Scottish philosopher William David Ross constructed the seven prima facie duties as a basis for his ethical theory. They are a list of obligations to the self and others meant to help people live the good life and help others to do so as well. Born in 1877, Ross spent his early childhood in India where his father worked as an educator. At age six, he returned to Scotland to attend school and proved himself a bright, motivated student. As a philosopher, Ross drew on the moral theories of Aristotle and Immanuel Kant to develop his own ethical approach.
Fidelity to Loved Ones
Duties of fidelity involve the promises you make to friends and loved ones. By taking these promises seriously and following through, you uphold your duties of fidelity. Such promises often materialize explicitly, meaning that you acknowledge them outright. Implicit promises hold as well. For example, a spouse may defy your expectations and have an extramarital affair. This constitutes a transgression of fidelity that hurts one or more other people.
Reparation to Those You Hurt
Duties of reparation involve your responsibilities to make amends with people you hurt in the past. For example, you should replace property or resources you damaged or wasted in the past. If you caused previous emotional pain, apologize to those whom you hurt. If the person wishes not to hear from you, respect her decision. If you remain in a relationship with the person, abandon the hurtful behavior.
Gratitude in Response to Generosity
Duties of gratitude invoke your responsibility to repay the kindness or generosity of others. Gratitude sometimes involves repayment of material assets, but material repayment can sometimes prove inappropriate. When someone gives a generous gift, you need not reciprocate exactly. Express thanks and maintain a meaningful relationship that brings you opportunities to give back materially or emotionally. Express gratitude for emotional giving and reciprocate, as those who supply support and comradeship enrich your life.
Justice as Fair Redistribution
Duties of justice in part imply an imperative to distribute goods and services fairly. Even so, Ross supports the use of common sense rather than exact redistribution. Reward those who perform tasks that benefit society, such as medicine or teaching. Distribute necessities so that all have an opportunity to flourish. In families, treat children equally within the realm of common sense. If one child steals from or abuses you, invest emotional or material resources in the others.
Beneficence Toward Others
Duties of beneficence, or kindness, require that you treat others in ways that help them access the good life. Perform thoughtful acts that improve the well-being of others. Give liberally to people in need. Stand for the well-being of the collective society without losing the ability to express kindness and compassion in personal relationships. In close relationships, behave thoughtfully and generously. The practice of beneficence benefits society as well as the people you love.
Self-Improvement as Ethical Behavior
The duties of self-improvement posit self-care as important ethical behavior. Perform acts that make you a better person. Study diligently. Work hard. Learn about your talents so you may advance within your career. Practice ingenuity and determine creative solutions to difficult problems. Earn enough resources to allow you and your family to flourish, but use your talents and surplus wealth to benefit the common good.
Non-Malfeasance to Prevent Injury to Others
The duties of non-malfeasance, or non-harm, prohibit deliberate actions meant to injure yourself or others. Refrain from cruelty, and treat others as valued members of society. Do not hurt others, but also make an effort to help others avoid hurt. Educate yourself about social inequality and poverty so you may work to prevent people from the harm of starvation. Teach children not to enter cars driven by strangers to help them avoid future hurt.
- Western Kentucky University Faculty: A Simple and Usable (Although Incomplete) Ethical Theory
- Western Kentucky University Faculty: Prima Facie Duties Correlated With Ethical Theories
- University of Massachusetts Faculty: Lecture Notes on W.D. Ross's Moral Theory
- The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: William David Ross
- The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Moral Skepticism
- The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Philosophy of History
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