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UNDERIVATIVE DUTY: PRICHARD ON MORAL OBLIGATION

  • Thomas Hurka (a1)
Abstract
Abstract

This paper examines H.A. Prichard's defense of the view that moral duty is underivative, as reflected in his argument that it is a mistake to ask “Why ought I to do what I morally ought?”, because the only possible answer is “Because you morally ought to.” This view was shared by other philosophers of Prichard's period, from Henry Sidgwick through A.C. Ewing, but Prichard stated it most forcefully and defended it best. The paper distinguishes three stages in Prichard's argument: one appealing to his conceptual minimalism, one an epistemological argument that parallels Moore's response to skepticism about the external world, and one arguing that attempts to justify moral duties on non-moral grounds distort the phenomena by giving those duties the wrong explanation or ground. The paper concludes by considering Prichard's critique of ancient ethics and in particular the ethics of Aristotle. The paper is broadly sympathetic to Prichard's position and arguments; its aim is partly to make a case for him as a central figure in the history of ethics.

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1 Prichard H. A., Moral Writings, ed. MacAdam Jim (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), 720.

2 Non-naturalism holds that normative judgments, including in particular moral judgments, (1) can be objectively true, but (2) are neither reducible to nor derivable from non-normative judgments such as those of science. There are normative truths, but they are distinct from all other truths.

3 Prichard, Moral Writings, 79.

4 Nozick Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 202.

5 Prichard, Moral Writings, 2.

6 Ibid., 10.

7 Ibid., 59. This passage confuses Kant's test for an act's being permissible with a test for its being required, but Prichard's objection does not depend on that confusion; it is likewise implausible to say that the explanation of why an act is permitted is that everyone could do it. Prichard also objected that Kant's universalization test yields the wrong results (ibid., 60).

8 Hill Thomas E. Jr., “Kantian Normative Ethics,” in Copp David, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 488; emphasis in the original.

9 F. H. Bradley wrote, “What we hold to against every possible modification of Hedonism is that the standard and test is in higher and lower function, not in more or less pleasure.” See Bradley , “Mr. Sidgwick's Hedonism,” in Bradley , Collected Essays, 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935), 97. For a similar view, see Green T. H., Prolegomena to Ethics, ed. Bradley A. C. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1883), sections 332, 356.

10 Moore G. E., Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), 158. Similar remarks about the “primary ethical question” are on pp. 27, 77, 90–91, 138, 140, 184, 189, and 222.

11 See, e.g., Ross W. D., The Right and the Good (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), 34.

12 Ibid., 17; see also 19, 24, 36–39, and Ross W. D., Foundations of Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939), 65, 68–69, 113, 187.

13 Prichard, Moral Writings, 13; see also 4–5, 77. Ross's presentation of this view is in Foundations of Ethics, 168–71.

14 Ross, borrowing from Aristotle in the Posterior Analytics, called this step one of “intuitive induction”; see Ross, Foundations of Ethics, 170, 320. For the same view in similar language, see Broad C. D., Five Types of Ethical Theory (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1930), 145–46, 177–78, 271–72.

15 Prichard, Moral Writings, 63; see also 4–5, 77.

16 See, e.g., Schneewind J. B., Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977). For a contrary reading, see Singer Peter, “Sidgwick and Reflective Equilibrium,” The Monist 52 (1974): 490517; and Anthony Skelton, “Henry Sidgwick's Moral Epistemology,” Journal of the History of Philosophy (forthcoming).

17 Moore, Principia Ethica, 94–95.

18 Prichard, Moral Writings, 5, 27–28, 121–23.

19 Prichard here assumes what Philip Stratton-Lake has called the “eliminative” view of derivative moral duties; see Philip Stratton-Lake, “Eliminativism about Derivative Prima Facie Duties,” in Thomas Hurka, ed., Underivative Duty: British Moral Philosophers from Sidgwick to Ewing (Oxford: Clarendon Press, forthcoming).

20 Prichard, Moral Writings, 14.

21 Jonathan Dancy, “Has Anyone Ever Been a Non-Intuitionist?” in Hurka, ed., Underivative Duty.

22 Prichard, Moral Writings, 9.

24 The passage is in Rashdall Hastings, The Theory of Good and Evil (London: Oxford University Press, 1907), 1, 135–36.

25 At one point, Prichard says that we do not come to appreciate a moral duty by an argument of which “a premiss” is the appreciation of something's goodness (Moral Writings, 13–14); this suggests that a claim about goodness is not even part of the ground of duty. But he goes on immediately after to deny that our sense of duty is “a conclusion” from the goodness of anything, thereby again denying only that a claim about goodness is sufficient to ground duty.

26 Prichard, Moral Writings, 2; see also 4, 10.

27 Ross W. D., “The Nature of Morally Good Action,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 29 (1928–29): 267; and Ross, The Right and the Good, 162. See also Carritt E. F., The Theory of Morals (London: Oxford University Press, 1928), 4142; Carritt actually said that every right act must produce some satisfaction, and on that basis questioned whether there is any duty to keep promises to the dead.

28 Prichard, Moral Writings, 10, 10 n. 4.

29 Prichard H. A., “Letter to W. D. Ross of Dec. 20, 1928,” Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Ms. Eng. Lett. D. 116 fols. 77–82. There is a brief published expression of this view in Prichard, Moral Writings, 173.

30 Prichard, Moral Writings, 4.

31 Ibid., 217.

32 Ross, The Right and the Good, 26.

33 Prichard, Moral Writings, 2, 217.

34 Ibid., 173–76.

35 Greenspan Patricia S., “Conditional Oughts and Hypothetical Imperatives,” Journal of Philosophy 72 (1975): 259–76; Broome John, “Normative Requirements,” in Dancy Jonathan, ed., Normativity (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 7899; Sidgwick Henry, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. (London: Macmillan, 1907), 37. Sidgwick is not consistent in this reading, sometimes making remarks that suggest the “narrow scope” view; see, e.g., Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 6–7.

36 Prichard, Moral Writings, 166; see also 9, 34, 54–55, 126–28, 135, 143–44, 188.

37 Ross, Foundations of Ethics, 48. Ross argued similarly that attributive uses of “good,” as in “good knife” and “good liar,” are purely descriptive; see Ross, The Right and the Good, 65–67, and Ross, Foundations of Ethics, 255–57.

38 Moore G. E., The Elements of Ethics, ed. Regan Tom (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991), 1718; Carritt, The Theory of Morals, 29; emphasis in the original.

39 Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 5–6.

40 Moore G. E., Some Main Problems of Philosophy (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1953), chap. 6.

41 Prichard, Moral Writings, 18–19.

42 Ibid., 19–20.

43 Since the wide-scope reading requires one either to abandon an end or to take the most effective means to it, it does not imply that the person ought simply to kill his cousin. On the contrary, when combined with a moral “ought” forbidding killing, it requires him to abandon his desire above all to become rich.

44 Prichard, Moral Writings, 135; see also 10 n. 4, 171, 204. For Ross's version of this claim, see Ross, The Right and the Good, 21, 24–26, 151; and Ross, Foundations of Ethics, 72–75, 129–30, 272–74.

45 Ewing A. C., “A Suggested Non-Naturalistic Analysis of Good,” Mind 48 (1939): 20; Stocker Michael, “Agent and Other: Against Ethical Universalism,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 54 (1976): 208. Ewing's and Stocker's objections are directed at Ross's version of the claim.

46 The response also explains why she is permitted to prefer others' 9 units of pleasure to her own 10, that is, to prefer others' lesser pleasure to her own greater pleasure. This would not follow so readily if what she had were a duty or positive reason to promote her own pleasure, as the initial objection suggested.

47 For a more recent argument for making the permission to pursue one's own lesser good moral, rather than seeing it as coming from outside morality, see Scheffler Samuel, Human Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), chap. 2.

48 Prichard, Moral Writings, 99–100.

49 Ibid., 26, 32, 180.

50 Ibid., 9; emphasis in the original.

51 Ibid., 26–30; see also 122–23.

52 Ibid., 116.

53 Ibid., 143; see also 43, 144–45, 150, 169, 183, 188–93, 237, 241.

54 Ibid., 147–49, 206–8.

55 Ibid., 34–35.

56 Ibid., 17.

57 Ibid., xiii.

58 Ibid., 17–18.

59 Ibid., 102–13.

60 Ibid., 109–13.

61 Ibid., 109.

62 A more moderate version of Prichard's view, arguing that Aristotle alternated between two meanings of agathon, is given by Carritt E. F. in “An Ambiguity of the Word ‘Good’,” Proceedings of the British Academy 23 (1937): 5180.

63 J. L. Austin, “Agathon and Eudaimonia in the Ethics of Aristotle,” in Moravcsik J. M. E., Aristotle: A Collection of Critical Essays (London: Macmillan, 1968), 261–96.

64 Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 404–5.

65 For this criticism, see Ewing A. C., Ethics (London: English Universities Press, 1953), 2829.

66 Sidgwick Henry, Outlines of the History of Ethics, 5th ed. (London: Macmillan, 1902), 62, 122.

67 Rashdall, The Theory of Good and Evil, vol. 1, 205; see also Carritt's remark about “the egoistic self-righteousness of Aristotle's philautos,” in Carritt, “An Ambiguity of the Word ‘Good’,” 69. For a more recent criticism of Aristotle of this kind, see Williams Bernard, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana, 1985), 35.

68 Ross W. D., Aristotle (London: Methuen, 1923), 208.

69 For this reading, see Whiting Jennifer, “Eudaimonia, External Result, and Choosing Virtuous Actions for Themselves,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 45 (2002): 270–90.

70 There are suggestions to this effect in Books VIII and IX of the Nicomachean Ethics about friendship; see Aristotle , Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Ross W. D. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 1155b31–1156a5 and 1166b30–1167a20 about “goodwill.” But, first, these suggestions come outside Aristotle's main discussion of virtue in Books II through IV and are not tied to his central theses about virtue, such as the doctrine of the mean. Second, he thinks that when it is not felt toward a friend, goodwill is too superficial to issue in any action (1167a1–2, a7–9), yet when it is felt toward a friend, it is felt toward “another self” (1166a31), one whose activities are an extension of one's own. Aristotle just does not have the idea that a virtuous person will have strong desires for states of other people just as states of them (and apart from any special relations they stand in to him).

71 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1169a18–1169b2. Alternatively, if A says that letting B save the drowning person is nobler than doing the saving himself, B can say that his letting A let B save the person is even nobler; A that his letting B let A let B save is nobler still; and so on to infinity. Again, each friend's concern with his own nobility leads to a priggish competition to be more virtuous.

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