Principalism Framework

The value criterion is...principalism.

Here are some of the best justifications for a principalism framework.

Prima facie duties that we have to follow based on particular circumstances are preferable to absolute duties. 2 reasons.

First, monistic moral theories fail – means we should reject absolute duties in favor of prima facie duties

Desaulniers 6 writes

Angela Desaulniers. “Rossian Moral Pluralism: A (Partial) Defense.” Georgia State University Department of Philosophy. Masters thesis. June 9th, 2006.

In developing his moral theory, Ross aimed at finding a way to ground our moral decisions in something other than just one small aspect of each action we take. He, like many other philosophers, felt that monistic theories were “overly reductive: they attempt 4 to boil all morally relevant considerations down to a single, fundamental feature possessed of moral relevance.”4 When we reason about a situation, according to Ross, we generally take more into account about the situation than just whether it produces pleasing consequences or if we have an absolute duty to keep our promises. If we were to take into account only one of these aspects we seem to lose something because “normally promise keeping…should come before benevolence, but…when and only when the good to be produced by the benevolent act is very great and the promise comparatively trivial, the act of benevolence becomes our duty.”5 There must be a way to keep both of these ideas, as well as any others that we may find necessary, in mind when we need to decide which course of action to take. For Ross, the way to find all of the relevant considerations is by looking at the relationships we have with people. While a beneficiary relationship with others is one of the most common types of relationships that we are in, it is not the only relationship we have. Others “do stand in this relationship to me, and this relation is morally significant. But they may also stand to me in the relation of promisee to promiser, of creditor to debtor, of wife to husband, of child to parent, of friend to friend, of fellow countryman to fellow countryman, and the like.”6 Each of these relationships needs to be reflected in the moral theory that we use to make our decisions. If we leave them out, then we leave out the majority of the considerations we normally take into account when we are making a decision to take a certain action. Whether these considerations can be acted on, and 4 Timmons p.190. 5 Ross 1946 p. 19. 6 Ross 1946 p. 19. 5 how I can act on them if I am allowed to is something for the moral theory we use to decide. As we will see soon, Ross creates his theory so that we can respect these relationships we have with people. While the first goal of Ross’ theory is to create a theory that reflects our intuitions and normal decision making process, a secondary goal in this process was to ensure that the theory truly reflect our intuitions and therefore not be grounded in any one moral principle. Any attempt to ground the theory in a singular moral principle, according to Ross, will and should fail. We need to look at something other than what a potential single underlying principle would be. According to Ross, because of the varying relationships that we have with people, as well as the varying situations we can be confronted with, all that we can truly rely on are the intuitions we have or our ‘commonsense morality’. Anyone who is has “reached sufficient mental maturity and ha[s] given sufficient attention to the proposition” 7 will be able to rightly decide which courses of action are right and wrong if they have the correct system with which to do so. The one and only way to figure out what to do is to look at the entirety of the situation one is in and look at the relationships (and as we will see soon the duties that come out of these relationships) one is in. In doing this, the right action will always be evident to the rational, adult mind. The first problem that comes to mind with this idea of a ‘common-sense’ morality is that it seems that we cannot always rely on our own common-sense because there are times when our convictions fail us in some way and lead us in the wrong direction. What 7 Ross 1946 p.29. 6 we need to keep in mind though is that Ross is not telling us to adopt our common-sense convictions solely as they are but tells us, as Berys Gaut puts it, that “when we begin critical thinking about morality…we start with a rich set of convictions and begin to reflect on these convictions with the tools we have available: the principles of deliberation internal to that morality, the convictions themselves and our experience of the world.”8 When we engage in this rational deliberation and look at what our commonsense morality has told us, we can decide if it does in fact correctly reflect the way the world is. Even if our initial intuitions about the world were incorrect, through this process we can develop correct intuitions so that we can understand what is morally right and also what is morally good.

 She continues:

Prima Facie Duties We can now turn to what Ross thinks a practical ethical theory should be. In our examination thus far, the concept of having a duty to perform certain actions has appeared several times. According to Ross, there are a number of duties that we have in life besides those which are typically laid out in an ethical theory. We are told, in most ethical theories, that we have an absolute duty to do X. What X is varies from theory to theory but what doesn’t is the idea of an absolute duty. Absolute duties are duties which one must always uphold regardless of the situation. One is always required to do actions which are absolute duties and is not allowed to pick and choose some and not others. If one has an absolute duty to keep promises one must always do so regardless of the specific promise made. In each of the major ethical theories there is an absolute duty placed on the follower of that theory to make sure that whatever the theory holds to be important is always the main factor in the decision-making process. Theories resting on these absolute duties, according to Ross, fail to respect the many relationships that we are in with people. As was mentioned previously, people are not just in a beneficiary relationship with us but also those of a parent, friend, employee, etc. These relationships put duties on us that other theories seem to ignore but that Ross thinks are absolutely necessary to creating an ethical theory. The duties that we have to these people are not like absolute duties according to Ross because they are not always relevant in a situation and change in their stringency. Ross’s answer to the question of what types of duties we have to those we are in specific relationships with is to say that we have ‘prima facie’ duties. “Each of these relations is the foundation of a prima facie duty, which is more or less incumbent on me according to the circumstances of the case.”19 An act that is a prima facie duty has the tendency to be our duty in situations. “It is in fact not a duty, but something related in a special way to duty”20 in that it points us towards what can be considered our absolute duty in the situation. For example, in most situations we tend to have the duty to keep our promises to people, unless some other duty tells us otherwise. Another example is that we tend to have the duty to help someone, once again, unless some other duty tells us otherwise. That an act is a prima facie duty is, according to Ross, “the characteristic…which an act has, in virtue of being of a certain kind…of being an act which would be a duty proper if it were not at the same time of another kind which is morally significant.”21

And second, reflective equilibrium.

Reflective equilibrium is a beneficial approach to moral questions – 2 warrants

Daniels 79 writes

Norman Daniels. “Wide Reflective Equilibrium and Theory Acceptance in Ethics.” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 76, No. 5 (May, 1979), pp. 256-282

It will help to have an example of a wide equilibrium clearly in mind. Consider Rawls’s theory of justice. We are led by philosophical argument, Rawls believes, to accept the contract and its various constrains as a reasonable device for selecting between competing conceptions of justice (or right). These arguments, however, can be viewed as inferences from a number of relevant background theories, in particular, from a theory of the person, a theory of procedural justice, general social theory, and a theory of the role of morality in society (including the ideal of a well-ordered society). These [are] level III theories, as I shall call them, are what persuade us to adopt the contract apparatus, with all its constraints (call it the level II apparatus). Principles chosen at level II are subject to two constraints: (i) they must match our considered moral judgments in (partial) reflective equilibrium; and (ii) they must yield a feasible, stable, well-ordered society. I will call level 1 the partial reflective equilibrium that holds between the moral principles and the relevant set of considered moral judgments. Level IV contains the body of social theory relevant to testing level I principles (and level III theories) for “feasibility.” The independence constraint previously defined for wide equilibrium in general applies in this way: the considered moral judgments [call them (a’)] which may act to constrain level III theory acceptability must to a significant extent be disjoint from the considered moral judgments [call them (a)] which act to constrain level I partial equilibrium. I argue elsewhere that Rawls’s construction appears to satisfy this independence constraint, since his central level III theories of the person and of the role of morality in society are probably not just recharacterizations or systematizations of level I moral judgments. If I am right, then (supposing soundness of Rawls’s arguments!), the detour of deriving the principles from the contract adds justificatory force to them, justification not found simply in the level I matching of principles and judgments. Notice that this advantage is exactly what would be lost if the contract and its defining conditions were “rigged” just to yield the best level I equilibrium. The other side of this coin is that the level II apparatus will not be acceptable if competing theories of the person or of the role of morality in society are preferable to the theories Rawls advances. Rawls’s Archimedean point is fixed only against the acceptability of particular level III theories. This argument suggests that we abstract from the details of the Rawlsian example to find quite general features of the structure of moral theories in wide equilibrium. Alternatives to justice as fairness are likely to contain some level II device for principle selection other than the contract (say a souped-up impartial speculator). Such variation would reflect variation in the level III theories, especially the presence of alternative theories of the person or of the role of morality. Finally, developed alternatives to justice as fairness would still be likely to contain some version of the level I and level IV constraints, though the details of how these constraints function will reflect the content of component theories at the different levels. By revealing this structural complexity, the search for wide equilibrium can benefit moral inquiry in several ways. First, philosophers have often suggested that many apparently “moral” disagreements rest on other, nonmoral disagreements. Usually these are lumped together as the “facts” of the situation. Wide equilibrium may reveal a more systematic, if complex, structure to these sources of disagreement, and just as important, to sources of agreement as well. Second, aside from worries about universalizability and generalizability, philosophers have not helped us to understand what factors actually do constrain the considerations people cite as reasons, or treat as “relevant” and “important,” in moral reasoning and argument. A likely suggestion is that these features of moral reasoning depend on the content of underlying level III theories and level II principle selectors, or on properties of the level I and IV constraints. An adequate moral psychology, in other words, would have to incorporate features of what I am calling “wide equilibrium.” Understanding these features of moral argument more clearly might lead to a better grasp of what constitutes evidence for and against moral judgments and principles. This result should not be surprising: as in science, judgments about the plausibility and acceptability of various claims are the complex result of the whole system of interconnected theories already found acceptable. My guess—I cannot undertake to confirm it here—is that the type of coherence constraint that operates in the moral and nonmoral cases functions to produce many similarities: we should find methodological conservatism in both; we will find that “simplicity” judgments in both really depend on determining how little we have to change in the interconnected background theories already accepted (not on more formal measures of simplicity); and we will find in both that apparently “intuitive” judgments about how “interesting,” “important,” and “relevant” puzzles or facts are, are really guided by underlying theory.

Reflective equilibrium justifies upholding prima facie duties

Desaulniers 6 writes

Angela Desaulniers. “Rossian Moral Pluralism: A (Partial) Defense.” Georgia State University Department of Philosophy. Masters thesis. June 9th, 2006.

The answer to Gaut’s questions is clearly that the pluralist would agree that there is a rational justification procedure that binds and justifies the moral principles together. There is no first principle from which they all have developed but a procedure on which they can be grounded. The procedure the pluralist uses is reflective equilibrium. 53 Gaut 1999 p.38. 54 Gaut 1999 p.40. 55 Gaut 1999 p.40. 56 Gaut 1999 p.40. The idea of a ‘rational justification procedure’ is that of John Rawls. Further information can be found in Theories of Justice (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard Univeristy Press), 1971 and Justice as Fairness (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), 2001. 32 “She takes these moral intuitions and principles we pre-reflectively endorse (i.e. common sense morality) and attempts to render them consistent with each other; she corrects for distortions in our moral reasoning that can be traced to unfair deliberative conditions…The reflective equilibrium to which she appeals is not just narrow (adjusting moral principles to moral intuitions), but is wide, appealing to non-evaluative facts…and to evaluations that encompass more than merely moral matters, such as those evaluations displayed in many of our personal relationships…The pluralist’s account of why we possess just these moral principles, then, rests on the initial credence of our pre-reflectively endorsed intuitions and principles, and their increased credence when they are subjected to a greater degree of reflective improvement drawing on a wide variety of resources, both evaluative and non-evaluative.”57 With this procedure in place there is no need for the pluralist to have a first principle on which to ground their other moral principles. The procedure of reflective equilibrium is more than enough to justify how all of the principles come together and why we have the principles we have and no others. It is not just a random group of principles thrown together, but a meticulously formed list that is constantly being evaluated in order to assure its adherence to our intuitions and the facts that we know about the world. “It is difficult to see what additional argument there could be for the claim that justification by a single moral principle is also required”58 because the reasons Hooker gives for the necessity of a moral principle are fulfilled by the use of the reflective equilibrium process. It is possible, as Gaut points out, that opponents of pluralism will insist that it is possible, when the pluralist attempts to expand on her account of moral commitments that the appeal of a single moral principle will once again come into play. One such example of what the pluralist may be tempted to say, according to opponents, will be that “the best 57 Gaut 1999 p.41. 58 Gaut 1999 p.41. 33 account of why we have the moral system we do will ground the moral rules on the good consequences of observing them. The challenge to the pluralist is then to show that this reduction to a single moral principle will not take place.”59 To show this Gaut mentions how the specific relationships we are in with people give us certain moral commitments. In regard to someone we love, there are many ways in which we feel we have obligations toward them that, if we were to neglect, would result in the disintegration of the relationship. “Such special obligations must be acknowledged if love is to possess its recognizable and characteristic shape.”60 In this example Gaut feels he is able to “derive moral commitments from a broader evaluative stance, a stance that is partially constitutive of valuable social relationships.”61 These agent-relative duties that derive from the relationships we are in are necessary in order for us to continue having these relationships. We, as communal beings, are also able to associate ourselves with others and put ourselves in their position. “By imaginatively detaching myself from my own perspective and that of my community, I can recognize that the activities and feelings of outsiders may be as intrinsically valuable as my own. Hence by deploying my imaginative capacities, I can recognize the existence of the agent-neutral value of certain states of affairs.”62 The fact that we are able to derive both agent-neutral and agentrelative values, using our common sense capacities, tells us that “we cannot without grievous loss either to our relationships or to our cognitive capacities give either side 59 Gaut 1999 p.42. 60 Gaut 1999 p.42. 61 Gaut 1999 p.42. 62 Gaut 1999 p.43. 34 up.”63 Both are necessary in order to do sufficient justice to our intuitions. It is impossible to reduce one to the other because the agent-relative values come solely from our relationships which “we value independently from an agent-neutrally impartial view,”64 regardless of their influence on the general good. There is therefore no way to tie all the moral commitments we have together based on one single aspect the way in which rule-consequentialism does without leaving behind or neglecting some crucial aspect of our commitments and values. The question of whether the pluralist can explain why we have our moral commitments without resorting to any sort of consequentialist answer is therefore put to bed. Pluralists have a way of binding and justifying their principles that does not rely on one ultimate moral principle, and they can explain why we have commitments without everything boiling down to some version of consequentialism at the end of the day.  The Success of Reflective Equilibrium The response given by Berys Gaut to Hooker’s objection that moral pluralism needs some sort of justifying and grounding first moral principle for it to be as good a theory as rule-consequentialism is something that Ross would have completely agreed with. In his exposition of the idea of reflective equilibrium, he lays out exactly what Ross seems to be trying to say. Reflective equilibrium is explained by John Rawls to be the process of “going back and forth, sometimes altering the conditions of the contractual circumstances, at others withdrawing our judgments and conforming them to principle…eventually we shall find a description of the initial situation that both expresses reasonable conditions and yields principles that match our considered judgments duly pruned and adjusted.”65 In describing how it is that we can ever know the moral principles we hold when they are not evident from the beginning of our lives, Gaut tells us that “they come to be self-evident to us just as mathematical axioms do…by experience…we see the prima facie rightness of an act which would be the fulfillment of a particular promise, and of another which would be the fulfillment of another promise, and when we have reached sufficient maturity to think in general terms, we apprehend prima facie rightness to belong to the nature of any fulfillment of promise” (Ross 1946). This process, as outlined by Rawls and Gaut, of learning and adjusting what our moral principles are and constantly looking at them through the lens of whether they conflict with known empirical fact or what our intuitions seem to tell us is one that Ross uses many times throughout The Right and the Good. We see it first when he looks at the difference between morally right and morally good and then again when he tries to lay out which types of things can be considered intrinsic goods. There is no reason to reject the idea that Ross used this process to discover his prima facie duties. He uses a process of reflection to look at the relationships we have with other people and then reflective equilibrium to see which of the duties we have because of these relationships are the most fundamental. According to Ross, people “stand to me in the relation of promisee to promiser, of creditor to debtor, of wife to husband, of child to parent, of friend to friend, of fellow countryman to fellow countryman, and the like; and each of these relations is 65 Rawls p.20. 36 the foundation of a prima facie duty, which is more or less incumbent on me according to the circumstances of the case.”66 We have these moral principles/prima facie duties because of the relationships that we are in but they are discovered, guided, bound, and justified based on a process of reflective equilibrium in line with what Gaut has laid out. Ross would agree with Rawls’ statement that “justification rests upon the entire conception and how it fits in with and organizes our considered judgments in reflective equilibrium…justification is a matter of the mutual support of many considerations, of everything fitting together into one coherent view.”67

This justifies principlism.

Principlism is pluralistic and requires weighing prima facie duties of respect for autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence and justice.

Hine no date writes

Dr. Kristine Hine (Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Towson University). “What is the outcome of applying principlism?” No date.

In Principles of Biomedical Ethics the authors say, The four clusters of principles we present in this book do not constitute a general ethical theory and provide only a framework of norms with which we can start in biomedical ethics.  Our framework is spare, because prima facie principles do not contain sufficient content to address nuances of moral problems.  However, the principles can be specified to provide more specific guidance…Specification is a process of reducing the indeterminate character of abstract norms and generating more specific, action-guiding content [1, p. 17].[3]    Later in this same chapter the authors clarify what it means to settle a conflict by specifying the content-thin principles.  On their view, “To say that a problem or conflict is resolved or dissolved by specification is to say that norms have been made sufficiently determinate in content that, when cases fall under them, we know what ought to be done” [1, p. 19].  In addition to specifying the principles, the authors point out that, “Principles, rules, professional obligations, and rights often need to be balanced…Balancing is the process of finding reasons to support beliefs about which moral norms should prevail” [1, p. 20].  In light of these passages, I suggest the following statement of their view: An act token, x, is morally right if and only if x is the action that would be selected by one who has appropriately balanced and specified the four clusters of principles: respect for autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, and justice.[4]     Call this version of principlism ‘AGG’ or “action-guiding criterion.”  Now, as I indicated in the introduction, the question of appropriately specifying and balancing is a difficult one, and it is not one that I wish to take up in this paper.  Thus my comments here will focus on the question of whether this is the kind of theory principlism is supposed to be.  To begin, it will be useful to investigate the account of right action after which the authors model some important features of their own theory: W.D. Ross’s theory of prima facie obligations.  Beauchamp and Childress say,  W.D. Ross’s distinction between prima facie and actual obligations informs our analysis.  A prima facie obligation is one that must be fulfilled unless it conflicts, on a particular occasion, with an equal or stronger obligation.  This type of obligation is always binding unless a competing moral obligation outweighs it in a particular circumstance.  Agents must then determine what they ought to do by finding an actual or overriding (in contrast to prima facie) obligation…What agents ought to do is, in the end, determined by what they ought to do all things considered [1, p. 15].   Ross’s view is sometimes characterized as a version of pluralism. According to such views, the rightness of an action is a matter of a plurality of moral features of the action, none of which are reducible to, or able to be explained in terms of, one particular feature.  These views can be contrasted with monist accounts of rightness.  On these views, rightness of an action is determined by one property of the action, such as being the action that maximizes utility.  Ross’s pluralism manifests itself through his use of what he refers to as prima facie duties.  These duties are to be differentiated from actual duties, or what he calls a duty proper.  Ross explains the distinction as follows: I suggest “prima facie duty” or “conditional duty” as a brief way of referring to the characteristic (quite distinct from that of being a duty proper) which an act has, in virtue of being of a certain kind (e.g. the keeping of a promise), of being an act which would be a duty proper if it were not at the same time of another kind which is morally significant [9, p. 19].     The idea here is that actions have several qualities or characteristics.  Being a prima facie duty is one characteristic that an action has, and it has this characteristic because of the kind of action it is: being the keeping of a promise, being just, and so on.  These are characteristics that “tend” to make the actions right (or wrong).  And, whether an action really is right, whether an action is one’s duty proper, is determined by the entire nature of the action, not just one characteristic of the action.   In some cases there is one prima facie duty; in other cases, there are several prima facie duties.  So, for example, if I make a promise to a student to meet her for lunch, and there are no other morally salient features at play in this situation (there are no other prima facie duties), then my actual duty (duty proper) is to keep my promise.  However, if on the way to my meeting with my student I see that someone is in need of assistance, a second morally salient feature has emerged.  There is a conflict of prima facie duties.  In this revised scenario, my actual duty is the action with the greatest balance of prima facie rightness over prima facie wrongness.  According to Ross,   Every act, therefore, viewed in some aspect, will be prima facie right, and viewed in others, prima facie wrong, and right acts can be distinguished from wrong acts only as being those which, of all those possible for the agent in those circumstances, have the greatest balance of prima facie rightness, in those respects in which they are prima facie right, over prima facie wrongness, in those respects in which they are prima facie wrong…For the estimation of the comparative stringency of these prima facie obligations no general rules can, so far as I can see, be laid down [9, p. 41].   Ross’s view is, of course, not simple, since there is no unifying principle.  Ross, however, is not bothered by this, as “…it is more important that our theory fit the facts than it be simple, and the account we have given above corresponds (it seems to me) better than either of the simpler theories with what we really think…” [9, p. 19].  While Ross’s view is interesting and insightful, and deserves far more attention that I can allow here, due to space constraints I will have to limit my comments to those above.  These comments are meant to explain and elaborate on Beauchamp and Childress’s use of prima facie duties.  Given that this notion is central to Ross’s theory of right action, we have some reason to believe that principlism is likewise a theory of right action.  Even if one is unconvinced by the central role that I have assigned to Ross’s theory, other evidence in support of AGC could be found in the literature on bioethics.  For example, Robert Veatch, who is sympathetic to principle based approaches to bioethics, has described principlism as follows, Here we find a small set of principles that describe the right making characteristics of actions and rules. The focus is on the rightness of the conduct, not the character of the actor…Norms of right conduct are variously expressed as principles, duties, rights, or moral rules [10, p. 216].

[This framework originally and generously contributed by Sacred Heart AT.]