Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

W. D. Ross, fully Sir William David Ross

Scottish Philosopher and Authorknown for work in Ethics

"No act is ever, in virtue of falling under some general description, necessarily actually right... moral acts often (as every one knows) and indeed always (on reflection we must admit) have different characteristics that tend to make them a the same time prima facie right and prima facie wrong; there is probably no act, for instance, which does good to anyone without doing harm to someone else, and vice versa."

"It would be a mistake to found a natural science on ‘what we really think’ ... opinions are interpretations, and often misinterpretations, of sense-experience; and the man of science must appeal from these to sense-experience itself, which furnishes his real data. In ethics no such appeal is possible... 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 duty to do good to others] rests upon the fact that there are other beings in the world whose condition we can make better in respect of virtue, or of intelligence, or of pleasure."

"That an act is prima facie right, is self-evident… just as a mathematical axiom… is evident."

"The essential defect of the ideal utilitarian theory is that it ignores the highly personal; character of duty."

"The attitude of the sociological school towards the systems of moral belief that they find current in various ages and races is a curiously inconsistent one. On the one hand we are urged to accept an existing code as something analogous to an existing law of nature, something not to be questioned or criticized but to be accepted and conformed to as part of the given scheme of things; and on this side the school is able sincerely to proclaim itself conservative of moral values, and is indeed conservative to the point of advocating the acceptance in full of conventional morality. On the other hand, by showing that any given code is the product partly of bygone superstitions and partly of out-of-date utilities, it is bound to create in the mind of any one who accepts its teaching (as it presupposes in the mind of the teacher) a skeptical attitude towards any and every given code. In fact the analogy which it draws between a moral code and a natural system like the human body (a favorite comparison) is an entirely fallacious one. By analyzing the constituents of the human body you do nothing to diminish the reality of the human body as a given fact, and you learn much which will enable you to deal effectively with its diseases. But beliefs have the characteristics which bodies have not, of being true or false, of resting on knowledge or of being the product of wishes, hopes, and fears; and in so far as you can exhibit them as being the product of purely psychological and non-logical causes of this sort, while you leave intact the fact that many people hold such opinions you remove their authority and their claim to be carried out in practice."

"There is probably no act, for instance, which does good to anyone without doing harm to someone else, and vice versa."

"There are seven prima facie duties which need to be taken into consideration when deciding which duty should be acted upon: Duty of beneficence (to help other people to increase their pleasure, improve their character, etc.). Duty of non-maleficence (to avoid harming other people). Duty of justice (to ensure people get what they deserve). Duty of self-improvement (to improve ourselves). Duty of reparation (to recompense someone if you have acted wrongly towards them). Duty of gratitude (to benefit people who have benefited us). Duty of promise-keeping (to act according to explicit and implicit promises, including the implicit promise to tell the truth). [paraphrased]"

"We apprehend that conscientiousness or benevolence is good with as complete certainty, directness, and self-evidence as we ever apprehend anything."

"Every man dies - Not every man really lives."

"That an act.. is prima facie right, is self-evident ? just as a mathematical axiom? is evident."

"There is probably no act , for instance, which does good to anyone without doing harm to someone else, and vice versa."

"They say that man is mighty, He governs land and sea, He wields a mighty scepter O'er lesser powers that be; But a mightier power and stronger Man from his throne has hurled, For the hand that rocks the cradle Is the hand that rules the world."