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On Ross’ “What Makes Right Acts Right”

March 30, 2010
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In WD. Ross’s “What Makes Right Acts Right”, Ross discusses the idea of duties, and how we as humans know if our actions are right. He first explains that we do not perform duties because we can understand fully understand the consequences of these duties. Rather, we perform duties because of a promise we have made to ourselves or another. The only way we know that the act we do is right is because it is self evident to us. We cannot fully understand why the right act we do is right but we know that it is right. This innate sense of morality is a concept that contradicts the theory of relativism. A relativist argues that there is no innate moral sense but rather it is developed by the society around you.  Both relativism and Ross’ theory cannot coexist because if our moral sense was created by our society, it would not be self evident. But which theory makes more sense? In the case of relativism, a moral sense based in society can be used to excuse the wrong doings of different societies because they “didn’t know any better”. But if every moral being is really born knowing their duties because they are self evident, then why do many societies differ in their beliefs? Would Ross want us to argue that there is something wrong with a society’s moral compass if they do not believe in the same morals as we? I would suggest that we combine the concept of relativism and self evident duties to more closely reflect morality in the world today. Our negative duties, such as not to harm others, are self evident. Positive duties though, are not self evident but rather developed from our negative duties, so they are more open to interpretation. This would account for the differences in morality in different societies.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Adam McFarland permalink
    March 30, 2010 9:56 pm

    I believe there is a way to combine both relativism and Ross’ idea of duties as being self-evident. Just because a person’s moral sense was created by there society does not mean that it cannot still be self-evident, but to see this we must look at where self-evidence itself comes from. Back in the day, it was pretty self-evident that the Earth was flat. No one (less Columbus) doubted this, because clearly, looking at the horizon, the Earth is flat. We now have proof against this, and it is now self-evident that the Earth is round, however we can never say without a doubt that we are finally seeing the whole picture. What I’m trying to say is that things that appear self evident are really just beliefs held by a population. Beliefs held by a population may not at first be self evident, but being passed from generations to the next, they become self evident. Which I believe would make it fit relativism and also Ross’ view on self evident duties (if we apply an example that pertains to morals). Here’s one… for hundreds of years (probably more) it was self evident that men work and be scholarly and women take care of the house and children. Now however, at least in our society, someone who believed that would be seen as an ignorant sexist. Society changed things.

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