The de se route to justifying prime face claims

There is quite a lot of utility in distinguishing prime facie and pro tanto reasons for action. It sure seems to many of us that philosophical or meta-ethical good sense to articulate ethical claims (including, come to that, duties) in terms of reasons. But if that’s true, then at least on face value, it would seem natural to also suppose that the magnitude of a claim (or duty) should track the magnitude of a reason, all other things equal.

So, for example, there is just plumb good sense in understanding minimally good reasons for action as ones that have “squatter’s rights” (to borrow a phrase from Graham & Horgan, itself borrowed from Owen Flanagan). The idea here is that a normative “stickiness” is intrinsic to pro tanto claims, and such claims have a default hold upon us that has to be positively displaced by another claim before it can be dismissed or outweighed. This property is somehow lacking for prime facie ethical claims — or, anyway, those prime facie claims that are not also pro tanto ones. For instance, ‘gratitude’ does not readily apply at all to the strict interpretation of the trolley problem, so it can’t be said to have a normative ‘stickiness’ in that context. It does not have squatter’s rights, since it is not even squatting.

When thinking about what it is that the prime facie ethical claims are lacking, my first temptation is to assimilate the idea of apparent (prime facie) reasons for action to de se reasons, i.e., the sort that are entertained in rational, relativistic judgments. For there are such things as relativistic rational judgments (e.g., in art). Hence, apparently, Youtube McCray’s opinion that The Last Jedi is a bad film may be reason for McCray to boycott it. It just isn’t a proper reason to boycott it (de re), because it does not direct my action in the slightest. It is just a reason-for-McCray (de se).* The upshot of this analysis is that merely apparent reasons for action are minimally good reasons for you, but not minimally good for everyone else (pro tanto & de se == prime facie & de re).

Does it work? Well, it seems like a viable characterization of our duties of self-improvement, which are certainly part of the Big Seven Topics that Ross cared about. As I mentioned previously, this was a major point of contention for Ross in his description of his project. So there is a useful sense in talking about merely apparent reasons in ordinary talk, if only to capture the common denominator of the Big Seven.

Does it make sense to say that all of Ross’s prime facie claims are de se reasons? Here is one reason to think not: some people would like to say that such relativistic (de se) reasons are not distinctively ethical, in the sense of commanding shared rational attention of particular (virtue-leaning) kinds of people. For example, Hume’s obtuse man who refuses to scratch his finger to save the world: while this might be a case of someone who has a prime facie reason in some amoral sense, it is not a prime facie ethical claim. And since Ross is interested in the objective parts of the moral situation, one might think any talk of objectivity precludes reference to relativistic (de se) reasons, since they sound suspiciously like subjective features of a situation. So a critic might allege that this talk about apparent reasons is so ethically defective as to be indefensible. My first inclinations, then, are seemingly off base.

*No such person exists. I would have used the more obvious empty name, “Youtube McGee”, except that it doesn’t rhyme with “de se”.

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.