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Ross, William David (1877–1971)


William David Ross was a British Aristotelian scholar and moral philosopher. Sir David Ross was born in Scotland and was educated at the Royal High School in Edinburgh, Edinburgh University, and Balliol College, Oxford, where he took firsts in classical moderations and "greats." He was a fellow of Merton College from 1900 to 1902, when he was elected a fellow and tutor of Oriel. He was provost of Oriel from 1929 until his resignation in 1947.

Ross was prominent in academic and public life. He was vice-chancellor of Oxford University (19411944), pro-vice-chancellor (19441947), president of the Classical Association (1932), and president of the British Academy (19361940). He was chairman of Council of the Royal Institute of Philosophy continuously since 1940. In 1947 he served as president of the Union Académique Internationale.

Ross was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his work in the ministry of munitions and as a major on the special list during World War I. He was knighted in 1938. During World War II he was a member of the appellate tribunal for conscientious objectors and after the war was honored by the governments of Norway and Poland. Among his many public services were the chairmanships of three government departmental committees (19361937) and of the civil service arbitration tribunal (19421952). From 1947 to 1949 he was chairman of the important Royal Commission on the Press.

The qualities that made Ross successful in public life are those to which he owes his distinction as a philosopher. He was not only an Aristotelian scholar, but he also had an Aristotelian frame of mindmoderate, critical, balanced, thorough, and, above all, judicious. He valued and possessed what Aristotle called "practical wisdom" no less than speculative ability.

Ross edited the Oxford translations of Aristotle, published between 1908 and 1931. He translated the Metaphysics and the Ethics himself, and he published definitive editions of a number of Aristotle's works. His Aristotle (London, 1923) is mainly expository, each chapter being concerned with a major aspect of Aristotle's work; this is still the best all-round exposition in English.

Ross was the leading opponent of the view of John Burnet and A. E. Taylor that the Socrates of Plato's dialogues is never a mouthpiece for Plato's own doctrines. In Plato's Theory of Ideas (Oxford, 1951), Ross rejected their contention that the theory of Ideas was originally the work of Socrates and not of Plato. This book traces the development of the theory of Ideas through Plato's thought. It includes a detailed discussion of Plato's cryptic doctrine of "ideal numbers," using Aristotle's account in the Metaphysics as a guide to the interpretation of the doctrine.

Ross's main contribution to philosophy, as distinct from philosophical scholarship, is in the field of ethics. In The Right and the Good (Oxford, 1930), he argued the case for intuitionism with a lucidity and thoroughness that made the book a classic. For some ten years it was the center of ethical controversy. In his Foundations of Ethics (Oxford, 1939) Ross restated his case and replied to his critics.

Ross's approach to ethics is Aristotelian. "The moral convictions of thoughtful and well-educated people are the data of ethics, just as sense-perceptions are the data of a natural science" (The Right and the Good, p. 41). He appeals to what we mean by rightness and goodness and assumes that this guarantees the existence of what is meant and is a sure guide to its nature.

The germ of Ross's position is to be found in an article by H. A. Prichard, "Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?" (Mind 21 [1912]: 21152; reprinted in Moral Obligation, Oxford, 1949, pp. 117). Prichard was a pupil of John Cook Wilson, who also influenced Ross directly, an influence that appears in Ross's opposition to reductionism and in his view that knowledge and opinion are distinct in kind. The other main debt acknowledged by Ross is to G. E. Moore, whose arguments against ethical subjectivism he endorses, although he rejects Moore's "ideal utilitarianism."

Right and good are for Ross distinct, indefinable, and irreducible objective qualities. Rightness belongs to acts, independently of motives; moral goodness belongs to motives. Ross uses "act" for what is done and "action" for the doing of it. Thus, the doing of a right act may be a morally bad actionthat is, a right act can be done from a morally bad motive; the inverse also holds. Nor can it ever be morally obligatory to act from a good motive. There are four kinds of good thingsvirtue, knowledge, pleasure, and the allocation of pleasure and pain according to desert. No amount of pleasure equals the smallest amount of virtue. In Foundations of Ethics Ross argued that virtue and pleasure are not good in the same sensevirtue is "admirable," pleasure only "a worthy object of satisfaction." What alone is common to the two senses is that they express a favorable attitude.

Ross's two main targets are ethical subjectivism and "ideal utilitarianism," which "ignores, or at least does not do full justice to, the highly personal character of duty" (The Right and the Good, p. 22). Specific duties are of three kindsreparation, gratitude, and keeping faith. The "plain man" (to whom Ross, as a good Aristotelian, frequently appeals), in deciding what he ought to do, thinks as often of the past (a promise made, a debt incurred) as of future consequences. Ross does, however, admit among duties the utilitarian general duty of beneficence when it does not conflict with a specific duty. And "even when we are under a special obligation the tendency of acts to promote general good is one of the main factors in determining whether they are right" (p. 3a).

Conflict of duties is one of the main problems facing an intuitionist, who cannot accept the utilitarian's "Do what will produce the most good." Ross says: "Do whichever act is more of a duty." To make sense of "more of a duty," he draws a distinction between prima-facie and actual duties and holds that conflict can only arise between prima-facie duties. An act is a prima-facie or "conditional" duty by virtue of being of a certain kind (for instance, the repaying of a debt) and would be an actual duty if it were not also of some other morally important kind or did not conflict with another more important prima-facie duty. Thus, if I have promised to lend money to a friend in need, I have a prima-facie duty to hand over the money. But suppose that before I have done so, I find that I need it for the legal defense of my son, charged with a crime of which I believe him innocent. I recognize a conflicting prima-facie duty to help him. Ross maintains that (a ) one, and only one, of these two prima-facie duties is my actual duty; (b ) I know each of them to be a prima-facie dutythis is self-evident; (c ) I can have only an opinion about which is "more of a duty" and therefore my actual duty.

See also Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Ethical Subjectivism; Ethics, History of; Intuitionism; Intuitionism and Intuitionistic Logic; Moore, George Edward; Plato; Socrates; Taylor, Alfred Edward; Utilitarianism.


other works by ross

Kant's Ethical Theory: A Commentary on the Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1965.

The Right and the Good, edited by Philip Stratton-Lake. Oxford: Clarendon, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Some works on Ross are J. H. Muirhead, Rule and End in Morals (London: Oxford University Press, H. Milford, 1932); H. J. McCloskey, "Ross and the Concept of Prima Facie Duty," in Australasian Journal of Philosophy 41 (1964): 336345; G. E. Hughes, "Motive and Duty," in Mind 53 (1944): 314331, W. A. Pickard-Cambridge, "Two Problems about Duty," in Mind 41 (1932): 7296, 145172, 311340; P. F. Strawson, "Ethical Intuitionism," in Philosophy 24 (1949): 2333.

A. K. Stout (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)

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