadequacies of ideal utilitarianism and ethical subjectivism, but it has not always been noticed how frequently Ross concentrated on Kant in his work on moral philosophy. It may be said, of course, that any moral philosopher since Kant must refer to him. But in Ross's case the issues involved show that his concern with Kant's moral philosophy goes much deeper than perfunctory or obligatory mention of Kant's views. If one cares to look for it, it becomes clear that at virtually every major juncture in his own ethical theory Ross brings in Kant, either as a ploy or as support for his own views. Significantly, Ross's tendency to refer to Kant when writing on moral philosophy is evident early, in his commentary on Aristotle, when he explicitly uses Kantian distinctions to "correct" some of Aristotle's claims in the Nicomachean Ethics. It will be useful to explore this point both generally and in detail.
For someone so deeply immersed in work on Aristotle, it may be no surprise (though certainly not a necessary result) to say that Ross is generally Aristotelian in his approach to philosophy and to moral philosophy. But I want to show that the extent to which Kant was also influential on Ross's moral philosophy should not be overlooked. In some ways it appears that Ross's ethical theory, in doctrine if not in method, occupies a position somewhere between Aristotle and Kant, and that this is not accidental. A little later I shall take a look at two or three parts of Ross's commentary on Aristotle's ethics, noticing what he has to say that reflects the influence of Kant's moral philosophy while he is concentrating on Aristotle. It will be evident, I think, that even when, so to speak, Aristotle is center stage for Ross, Kant is in the wings ready for his entrance.
Commentator on Kant's Ethics
Ross's Works in Ethical Theory.
Ross's published works in ethical theory are The Right and the Good (1930), Foundations of Ethics (1939), Kant's Ethical Theory (1954), and several articles in ethics dating from 1927 through 1937. The Right and The Good was an immediate classic (if that's not a contradiction in terms), serving as a focus of philosophical interest and debate in ethical theory immediately upon its publication and continuing through the 1950s and 1960s. The second book was primarily a defense against criticisms of the first, but it contains some important new topics and slight shifts in Ross's views. Because of these two books, Ross's high position in 20th Century ethical theory is unquestionable. The importance of Kant's Ethical Theory, however, is more difficult to estimate.
Beginning with the initial pages of The Right and The Good, in the later work, Foundations of Ethics, and in most of his articles in ethical theory, Ross made occasional mention of some aspects of Kantian ethics, but in Kant's Ethical Theory: A Commentary on the Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (1954), Ross is for the first time "dealing with ipsissima verba of Kant and not merely using common knowledge of Kant in the exposition of his own moral philosophy."
Kant's Ethical Theory.
The initial reaction to Kant's Ethical Theory was generally unfavorable. Typical is Gilman's remark that the book is not "done systematically or in any detail and the criticism often has a terseness which must leave any reader unfamiliar with philosophical criticism wondering why Sir David thinks Kant a great philosopher." I think Gilman could have added that even the reader who is familiar with philosophical criticism will find many deficiencies in Ross's treatment of the Grundlegung. It would, of course, be helpful for a reader to be familiar with Ross's other two ethical works, but Gilman is not without justification in objecting that "Sir David appears to take words and problems at their face value," (prima facie!), and that he usually writes "as if words had eternal and immutable meanings and as if all moral philosophers were concerned with the same eternal problems." But, even apart from these kinds of (legitimate) dissatisfaction, there is another reason for a negative appraisal of Kant's Ethical Theory, viz., that Ross seems so impatiently unsympathetic with Kant's moral philosophy--an unusual standpoint for a "commentator," especially a commentator who elsewhere claims affinity with some key points in Kant's moral philosophy.
There are, however, two reasons for being cautious about accepting criticisms like Gilman's as the final word on the matter. In the first place, the objection to Ross's terseness and brevity is not new. Reacting to Ross's first article in ethical theory John Laird noted that Ross writes "so concisely but with such admirable pointedness," and added on the same page that "it is a pity, in many ways, that Mr. Ross has had to be so very brief." And Pickard-Cambridge, reacting to The Right and The Good, says of Ross,
The terseness and concentration with which he both states and illustrates his views, are qualities which I can only admire at a respectful distance; but they have their disadvantages. Of the water-beetle it is written that
"He glides upon the water's face
With ease, celerity and grace."
But just for that reason there may sometimes be depths which escape the water-beetle's notice.
So it may be that the terseness Gilman notices is merely the fact that Pickard-Cambridge's water-beetle is still a water-beetle, and there is no reason to expect this to change. (However, it may be noted that, perhaps in reaction to such observations as these, Ross's discussions in Foundations of Ethics are a little less terse than in the first book.) The important question is whether Ross's terseness in Kant's Ethical Theory distorts either Kant's theory or the issues--and in a few instances I think it does.
In the second place, Gilman may merely be reflecting the fact that philosophical idiom does change, and it has changed during the period from the early part of the century to mid-century, but in Kant's Ethical Theory Ross is writing in the manner he learned and used so well earlier. In the twenties and thirties Ross wrote in a context in which British and American moral philosophy was dominated by G. E. Moore as well as one in which his primary and immediate colleagues were the moral philosophers at Oxford, but Kant's Ethical Theory seems not to reflect an awareness that all this may have changed. However, this is a fact to take account of in estimating Ross's treatment of Kant, and not necessarily one to use in criticizing him.
These considerations, of course, do not exonerate Kant's Ethical Theory. Rather, they indicate what probably should be obvious, viz., that the deficiencies of the book (and its positive value) will not always be found at the level of style and idiom. Rather, the evaluation must ultimately be concerned with the philosophical issues at the base of Ross's seemingly impatient and unsympathetic treatment of Kant's ethics.
A view different from that of Gilman's has been expressed. Lewis White Beck finds Kant's Ethical Theory "interesting" for two reasons. "First, it is a sensitive and not unsympathetic interpretation of Kant. Its brevity recommends it as a real help in the understanding of Kant. Second, and more important, it is interesting because it is by Sir David Ross." No doubt with tongue in cheek, Beck is generous to Ross with the first of these reasons, but the second is important. As stated earlier, Ross's stature in moral philosophy is established, and when a thinker of the stature of Ross takes on one of the acknowledged greatest of all moral philosophers, the foray is quite likely to be both interesting and fruitful. And the results should be well worth considering.
Ross's Enduring Concern with Kant's Ethics.
Ross's enduring concern with Kant's ethics shows up in virtually all his published work in ethics. Undoubtedly throughout his ethical writings "Ross's two main targets are ethical subjectivism and 'ideal utilitarianism,'" but it is also the case that, beginning with his earliest publications in ethics, Ross has always thought of Kant as a clear and major "target." That this continued to be so is shown by the fact that Ross found it appropriate to publish a work dealing exclusively with Kant's ethics, and it surely provides one of the major reasons for publishing such a "commentary." Many critics have responded to this or that point Ross makes about Kant's ethical theory in his articles and books, but no one to my knowledge has done an extended study on Ross's interpretations and criticisms of Kant. This may be because Ross himself, until the publication of Kant's Ethical Theory, refers to Kant only in the development of key points in his own ethical theory. As noted above, with the 1954 book, and for the first time, Ross is "dealing with ipsissima verba of Kant and not merely using common knowledge of Kant in the exposition of his own moral philosophy." Thus, it is now possible to consider in a more fundamental way Ross's interpretations and criticisms of Kant's ethics, and to estimate the results in terms of some of the major philosophical differences between them in ethical theory.
There is another curiosity concerning the publication of Kant's Ethical Theory which may be a sign of the times. This little book appeared during a period when English and American interest in Kant's Grundlegung was high. For example, H. J. Paton's commentary on the Grundlegung, The Categorical Imperative, appeared in 1948, Ross's effort came out in 1954, and A. R. C. Duncan's study of it, Practical Reason and Morality, was published in 1957. But there are striking differences between Ross's "commentary" and these other two. For one thing, as noted above, the brevity and terseness of Ross's treatment is striking in comparison, and I think this feature, in connection with the one to be mentioned next, are helpful in judging what kind of study Kant's Ethical Theory really is. For another thing, both Duncan and Paton, in their commentaries on the Grundlegung, take it as a special task to correct some of the rather absurd claims which some critics have popularized and attributed to Kant's moral philosophy. Ross declares no such intentions, but he clearly avoids most of the more ridiculous propositions some have believed Kant to have authored. Still, it is more noteworthy that for the most part Ross is simply not concerned with anyone else's interpretations of Kant, nor is he concerned to systematize Kant or to make him "more reasonable." Rather, Ross is concerned to grapple with the issues which he finds in the Grundlegung, and these he obviously believes can be stated succinctly and dealt with in the same fashion. Thus, Ross sees Kant as he sees him, and there is no great need, from Ross's point of view, for either a defense or emendation of what Kant says. This does not prevent Ross from occasionally saying what he thinks Kant really means by way of correcting an occasional misinterpretation, but it is usually on a point that Ross himself wants to support. Ross's approach does prevent him from seeing some of the important points that Kant makes--points that could have a definite effect on Ross's concerns. In short, Kant's Ethical Theory is basically polemical and its being so has both advantages and disadvantages.
A Procedural Difficulty.
Prior to developing the substantive themes of this project, attention should be directed to a procedural difficulty. It is a procedural difficulty, not for the doing of ethical philosophy, but for the placing of Kant's Ethical Theory in relation to Ross's other ethical works, especially in connection with my present concern with his interpretations and criticisms of Kant on the topics of duty and moral goodness. Even though Kant's Ethical Theory contains more, quantitatively, than Ross had previously published about Kant, and even though he provides important discussions of many points in Kant's ethics which he has not previously discussed in his published works, it remains the case that the little "commentary" does not contain all of the important criticisms Ross has made of Kant's ethical theory. Thus, it would not be proper to focus attention exclusively on Kant's Ethical Theory. Also, and more importantly, some of the interpretations in the 1954 book are clearly contrary to a few interpretations and criticisms of Kant which Ross gives in his earlier works. And, finally, there is even some shift in Ross's interpretation of Kant from the views expressed in The Right and The Good to those in Foundations of Ethics. Which of Ross's Kants is the true Ross's Kant?
When such a difficulty is encountered, it would normally be acceptable to think that the latest account is the authoritative one, but this case is not that easy. The manuscript for Kant's Ethical Theory was prepared primarily from lecture notes dating from before 1939. Undoubtedly, some corrections and changes could be expected, but the only clear evidence of any new material added since 1939 is the use of W. T. Jones' 1940 book in connection with the discussion of freedom and autonomy in the Third Section of the Grundlegung. Inasmuch as Ross's previous publications reflect little, if any, direct interest in this part of the Grundlegung, there is very little reason to suppose that the discussions of the first two sections have been substantially changed from what they were prior to 1939. But that is precisely the period during which The Right and The Good and, especially, Foundations of Ethics were produced. Where the accounts of Kant differ among these three books, it will be difficult to say which is the most authoritative.
Ross's Aristotelian Leanings
Ross is known both for his Aristotelian scholarship and as a moral philosopher. Ross first came to scholarly and philosophical prominence, not only in England but internationally, by virtue of his work on Aristotle. His translations of Aristotle, editing and administering the Oxford project on Aristotle, and his commentaries on Aristotle's works brought him justly deserved acclaim and provided him with a professional focus which continued throughout his life. But, because of his associations at Oxford and his own leanings, Ross also had his own interest in ethics which is noticeable in his commentaries on Aristotle's ethics. This interest became increasingly evident in the lectures he chose to give to his students, in the papers and articles he produced, in the two major books he wrote on ethics, and finally in his commentary on Kant's ethics. Ross's philosophical links to Aristotle in moral philosophy will be examined below.
Particular Cases vs. Rigorous Principles
One of the major features of Aristotle's ethics, I think, is the way he delineates the subject matter of ethics by requiring attending to particular cases. He says "human behavior consists in the performance of particular acts, and our theories must be brought into harmony with them." Of course, this requirement for moral philosophy can be followed different ways. Ross (and the other Oxford moral intuitionists) took it quite seriously but methodologically by a way in which rigorous attention to the specific content of moral behavior and rules is clearly non-Kantian. Aristotle also held that the subject matter of a science shapes the methods and limitations by which it can be pursued, and if the science of ethics must be brought into harmony with particular acts performed by moral agents, then "matters of conduct have no fixity about them" because discussions of particulars preclude exactitude in the general statements and concepts involved in understanding particular cases. Thus, Aristotle claims, our general approach to moral philosophy should enable us to be "satisfied with a rough outline of the truth and contented with broad conclusions." Especially in ethics, the rigor of definition and demonstration appropriate to some other sciences cannot be expected. Rather, "on every occasion we must seek to arrive at first principles in the way natural to them in the instance that presents itself." These first principles in ethics will be what is at best "for the most part" true, and we must accept the likelihood of exceptions to them without permitting these exceptions to undermine our confidence in the principles moral philosophy discovers. (Such a view of first principles in ethics is, of course, a stark contrast to the traditional interpretations of Kant's view.)
The differences between Aristotle's requirements for other sciences and his requirements for ethics are important. Some interpret these requirements as Aristotle's denial that ethics can be a science at all. The theoretical sciences seek to know the causes of things, the reasons which can be shown and used in "scientific demonstration," but in a science dealing with human conduct Aristotle proposes that "we begin with the fact, and if there is a sufficient reason for accepting it as such, there will be no need to ascertain also the why of the fact." Depending on whether we are dealing with a principle of conduct or a particular case, the "sufficient reasons for accepting" principles and facts will be found in "current opinions on the subject." And, the "sufficient reasons for accepting" moral facts with respect to the agent who faces decision or judgment in a particular case is summed up in the claim that "our only criterion is the perception." In keeping with such considerations as these, both Aristotle and Ross proceed with the testing of principles of human conduct on the assumption that "no one has the whole truth, and there is some truth in all" current opinions on the subject, and on the further assumption that the ultimate criterion for the application or use of such principles by a moral agent in a particular case can only be in the agent's perception of the circumstances in that individual situation.
Ross's Kantian Corrections of Aristotle
When Ross comments on these features of Aristotle's ethics he reveals a Kantian tendency by disagreeing with Aristotle about the accuracy of principle possible for moral philosophy. Ross says Aristotle "seems to be wrong in supposing that these facts diminish the accuracy possible to moral philosophy." However, the exact nature and extent of Ross's difference with Aristotle on this point are unclear at this early date. Apparently it is in practical matters, or applied ethics, that Ross finds reasons, with Aristotle, for being cautious about the exactitude of the conclusions one draws, but in "abstract ethics, which enquires what 'ought' means, and why we ought to do what we ought to do," Ross is convinced that more precision is possible than Aristotle thought. The difficulty here is the difficulty of specifying the line between practical and theoretical ethics--if there is such a line. Nevertheless, Ross is faithful to the Aristotelian orientation in his view that the "first principles of ethics are too deeply immersed in the detail of conduct to be thus easily picked out, and the substance of ethics consists in picking them out." In other words, "not easy" does not mean impossible. One gets the impression, however, that the exactitude Ross thinks possible in ethical theory is viewed by him merely as a matter of technique, and perhaps even a logical extension of Aristotle's approach. If so, it would not be a difference in principle between him and Aristotle.
Some of Ross's disagreements with Aristotle's ethics explicitly show his reliance on Kant. When commenting on Aristotle's ethics, Ross refers to Kant at least two times, each of which is in connection with a disagreement with Aristotle and an agreement with Kant. The first mention of Kant occurs when Ross is discussing Aristotle's ways of considering and classifying human actions. Specifically, the point has to do with Aristotle's use of the means/end distinction to categorize all human actions. Just as Ross later finds the "keynote" of Kant's ethics in the first sentence of the First Section of Kant's Grundlegung, so he finds the "keynote" of the Nicomachean Ethics to be its first sentence: "Every art and every enquiry, every action and choice, seems to aim at some good; whence the good has rightly been defined as that at which all things aim." If all actions derive their value from their tendency to produce that at which they aim, viz., some particular good, Ross says, Aristotle's view of morality is that it "consists in doing certain actions not because we see them to be right in themselves but because we see them to be such as will bring us nearer to the 'good for man'." However, Ross suggests, this way of considering actions cannot be fitted with another of Aristotle's distinctions about actions. The above view cannot really be reconciled with the distinction he [Aristotle] draws between action or conduct, which is valuable in itself, and production, which derives its value from the 'work'--the bridle, the statue, or whatever it may be that it produces.
Ross thinks that the latter distinction--that some actions may be considered valuable in themselves while others may derive their value from what they produce--is the better distinction. Significantly for my purpose here, he adds that if Aristotle "had held fast to that distinction he would have reached a more Kantian type of theory." Clearly, Ross prefers the latter distinction and he understands it to be the basis of a "more Kantian type of theory." What is it about these two different ways of considering human actions that would make the latter both more Kantian and preferable, and the former both non-Kantian and not preferred?
The former distinction is that all human actions are means to some particular goods or, more generally, that each action is a means to an end. Ignoring the question of the relation between ends and goods, or between end and good, we can observe that Ross begins with the view that
(1)every action is a means to an end,
and he adds
(2)this means all actions derive their value from their tendency (or believed tendency?) to produce that at which they aim,
and finally declares that this view of actions constitutes
(3)a view of morality such that (a) we do (or should do) certain actions because we believe they will be effective in helping us achieve "the good for man," and (b) we are precluded from doing actions merely because we see them to be right.
Clearly, Ross thinks either that (1), (2), and (3) mean much the same thing or that holding (1) requires one to also hold (2) and (3). I emphasize that the issue here is not whether this is Aristotle's view, but that Ross believes this view is non-Kantian, and the question is the extent to which Ross is correct about the relations between (1), (2), and (3), as well as the extent to which he is correct in identifying this view as non-Kantian. To provide a basis for comparison, it will be helpful to specify the alternative.
The latter distinction, which Ross says is both more Kantian and preferable, is Aristotle's distinction between human action or conduct which is valuable in itself and human production which derives its value from whatever it produces. Because this distinction is contrasted to the former one, it is tempting to read into it a denial that every human action is a means to an end. Strictly speaking, Ross does not make this denial although sometimes he does seem to come close to it. For the time being it will be left an open question whether Ross (incorrectly) believes Kant denies that every action is a means to an end, i.e., whether Kant affirms that some actions are not means to an end. What Ross does say is that this distinction involves
(4)the view that some human action, viz, conduct, is valuable for itself, and
(5)the view that some human action viz., production, derives its value from whatever it produces, viz., its end,
and that this distinction is more Kantian than the previous one.
Keeping in mind that the only action of interest here is conscious or deliberately chosen action, one of the difficulties in making sense of all this is that (1) is compatible with (2), (3), (4), or (5). It could be that each action is a means to an end, and that some actions are valuable in themselves. For instance, I may choose to go for a walk as a means of improving my health and, at the same time, I may discover that I find walking pleasant in and of itself. Or, I may decide to go for a walk as a means of experiencing something I enjoy in and of itself, viz., walking. In both cases the action is viewed as a means to an end and, at the same time, it is valuable in itself. Consequently, (1) and (4) above are compatible. But (4) is obviously not compatible with (2), so it cannot be that holding (1) requires one to also hold (2). By similar considerations, holding (1) does not require one to also hold (3). Further, these sorts of considerations also argue against the possibility that (1), (2) and (3) mean the same thing. Consequently, what Ross seems to believe about the earlier distinction in comparison to the latter one, cannot be true and it remains unclear what he means by saying one is more Kantian than the other.
If we review these statements again, it is clear that Ross believes that (2) and (3) say much the same thing, that (3) is non-Kantian, and that (4) is "more Kantian." It is in cases like this that Ross's habit of terseness causes difficulties. For example, (2) and (3) can be accepted as having roughly the same meaning only if "value" in (2) is equated more or less roughly with "morality" and "right" in (3), but there is no reason to equate these terms without further explanation. And, even if we overlook this difficulty, there is a further problem of Ross's apparent assumption that an action cannot have both intrinsic value and extrinsic value at the same time, or at least his apparent assumption that Kant believes this. That is, Ross appears to believe both that (4) and (5) are mutually exclusive and that Kant also held that (4) and (5) are mutually exclusive. But, the problem here is that, again, the terms are not clear. This is a complex issue, but I think it can be shown that Kant does view human actions as means to ends, that some of the value of an action is derived from its end, but that the moral worth of an action cannot be derived from either its desired or actual end. Ross's endorsement of the "more Kantian" view in his discussion of this aspect of Aristotle's moral philosophy would be acceptable only if Ross has in mind Kant's views on the source or ground of the moral worth of actions, and it would not be acceptable if he means that Kant rejects the means/end understanding of human actions or considerations of ends or consequences in moral deliberations. Ross discusses these matters in more detail in his commentary on Kant. (It may be noted in passing that Ross introduces a distinction between act and action in his own ethical theory which seems to be an extension of what he here says about Kant and Aristotle. This will come up again.)
Aristotle and Kant on the Mean
Ross refers to Kant at another point in his comments on Aristotle's discussion of the genus and differentia of virtue. Aristotle paves the way for stating the genus and differentia of virtue by considering a paradox involved in moral education. As in Plato's Meno, the paradox arises from a consideration of whether and how virtue can be taught. Aristotle notices that we learn such things by doing. "We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts." In reply to the possible objection that "if men do just and temperate acts, they are already just and temperate," Aristotle distinguishes between "the acts that create and those that flow from the good disposition." As Ross explains, "The actions that produce virtue are not in their inner nature but only in their external aspect like those that virtue produces." In Ross's terminology, this means that acts "considered externally," i.e., as acts, can be only partially good, while acts "considered internally," i.e., as actions, can be wholly good. This is because with Aristotle "we do not say that a man is virtuous or acts virtuously unless he does the act (1) knowing what he does, (2) choosing the act, and for its own sake, and (3) as the result of a permanent disposition." (A. E. Murphy points out that this feature of Aristotle's view is the Aristotelian analogue to Kant's categorical imperative.) In any case, this is probably the Aristotelian base for Ross's distinction between an act (the thing done) and an action (the act plus its motive). As he says in his comment on Aristotle,
Aristotle here lays his finger with precision on the distinction between the two elements involved in a completely good action--(a) that the thing done should be the right thing to do in the circumstances, and (b) that it should be done from a good motive.
One result of such a distinction is that "right" acts have a major role in moral education (though, of course, not only in moral education), while "good" actions are primarily relevant to estimating the moral worth of actions or the moral character of individuals.
Because the good or wholly virtuous act requires reference to its internal aspects, i.e., to its motivation, Aristotle is able to ascertain the genus of virtue as a disposition or state of character. But, it must be "a disposition developed out of a capacity by the proper exercise of that capacity." The differentia of virtue, by which virtues can be distinguished from vices, is "a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e., the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it." Thus, the virtuous character is distinguished from the vicious character by Aristotle's doctrine of the mean, the mean being determined by a rule that would be used by the virtuous person. The key question, then, is how the virtuous person would determine the mean.
While there are difficulties with Aristotle's attempt to quantify the excesses and deficiencies implied in the notion of a mean, for present purposes it need merely be noted that the mean act relative to the agent is that act which is fitting or suitable in the particular circumstances. Ross's later view that "right" means "fitting" or "suitable" in some sense clearly has some of its roots in Aristotle's doctrine of the mean. The circumstances determine what is fitting or suitable, and viewing the circumstances in a certain way when making moral judgments and decisions, we cannot make any evaluations in advance of, for example, natural impulses. Ross points out that in this view, natural impulses are such that "None of them is good and none bad in itself; there is a right amount of each, a right time, a right manner, right objects for each." Later Ross will say that "A right act, merely as such, has no value in itself; . . ." In practice, the roles of the various elements which go into making moral decisions and judgments can only be determined by the agent's perception in the particular situation, but with the qualification that Ross notes, viz., "the time, the object, the manner must also be right."
In explaining the doctrine of the mean Aristotle says "that opposite vices are more opposed to one another than to the virtue which lies between them." The important part of this explanation is the meaning of "more opposed," and it is frequently taken to mean that vices are in some sense more widely separated from each other on a scale of quantitative differences than they are from the virtue which lies "between" the vices of excess and deficiency. The virtuous man would be so because he would embody the Greek ideal or principle of "moderation in all things," i.e., because he would choose the mean or virtuous act between the vices according to this principle.
Kant objected to this doctrine on several grounds. For one thing, he argued, the relation of virtues to vices cannot be understood in quantitative terms at all, but only in qualitative ones. Kant writes, "the difference between virtue and vice can never be sought in the degree of obedience to certain maxims, but must be sought only in the specific quality of the maxims (their relation to the law)." For example, with respect to the virtue of good management of money and the vices of prodigality and avarice, the origin of the virtue
can neither be represented as the gradual diminution of the former vice (by saving) nor as the increase of expenditure by the avaricious; also, these vices cannot be viewed as if, proceeding as it were in opposite directions, they met together in good management.
Rather, argues Kant, each has its own maxim which "necessarily contradicts that of the other." In other words, they must be understood as qualitatively different, with no identifiable feature that can be "more" or "less" as the determining ground of virtue.
Significantly, Ross acknowledges Kant's criticism of Aristotle on this point, indicating that Kant's objection is "on the ground that there is a greater difference between the moral motive and all others than between any two of the others, and that in fact the transition from vice to vice is much easier than that from vice to virtue." Nevertheless, Ross uses the earlier distinction between the internal and external aspects of actions, and claims that both Kant and Aristotle are correct on this point. Kant's criticism is justified, according to Ross, because "it is only in their external aspect, in the thing done as opposed to the state of mind of the doer, that vices are more opposed to one another than to virtue." In other words, Ross holds that considering the "external" aspects of vices and virtues, i.e., considering acts, Aristotle is correct; but considering the "internal" aspects, i.e., considering actions, Kant is correct.
Ross is attempting a middle road between Aristotle and Kant. Using Ross's terminology, he is claiming that acts (the thing done) can be evaluated according to their suitability or fittingness to the circumstances and independently of the goodness or badness of the action (the thing done plus its motive), i.e., independently of the motive or state of character or disposition of the agent. Further, he is saying regarding the evaluation of acts that Aristotle's view is the better approach (and Kant's view is mistaken), and regarding the evaluation of actions that Kant's view is the better approach (and Aristotle's view is mistaken). This general distinction becomes more fully worked out in Ross's own ethical theory through his analysis of the rightness of acts and the moral goodness of actions and moral agents.
Despite Ross's attempt to embrace both Aristotle and Kant on this point, however, his distinction seems to be a Kantian one whether he recognizes it as such or not. Not only did Kant make a distinction between legalities and moral virtues, but Ross's estimate of what Aristotle is correct about here radically undermines what Aristotle said about the genus of virtue. Aristotle said that the genus of virtue (or excellence) is character or disposition, and the differentia for distinguishing virtue from viciousness includes the doctrine of the mean about which, Ross claims, Aristotle is correct only regarding the "external" aspects of vices and virtues, i.e., regarding acts. But this distinction implies that the suitability or rightness of acts has nothing to do with the motive or, more generally, the state of mind of the agent. In other words, the point on which Ross thinks Aristotle is correct has nothing to do with character or disposition, but character or disposition is precisely what Aristotle is discussing.
Nevertheless, viewing the matter as he does, Ross remains faithful to the intuitive aspects of Aristotle's view. When it comes to judging or deciding what is right in a particular situation, Ross agrees with Aristotle that "no general rule will help us very much to know what we ought to do; we must wait till we are in the particular circumstances, and take account of them all; 'the decision lies with perception.'"