PRIMA FACIE DUTIES (LOU MARINOFF)

PRIMA FACIE DUTIES (LOU MARINOFF)

Prima facie means “at first glance”

This system, an outgrowth of virtue ethics, originated in the twentieth century with applied ethicist William Ross.

It views each human being as a participant in a social contract, from which we derive certain legal rights and moral benefits, and to which we owe certain legal duties and moral obligations.

In civilized countries, citizens enjoy a host of rights and benefits, but at the same time also have duties and obligations – e.g., toward our spouses, children, friends, neighbors, colleagues, associates, employers, employees, and so forth, not to mention jury duty.

Now the question arises: What happens when two or more duties come into conflict, such that honoring one means dishonoring the other, and vice versa?

For instance, suppose I have promised to meet an associate for lunch who wants to discuss a business proposal. Now suppose I’m on my way to lunch but am suddenly called to school to collect my child, who has sprained his ankle during gym class. Prima facie duties would support the obvious answer, that my duty toward my child in an emergency takes priority over my duty to my associate at a business meeting. It’s too late to “reschedule” the sports injury; but we can surely reschedule the meeting.

It’s not always so easy to prioritize one’s duties, however.

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about an example involving one of his students, who had to choose between joining the French Resistance to fight the Nazis and staying at home to look after his elderly mother.

There is no clear way to prioritize such conflicting duties. And Sartre’s humanistic ethics didn’t help much either.

Robin Hood’s case is similarly complicated. We gather that Robin is an upstanding citizen, who embraces the twin values of individual excellence (in his case, at archery) and social cooperativeness (his men are merry together, not in conflict with one another). We can suppose that his duties to fight against tyranny and for justice take precedence over his duties to be an obedient subject and raise a family with Maid Marion.

If he prevails in his fight, he may also be able to enjoy a normal life afterward.

But note that prima facie duties do not compel everyone to choose as Robin: some join him in the forest, while others stay at home and honor prior commitments.

Some (duties) rest on the mere fact that there are other beings in the world whose condition we can make better.
– WILLIAM ROSS

The Big Questions: How Philosophy Can Change Your Life
Lou Marinoff



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