Comparing Obligations & Prima Facie Video

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  • 0:00 Duties
  • 1:39 Prima Facie Duty
  • 4:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Every moral code comes with certain moral obligations. But what do you do if two obligations contradict each other? Explore the ideas of moral duties and prima facie, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.


Philosophers are always trying to figure out how people should act, when actually it's so simple. Just do your duty. Okay?

Here, watch how easy this is. This is average citizen John Study. John Study, do your duty. Well, go on. What are you waiting for, just do your duty! I mean, come on, how hard can this be? Your duty is just your duty, right? It's not like there are multiple ways you can interpret this. Unless, of course, we're going to get really philosophical. Alright, you asked for it. Let's philosophy it up.

John Study

Let's start at the beginning, with the basic idea of duty. A duty is a moral obligation to act, and depending on the scenario, you may be required to act in a specific way. Say, for example, that you think stealing is wrong. You then have a duty to pay for things instead of just taking them; you are morally obligated not to steal.

For the sake of this lesson, we'll call this the actual duty. Actual duties are not optional; they are not subjective and they are not up for debate. They are governed by the moral codes of your society, so performing your duty is moral, or right, and failing to act upon a duty is immoral or wrong. Pretty simple so far, right?

Prima Facie Duty

Right now, this question of duties doesn't seem so hard. But, are all duties the same? See, now it gets interesting.

In the early 20th century, the Scottish philosopher W. D. Ross proposed the idea of prima facie duties, a duty that is obligatory unless trumped by something more important. Ross realized that daily life is full of moral choices and that sometimes duties seem to contradict each other. If I promise to keep a secret, I'm morally obligated to do it. But what if that secret contains information that could save someone's life? Now you have to choose between the duties of keeping a secret and saving a life. For a while, around the late 19th century, most people believed that the moral choice was the one that maximized utility, or had the most benefit for the most people. But Ross didn't like that. So, he proposed his prima facie duties as a way to organize moral duties.

In Latin, prima facie means 'at first glance.' So these are things that seem like duties at first glance, unless a greater duty comes along. Ross organized prima facie duties into a series of categories by type. And they are:

  • Fidelity duties - keeping promises
  • Reparation - making up for wrongdoing
  • Gratitude - returning a favor
  • Non-maleficence - avoiding injuring others
  • Justice - fair distribution of happiness
  • Beneficence - improving conditions of others

And last but not least...

  • Self-improvement - making yourself better.

Prima facie duties can be organized into these categories, although Ross himself admitted that the list may be incomplete.

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