19 September 2011

W. D. Ross (1877-1971) on the Right and the Good

William David Ross (1877-1971) 2 Now when we ask what is the general nature of morally good actions, it seems quite clear that it is in virtue of the motives that they proceed from that actions are morally good. Moral goodness is quite distinct from and independent of rightness, which (as we have seen) belongs to acts not in virtue of the motives they proceed from, but in virtue of the nature of what is done. Thus a morally good action need not be the doing of a right act, and the doing of a right act need not be a morally good action. The ethical theories that stress the thing done and those that stress the motive from which it is done both have some justification, for both 'the right act' and 'the morally good action' are notions of the first importance in ethics; but the two types of theory have been at cross-purposes, because they have failed to notice that they are talking about different things. Thus Kant has tried to deduce from his conception of the nature of a morally good action rules as to what types of act are right; and others have held a view which amounts to saying that so long as our motive is good it does not matter what we do. And, on the other side, the tendency of acts to produce good or bad results has sometimes been treated as if it made them morally good or bad. The drawing of a rigid distinction between the right and the morally good frees us from such confusion.

(W. D. Ross, The Right and the Good [Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1988], 156 [italics in original; footnote omitted] [first published in 1930])

Note from KBJ: There are four categories: (1) right and morally good (i.e., doing the right thing for the right reason); (2) right and morally bad (i.e., doing the right thing for the wrong reason); (3) wrong and morally good (i.e., doing the wrong thing for the right reason); (4) wrong and morally bad (i.e., doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason). As examples, I would give the following: (1) abstaining from meat for the sake of the animals; (2) abstaining from meat for health reasons; (3) eating meat because one believes (with, say, Roger Scruton) that doing so redounds to the benefit of the animals themselves; (4) eating meat because one likes the taste.