In W.D. Ross’ essay “What Makes Right Acts Right?” (Ch II from The Right and The Good), he offers a deontological theory that is similar to Kantian ethics but which does not involve us in moral absolutism. Ross’s novel idea is the concept of a prima facie duty. Describe and explain those duties Ross calls our “prima facie duties."

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A prima facie duty is a general principle which we recognize to be right, and continue to think is generally right, even if we do not think it correct to apply the principle in specific circumstances. For instance, if you have made a promise, but you discover that keeping that promise would cause suffering to someone, and no advantage to anyone, you may decide to break the promise. Ross, unlike Kant, believes that you would be justified in breaking the promise under these circumstances.

However, he points out, you would not for a moment imagine that it is generally acceptable to break promises. You would merely decide based on the situation that another duty, such as that of preventing suffering, was more important than the prima facie duty of keeping promises.

What Ross calls a prima facie duty, therefore, is the same category of moral duty Kant assigns to the categorical imperative. Ross simply treats the duty in a different way. For him, it is a rebuttable presumption, rather than a universal law, that prima facie duties should be followed. Prima facie duties are general and universal, since they apply in the absense of contradictory duties. It is generally right to keep promises, but this principle applies in the abstract. It may be right to break this or that specific promise, taking account of all the circumstances. This is a pragmatic modification of deontological ethics, since the principles remain intrinsically right or wrong. One's application of the principles may be modified by reference to the consequences.

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