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When Worlds (moral & causal) Collide

Toni Vogel Carey wrestles with conflicts of duty.

Conflict-of-duty remains one of the most intractable problems in moral philosophy. How to think about situations in which a person has two or more moral obligations, but can fulfill only one?

It was primarily to deal with this problem that W.D. Ross introduced the concept of prima facie duty in his signature essay ‘What Makes Right Acts Right?’, (chapter 2 of his 1930 book The Right and the Good). Prima facie means something like ‘on the face of it’ or ‘at first sight’. Philip Stratton-Lake claims that within twenty years of its appearance in 1930, Ross’s theory was old-hat and “rejected out of hand by most moral philosophers.” Nonetheless, his term ‘prima facie duty’ has remained part of the moral philosophical lingo. And if Ross’s theory is dated, apparently so is conflict of duty itself, as I found to my surprise when I Googled it and discovered that nearly all the references were to conflicts of interest.

In any case, conflicts of duty remain as vexatious as ever. Think of the infamous Trolley Problem introduced by Philippa Foot back in 1967. This hydra-headed monster keeps spawning new variations, and you can register your two-cents worth on some of these any time of the day or night, at moralsensetest.com. The Trolley Problem also features prominently in several episodes of the comedy series The Good Place.

Logical Maneuvers

It seems unfair to hold people accountable for doing what they are simply unable to do. Consequently, it is common practice to maintain that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, so that if you cannot do both act a and act b, you are not morally obliged to do both. The problem with this quasi-logical maneuver is that it magically makes something we experience as real and troublesome simply disappear, or more accurately, fail to appear. If only life were so easy.

Logic also offers other ways to deal – or avoid dealing – with the problem of conflict of duty. The logic of obligation (deontic logic) was born out of the more familiar logic of necessity, (modal logic). If you’ve never encountered these concepts, not to worry; what concerns us here is quite simple.

In modal logic, necessarily, “if p and q are true, then p is true.”

In deontic logic, “if it is obligatory to do acts a and b, then it is obligatory to do act a.”

In modal logic, “if necessarily p is true and necessarily q is true, then necessarily (p and q) is true.”

In deontic logic, “if it is obligatory to do a and obligatory to do b, then it is obligatory to do (a and b).

Few, if any, question the modal logic propositions here; so the primary reason to question their deontic counterparts is to dodge the problem of conflict of duty, which renders this ploy patently ad hoc. Nonetheless, some who hold that conflict of duty poses real problems, such as Bas van Fraassen, opt to reject one or more axioms of traditional deontic logic. Others, like Earl Conee, do the opposite; he keeps deontic logic intact and concludes that genuine conflicts of duty are impossible! Of course, this flies in the face of experience, although Conee tries hard to show that it doesn’t.

When you cannot fulfill a promise, that is not the end of the matter. If you fail to show up even for a casual dinner date, leaving a friend waiting, worrying, and hungry, then even if the reason for your no-show is that you are fulfilling a more stringent duty – even if you are doing the right thing – you owe that person at least an explanation and an apology. But if you have done nothing wrong, what is there to apologize for?

Promises involve acts to be done in the future and the situation may change in the interim – a family emergency, a tie-up on the highway, and so on. We give our word intending to keep it, but even the best of us may not be able to fulfill all our promises. And while no one wants to be saddled with reparational duties, we don’t feel right about simply doing nothing.

Prima Facie Duties and Moral Rules

How then does Ross deal with conflicts of duty? He gives this short list of prima facie duties:

(1) Fidelity: promise-keeping, and the ‘implicit promise’ not to lie;

(1a) Reparation for a previous wrongful act;

(2) Gratitude for previous services and kindnesses rendered by others;

(3) Justice, meaning “distribution of pleasure or happiness” in accordance with “the merit of the persons concerned;”

(4) Beneficence, resting on “the mere fact that there are other beings whose condition we can make better;”

(5) Self-improvement with regard to “virtue or intelligence;”

(6) Non-maleficence, such as the commandment “thou shalt not kill.” This duty is ‘ prima facie more binding’ than its positive correlative, beneficence.

The obvious thing about Ross’s list is that it looks like a traditional list of moral rules. But in that case, what if anything does Ross accomplish by positing a new category of prima facie duty? I will return to this question presently.

Ross’s system contains three elements: 1) the list of what we can call general prima facie duties, aka moral rules; 2) particular instances of 1), which we can call specific prima facie duties; and 3) old-style garden-variety actual duties. According to Ross, if you make a promise, you thereby incur a (specific) prima facie duty of promise-keeping. Unlike an actual duty, a prima facie duty is only conditional; it may be overridden by a more stringent prima facie duty, in which case that becomes the actual duty. Keeping a promise, or returning a favor, or telling the truth, are all prima facie obligations. Whether they become actual obligations depends on all relevant factors affecting the actual situation. The only such factor that really interests Ross, however, is that of a conflict of duty.

The Locus of Conflict

By using the same term prima facie to refer both to the rule-like duty and to the act that falls under it, Ross muddies the waters about whether the locus of conflict of duty is between particular acts or between what we normally call moral rules.

To be sure, there is a good deal of confusion in the broader literature on this point. In A Theory of Justice (1971), John Rawls talks about “a plurality of first principles which may conflict to give contrary directives in particular types of cases,” with “no explicit method, no priority rules, for weighing these principles against one another” (p.34). Bernard Williams explicitly follows and cites Rawls here, and Stratton-Lake explicitly follows and cites Williams.

But there is no reason to hold that ‘first principles’ (moral rules or general prima facie duties) conflict, or that they can conflict. Were that the case, particularly without some way of prioritizing them, moral rules would be no more reliable or useful than judging every situation on a case-by-case basis. There would be nothing fixed to rely on, which is the point of having moral rules in the first place.

And why suppose moral rules can be prioritized? Ross considers the general prima facie duty not to injure others (no.6 on the list) more stringent than that to do them good (no.4); and most of us would agree with him about this. But what about truth-telling versus saving a life? Immanuel Kant is one of the most revered figures in the history of philosophy, but almost no one agrees with his view that lying is alway wrong, even to a would-be murderer about the whereabouts of his intended victim.

It is untenable to hold that first principles can conflict. And the prospects of finding a general way of prioritizing them look dim. So let’s assume it is only specific duties, prima facie or actual, that conflict.

Duty versus Happiness

lying in bed
Sorry I didn’t make it to dinner, I had to fulfill a more stringent duty.
Photo by twinsfisch on Unsplash

There have historically been two basic criteria of what makes right acts right. Duty ethicists (or ‘deontologists’) like Ross look to the act itself, and ask whether it corresponds to an item on a list of moral rules (general prima facie duties). These are intuitive, and final; there is no higher tribunal. The main problem for duty ethicists is that the intuitions of different people often differ. And making matters worse, intuition is often confused with emotion, which nobody considers reliable.

By contrast, according to utilitarianism the right action is the one most likely to produce the greatest amount of happiness (or good, or pleasure, or maybe satisfaction of preferences…). Working that out depends on observation and reason; so most philosophers – who, after all, think for a living – much prefer it to duty ethics.

But utilitarianism has its own problems. Like the principle ‘ought implies can’, it has no way to accommodate the lived reality of conflicts of duty. Suppose duties a and b conflict. If fulfilling duty a will produce more units of good than fulfilling b, you ought simply to do a. If a and b will produce equal amounts of good, it is a matter of indifference which you do. Either way, though, you will not do anything wrong, and there will be nothing for which to apologize.

From J.S. Mill in the mid-nineteenth century onwards, utilitarianism dominated, and largely eclipsed duty ethics.

Ross and Rawls

Ross mounted the strongest comeback, punching back with some crushing counterexamples to traditional utilitarianism. Among them:

• A death-bed promise might be broken with no perceptible external consequences; so for the utilitarian it might be a matter of indifference whether we keep or break it. Most of us, however, consider such a promise as binding as any other (p.39).

• Suppose we can confer either 1,001 units of good on a bad person, or 1,000 such units on a good person. Are we really obligated to do the former, as utilitarianism implies? (p.35)

• Having borrowed a book, our obligation is to see that it is returned, not merely to do something that is likely to bring that result (such as packing it up and posting it). (p.46-7).

These counterexamples helped spur a retreat from traditional (act-) utilitarianism to rule-utilitarianism, a compromise position in which the relevant moral rule governs what act ought to be done, but the utility principle governs and justifies the rule. It soon became clear, however, that the rule of justice could not plausibly be subsumed under the utility principle via either route.

Then came Rawls in 1971. He started out with two first principles, utilitarian: “to produce…the greatest net balance of satisfaction,” and deontological: “to distribute satisfactions equally” (p.36), with “no priority rule…for determining how these two principles are to be balanced against each other” (p.37). To solve this problem, Rawls proposed a famous thought experiment. Imagine, he said, that in an attempt to agree on rules for a just society, everyone is behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ which ensures that nobody “knows his place in society [or] his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities” (p.12). From this ‘original position’ Rawls thinks we would all choose a principle of ‘justice as fairness’, in which (deontological) fair distribution takes precedence over (utilitarian) optimal satisfaction. He thinks the moral rule of truth-telling and the practice of promise-keeping can be derived from this principle (pp.344-8), and perhaps he would say something similar about the other items on Ross’s list.

Like Kant, Rawls offers an ‘ideal theory’ of “a perfectly just society” (pp.8-9) in which conflict-of-duty is not a problem; thus there is no entry for it in his index.

Moral Rules and Natural Laws

At one point Ross compares general prima facie duties to natural laws:

“… subject to the force of gravitation towards some other body, each body tends to move in a particular direction with a particular velocity; but its actual movement depends on all the forces to which it is subject. It is only by recognizing this distinction that we can preserve the absoluteness of laws of nature, and…of the general principles of morality.” (28-9)

Of course, Newton’s law of gravity, far from being absolute, was superseded by Einstein’s principles of relativity. Ross also asserts an “important difference” between moral and natural:

“When we say that in virtue of gravitation a body tends to move in a certain way, we are referring to a causal influence actually exercised on it by another body or other bodies. When we say that in virtue of being deliberately untrue a certain remark tends to be wrong, we are referring to no causal relation, to no relation that involves succession in time, but to such a relation as connects the various attributes of a mathematical figure.” (29)

We routinely ask about causes: why was a flight delayed, why did the referendum on Brexit pass, and the like. But Newtonian physics does not deal in causes; it deals in mathematical description. The universe is written in the language of geometry, Galileo famously said, and without knowing this language, we cannot understand a single ‘word’ of it.

Secondly, when Galileo and Newton used mathematical description to abstract from the world we see, it was to simplify, understand and explain it. They remained within the realm of the empirical and falsifiable. What Ross has in mind is quite different. According to him,

“That an act, qua fulfilling a promise…is prima facie right is self-evident… without any need of proof, or of evidence beyond itself. It is self-evident just as a mathematical axiom, or the validity of a form of inference, is evident…In both cases we are dealing with propositions that cannot be proved, but that just as certainly need no proof.”

Were the principle of gravitation ‘self-evident’, we would not have needed a Newton to discover it. But in fact, Newton’s principle was received with astonishment, because he subsumed under a single explanatory principle phenomena – the revolution of the planets, the tides, and the fall of an apple – that no one had dreamed were connected.

Moral versus Causal

In addition to conflict of duty, Ross discusses inability to fulfill a single duty. But he treats these two phenomena very differently. Having gone to the trouble of introducing a new theory to accommodate the less stringent duty of a conflict, when it comes to fulfilling a single duty, he says “success and failure are the only test” (p.45). In a conflict of duty, ‘ought’ implies ‘can’; but with regard to inability to fulfill a single duty, it doesn’t. If I pack and post a book to return it to its owner, however carelessly I wrap the book, Ross says, “if it comes to hand I have done my duty,” whereas however carefully I do so, if it does not come to hand, “I must send another copy to replace it” (ibid.). Thus, it is often “our good fortune if the act we do is the right act” (p.31).

Of course, it is also our good fortune if we are not saddled with a conflict of duty; but Ross does not seem to see that moral luck applies here.

Why are we saddled with conflicts of duty? I think we can answer this question. The reason is that duties are moral, whereas conflicts are causal. And moral and causal worlds operate separately and independently, so they can accidentally collide.

Ross’s proposed solution, as we know, is to introduce a new category of prima facie duty. The trouble is, whether we do something actually, or only prima facie, wrong we emerge with the very same duty of reparation. What is to be gained, then, by introducing this new middle-man category of conditional duty? The plain answer, I think, is, nothing at all. We may as well just call a spade (an overridden prima facie duty) a spade (an actual duty). If, due to no fault of our own, we are caught in a conflict of duty, and as a result do something morally wrong, then no blame should attach to us on that account, any more than for having to clean up our yards after a bad storm. It’s just that, as Roger Trigg concludes in ‘Moral Conflict’ (Mind 1971), “Life is sometimes tough.”

© Toni Vogel Carey 2020

Toni Vogel Carey, PhD, is an independent scholar who publishes in scholarly journals on topics in philosophy and the history of ideas. She has been a regular contributor to Philosophy Now since 2002 and serves on its US advisory board.

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