Does anybody have some ideas as to what Ross could be missing as a prima facie duty?

One idea that I have is the duty of empathy. This could be a 6th duty because acting beneficently could require one to act out of empathy first. Same could go with fidelity.

Could this be a possible 6th duty? Any ideas for a scenario that could illustrate the importance of this duty - I'm having quite a bit of trouble distinguishing this 6th duty from his duty of beneficence.

FYI, his 5 prima facie duties include:

  1. Duty of fidelity
  2. Duty of reparation
  3. Duty of gratitude
  4. Duty of beneficence
  5. Duty of non-maleficence

1 Answer 1


We need first of all to get clear what is to be understood by empathy. At least two analyses are available :


[On] a purely cognitive definition ... empathy is just the cognitive awareness of another's internal states (e.g. thoughts, feelings) (Hoffman 2000). (Aaron Simmons, 'In Defense of the Moral Significance of Empathy', Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Vol. 17, No. 1, Special Issue: Alienation (February 2014), 99.)


To empathize typically involves perceiving that another being is experiencing some particular emotion (or feeling) and, as a result of this perception, experiencing an emotion similar to what the other being is experiencing. For example, when I empathize with someone feeling sad, I feel some degree of sadness because I perceive that another feels sad. Understood in this way, empathy involves both a cognitive and an affective component. The cognitive component is the conscious recognition that another being is experiencing some emotion. The affective component is our experience of a similar emotion that results from this recognition. (Simmons, ibid.)


Empathy (1) is morally neutral. It is consistent with complete indifference to the suffering or well-being of others. It is hard to see how we could have a prima facie moral duty to acquire or exercise a cognitive awareness that carries as such no moral implications and does not even recognise the moral significance of others.

Empathy (2) is not open to this objection. Yet I think it is possible to distinguish it from beneficence. I can fulfil a duty of beneficence without empathy. For instance, I am told that a family is in hardship and am asked for $100 to support them. Without any of the cognitive or affective factors involved in empathy (2) I can donate the money. My thought may simply be the beneficent one : people in hardship should be helped. I may not know or ask who the family are, what are their precise circumstances, how it would be if I were in their situation : I should help the needy, there is nothing else to think. That may be the sum total of my moral reasoning in this case.


Even if beneficence is not identical with empathy and does not require it, might empathy still be a sixth prima facie duty in its own right ?

I think (excuse the pun) a prima facie case can be made for empathy as a prima facie duty. It leads in a Kantian direction of respect for persons, though I neither claim nor deny Kant's authority for it.

When I fully empathize with another's concerns or purposes, I not only acknowledge that the other has purposes which are important to her, but I also experience the others purposes from her perspective, seeing and feeling the other's purposes as she sees and feels them. The other experiences her purposes as worthwhile, important, meaningful, and mattering, as worthy of being fulfilled. Thus, when I experience the other's purposes as she experiences them, I experience her purposes as worthwhile and mattering too. (Simmons, 102.)

This appears genuinely to add an element that is not present in Ross. I mean this in the sense that one could fulfil all Ross' prima facie duties without recognising the specific need for empathy of the kind this example reveals. I cannot prove that empathy (2) is morally significant and valuable. I can only say that it recognises, as the other prima facie duties do not, the value of autonomy and of respect for autonomous agents.


Aaron Simmons, 'In Defense of the Moral Significance of Empathy', Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Vol. 17, No. 1, Special Issue: Alienation (February 2014), pp. 97-111.

J. Oxley J (2011) The moral dimensions of empathy, New York : Palgrave Macmillan.

M. Nussbaum (2003) Upheavals of thought: the intelligence of emotions, New York : Cambridge.

M. Hoffman (2000) Empathy and moral development, New York : Cambridge.

W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good (Oxford, 1973; originally published in 1930), esp. chap. 2.

John Atwell, 'Ross and Prima Facie Duties', Ethics, Vol. 88, No. 3 (Apr., 1978), pp. 240-249.

  • This is brilliant! Thank you so much for your detailed response - I really appreciate it.
    – user32889
    Apr 25, 2018 at 19:51
  • Thank you. I took a great interest in Ross' work some years ago. It has been pleasant to renew the acquaintance. Best : GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Apr 25, 2018 at 20:50

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