A prime facie what?

On the heels of the previous post, I have been wondering about what it would really take to be a prime facie duty. Ideally, an account should make it clear whether or not Ross has correctly identified the nature and usefulness of the familiar Big Seven topics (beneficence, non-maleficence, fidelity, etc.) by choosing ‘prime facie‘ as a label. And it is not an embarrassing question, given that Ross’s original remarks from The Right and The Good are provisional and apology-laden, so surely invite friendly re-evaluation (even if it must be confessed that one is not breaking new ground in thinking through a text that is almost a century old).

In my previous post I alleged that there is such a thing as a prime facie reason that is not minimally good (pro tanto). Some reasons are not, as a matter of fact, good reasons — they only seem to be good under some description. This is a point I have explored in other blogging (here and here). Now the question is whether any of those prime facie reasons are helpful in expressing the grounds upon which one might make a claim of responsibility over actions and events (to take up Brandon’s suggestion), and in that sense be worthy of being called ‘prime facie duties’.

The first obstacle is that Ross himself did not believe that he was describing a set of duties at all. The product is not as advertised:

I suggest ‘prima facie duty’ or ‘conditional duty’ as a brief way of referring to the characteristic (quite distinct from that of being a duty proper) which an act has, in virtue of being of a certain kind (e.g. the keeping of a promise), of being an act which would be a duty proper if it were not at the same time of another kind which is morally significant. Whether an act is a duty proper or actual duty depends on all the morally significant kinds it is an instance of. The phrase ‘prima facie duty’ must be apologized for, since (1) it suggests that what we are speaking of is a certain kind of duty, whereas it is in fact not a duty, but something related in a special way to duty. Strictly speaking, we want not a phrase in which duty is qualified by an adjective, but a separate noun.

I think we are obliged to flagrantly ignore Ross’s secondary suggestion of ‘conditional duty’ as a synonym for ‘prime facie duty’. For, given that Ross is at great pains to walk around eggshells when it comes to description of the idea of a ‘duty’, the phrase sounds very much like it is describing the same thing as a hypothetical imperative. And the connotation has consequences. For if you (like Philippa Foot) think that all of morality is a system of hypothetical imperatives, then it’s going to be hard to distinguish between prime facie duties and minimally good (pro tanto) reasons for action. His intent, of course, was to say that these are duties in context, but not duties as such. That would make them hypothetical principles which fall short of being imperatives. But you can’t untie a knot by adding new ones, so let’s just put the matter aside.

For Ross, prime facie duties are not duties. This is, of course, a needlessly paradoxical way of speaking, but it has some traction in ordinary language. Consider, by analogy, the fact that we currently describe the solar system in terms of ‘dwarf planets’ (Pluto, Eres, The Goblin) and ‘planets’ (Earth, Mars, etc.), but our terminology is not very good, because strictly speaking a dwarf planet is not a species of planet, but rather is a near-miss case. If we kept our lexical house in order, we should be calling Pluto and friends something else entirely — a planetelle, planetilly, planetaine, or whatever. So long as a distinction is made between bodies which have ordinary and extraordinary orbits around the sun, the label is not important. Similarly, Ross is telling us that the “prime facie duties” are not really duties, but strictly speaking are near-miss cases of duties, and if we knew what was good for us we would call them something else — claims, topics, grounds, or whatever. So long as the idea of an ethically probative reason is retained, the label can be left to future lexical housekeeping.

Instead, it seems best to adopt the phrase ‘prime facie claim‘. This option is explicitly rejected by Ross because he thinks a “claim” strongly implies sociality, and hence fails to describe claims one might make upon oneself. To me, however, this seems like a bad lexical choice. It is better to prefer the artificial to the positively misleading. And anyway I find nothing at all unintuitive or odd about the idea that one may make claims of oneself. Perhaps conventions have changed; my sense is that many contemporary philosophers (e.g., Lon Fuller) are willing to say that there are self-directed or agentic duties. We proceed, however, on the assumption that nothing will be lost in the new usage except a little verbal confusion.