In high school -- junior year, I think -- I picked up a cast-off book from the library free book bin, Ethics by Charles Baylis. I would not regard a book like it as good now for studying ethics, but it seems to have been good at discussing issues of concern to ethicists in its day (it was published in 1958), when the entire lay of the land consisted of Sidgwick and Moore, with probably a dash of Prichard and Joad, and when 'applied ethics' meant talking about how we could avoid nuclear holocaust or further democracy around the world, and not, as it often means today, coming up with weird arguments about killing people. I certainly would regard it as a much better discussion of that ethical world than Shafer-Ladau's Fundamentals of Ethics or Rachels's The Elements of Moral Philosophy are of the current state of the ethical landscape. And, regardless, I did learn quite a bit from it, for all that (and perhaps partly because) I agreed with very little in it.
One thing that very much caught my interest was Baylis's discussion of W. D. Ross's account of prima facie duties from The Right and the Good. I remember being struck by it as something that would make a very plausible explication of the notion of 'honor'. I still think this is true. But I think the reason for this is a more fundamental one than I realized at the time, one that I don't think really came through in Baylis's account, namely, that Ross's account is really an account of moral reasons.
Ross never gives a perfectly clear definition of prima facie duties, and spends a fair amount of time apologizing for his terminology. Prima facie duties aren't, in a strict sense, duties at all, but something related "in a special way" to duty. And they also aren't themselves prima facie, since that suggests that they are apparent, but they are in fact intended to identify objective features of the moral situation. So if prima facie duties are neither duties nor prima facie, but only something related to duties and in some way like things that are prima facie, what are they? From Ross we learn that they are features of acts that would make that act a duty if there were no other similar feature to complicate the situation; a prima facie duty does not make something your duty, but it makes something tend to be your duty. But that's about as close as we get to a clear account from Ross.
Ross lays out a number of things that he has in mind when he talks about prima facie duties, in a famous passage (bolding is mine):
1. Some duties rest on previous acts of my own. These duties seem to include two kinds,
A. those resting on a promise or what may fairly be called an implicit promise, such as the implicit undertaking not to tell lies which seems to be implied in the act of entering into conversation (at any rate by civilized men), or of writing books that purport to be history and not fiction. These may be called the duties of fidelity.
B. Those resting on a previous wrongful act. These may be called the duties of reparation.
2. Some rest on previous acts of other men, i.e. services done by them to me. These may be loosely described as the duties of gratitude.
3. Some rest on the fact or possibility of a distribution of pleasure or happiness (or of the means thereto) which is not in accordance with the merit of the persons concerned; in such cases there arises a duty to upset or prevent such a distribution. These are the duties of justice.
4. Some rest on the mere fact that there are beings in the world whose condition we can make better in respect of virtue, or of intelligence, or of pleasure. These are the duties of beneficence.
5. Some rest on the fact that we can improve our own condition in respect of virtue or of intelligence. These are the duties of self-improvement.
6. I think that we should distinguish from (4) the duties that may be summed up under the title of 'not injuring others'. No doubt to injure others is incidentally to fail to do them good; but it seems to me clear that non-maleficence is apprehended as a duty distinct from that of beneficence, and as a duty of a more stringent character.
He apologizes for some of these labels (again), and makes clear that he does not consider a complete or unrevisable list. It is, he says (with irony, I suppose), a prima facie classification of prima facie duties. But more to our point, in a response to an objection that these might conflict, he replies that something could very well be our duty for more than one reason, and if the kinds of reasons end up being irreducible to each other, that's just something that must be accommodated. We recognize that we should keep promises; we recognize that we should prevent harm; if we sometimes break a promise to prevent harm because we think our duty lies that way, we nonetheless still regard promises as reasons to think ourselves obligated. How then do we determine our actual duty? Ross denies that we have any definite rules for doing so; we use our prudential judgment in the context. And this is exactly how a topics works: topoi or commonplaces don't tell you what conclusion you should draw, they tell you what kinds of arguments might be considered, the lines of reasoning that might be relevant.
I think it makes sense to see these deontic topoi or prima facie duties as naturally becoming relevant within humanitarian traditions. This is presumably not the only context in which they can become relevant, but it is, I think one of the most influential contexts. A humanitarian tradition grows up in order to do help people in some matter, to do good to people in some way, and it seems to be common among humanitarian traditions that they develop some kind of ethical code or codes, some standard of ethical behavior in the pursuits found in that tradition. Thus, to take the most famous and obvious example, medicine cultivates the Hippocratic Oath and various quasi-Hippocratic moral standards. How do these arise? We have the attempt to help people, which by its very nature involves responsibility to them, and we are put in situations where we are required to ask ourselves, "What is our specific responsibility in this context?" And what kind of reasoned answer can we give? Something like Ross's list seems to capture the kinds of reasons that will inevitably come up for saying this or that is your responsibility. In medicine, reasons that fall under beneficence and nonmaleficence ("Do no harm") will obviously be primary, but you'll also have to do things that involve contracts and payment or things you promise patients not to do, and thus have fidelity-type reasons for acting a certain way; you'll have training and self-education that you need in order to help people well, and this gives room for reasons of self-improvement, etc. And none of the reasons will be random. It's not like you are searching around for fidelity-type reasons; you are in an actual situation of helping someone, where a promise has been made, and the fact that a promise has been made is relevant as a reason to the act of helping you are doing. Given the promise, fidelity is one standard to which your act of helping can be held, so 'X will be a better way of keeping my promise' is a reason to think you should do X. Or someone comes to you to help because of a serious condition; that Y will make their condition better is a reason to do Y, given that you are trying to help them. And so forth. And we see here how they are not really duties themselves -- they're just reasons to do something that are relevant to your work of helping people.
So these prima facie duties become relevant in a humanitarian tradition; they are a classification of the kinds of reasons that become relevant in a definite activity in which you are trying to be responsible to people, like in a humanitarian tradition, and humanitarian traditions are elaborate and stable enough that the reasoning is not just something that leads to a passing judgment but something that contributes to an elaborate body of ethics based on long experience through the generations.
Incidentally, thinking in terms of humanitarian traditions shows some weaknesses in Ross's formulations. For instance, beneficence is certainly a kind of moral reason for doing something in medicine; but Ross says that beneficence becomes relevant when you can make someone's condition better "in respect of virtue, or of intelligence, or of pleasure". (These are the three things Ross thinks are intrinsic goods.) None of these are really in view in medicine; medicine is concerned with health. But health is a certainly a way in which people's conditions can be better, and beneficence is certainly possible with respect to it. Likewise, Ross takes fidelity to be promise-related, but a look at how fidelity works in law (where it is arguably as important as nonmaleficence is in medicine) shows that this is too narrow. Promises are one way you get fidelity reasons, but lawyers, for instance, have fidelity reasons that are not concerned with promises. For instance, lawyers have the responsibility to be candid -- it is a severe ethical violation deliberately to lie in a legal context to a client or a tribunal, or deliberately to let one's client lie to a tribunal, and if you are ever caught red-handed doing it, your career as a lawyer is immediately over. It's not quite honesty -- honesty is a reason to avoid lying, but this is a different kind of reason. This kind of reasoning is not based on promises; you may or may not have made a promise, but there is a reason to avoid lying to judges regardless of what your promises have been. The reason is quite simply tied up in what you are doing: you are, at least in principle, supposed to be helping people in matters of law, and the whole tradition and system for doing that begins to break if people try to manipulate it by directly lying to clients or tribunals. Now, you could try to get this under promises (as Ross does) by appealing to implicit promises, but it's not clear that this is even necessary.
In any case, we could see the ins and outs of Ross's account better by looking at how these topoi, these 'seats of argument', work in the context of humanitarian traditions.
Various Links of Interest
* There has been, for a number of years a baffling mystery in Europe -- large quantities of toads turned up dead, their little corpses looking like they exploded. Nobody could figure out the reason for a long time, despite the fact that it was spreading. They recently solved the mystery -- the toads really were exploding, and the reason that they were exploding, and doing so in increasing numbers, is that crows are dangerously clever birds and capable of learning clever things from other crows.
* Speaking of which, crows have recently been observed constructing multi-part tools. That crows are tool-users has been known for a while -- one of the famous experiments was when some food was put at the bottom of a bottle whose neck was too narrow for the crow to reach into; the crow picked up a wire that was nearby, bent it into a hook, and fished out the food. But this is the first definite example of crows putting together different parts to make a single tool.
* Bernard M. Levinson, The Metamorphosis of Law into Gospel: Gerhard von Rad's Attempt to Reclaim the Old Testament for the Church
* A school in New Zealand recently relaxed its recess rules to allow students to do riskier things, and the results were much better than anyone expected.
* Nathanael Blake, Why 'Mansfield Park' was Jane Austen's Best Novel
* Abdoulaye, Allison, Baxter and Niang, Boy Scouts in a War Zone is a very interesting report on how Boy Scouts in the Central African Republic have been doing things like investigating possible Ebola outbreaks or mediating peace talks. Ironically, the Boy Scouts of the Central African Republic are under suspension from their world scouting organization because they are not in compliance with more recent policies.
* Cardinal Zen, unsurprisingly, is not impressed with the Vatican's recent deals with China, but urges Chinese Catholics not to try to kick up resistance when they can avoid it.
* Post-Reformation Digital Library has a vast number of texts from both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation.
* Alex Nevala-Lee, Dawn of Dianetics: L. Ron Hubbard, John W. Campbell, and the Origins of Scientology
* Adrian McKinty, Collected Letters of Flann O'Brien review: The missives of a brilliant mind
* Mary Rezac, Polish priest, martyr and hero: Remembering Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko
* The awesome worstness of the awesome Tim Curry performing the worst Halloween song in the history of the world:
Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
John of St. Thomas, The Gifts of the Holy Spirit
Tim Button and Sean Walsh, Philosophy and Model Theory
Umberto Eco, On Literature
Jules Verne, Mathias Sandorf