Thus the principle offered us for the solution of conflicts between prima facie obligations turns out, after all, to be of no avail: not, indeed, to be an intelligible 'principle' at all. And it is worth pointing out, I think, that even if Mr Ross had not recognised differences in the 'comparative stringency' of prima facie obligations, we should still be without a real principle for the calculation of the balance of prima facie Tightness over prima facie wrongness. For suppose it were to be maintained that each obligation has the same degree of stringency, possesses an identical amount of prima facie Tightness. We are faced at once with the new difficulty that at least some of the obligatory acts admit of a more or less intensive performance. There is, let us agree, a prima facie duty to improve the conditions of our fellows. But, obviously, the amount of 'improvement' which we bring about may vary indefinitely. Just how much 'beneficence' should there be to constitute that act of beneficence which is equal in prima facie rightness to, say, the act of promise-keeping? Or again, just how much 'unmerited distress' must be relieved for the act to equal in prima facie Tightness the act of requiting a benefit received? Or again, may the highly intensive performance of one prima facie duty equal in prima facie Tightness the less intensive performance of two other prima facie duties? The questions of this sort are legion, and there is no answer to them, so far as I can see, on the premises of the intuitionalist theory. Yet the answers must be capable of being known if any computation of the greatest balance of prima facie Tightness over prima facie wrongness is to be possible even in principle. It may be objected that I have said nothing of the 'îʋ çή àίåθήåω ή κρίåις.' I have said nothing of it, because I do not really think that Mr Ross wishes to take refuge in some mystical intuition which solves the problem, before which reason is helpless, of the comparative values of the prima facie duties. Even with àίåθήåις, Mr Ross admits that our judgment of our particular duty is 'highly fallible.' For my own part, I doubt whether we should find ourselves having moral 'perceptions' of any kind, let alone correct moral perceptions, in situations in which we are conscious of conflict between prima facte obligations, and conscious also of lacking any principle for the adjustment of the competing claims. A state of sheer moral deadlock seems to me the natural consequence of such conditions. But in the absence of any full account of the nature and functions of àίåήåις, it is perhaps not desirable to pursue the matter. I am content to submit that unless àίåθήåις is meant to be some non-rational faculty of moral intuition, Mr Ross's theory lands us in ethical scepticism. If it is meant to be such a non-rational faculty, the case for its existence can hardly be said to be established in his pages.
1 Mr Ross is, very naturally, loath to admit this consequence. He wants to be able to say that the more we reflect upon our duty, the better will be our chance of coming to a correct decision (see, e.g., the suggestion of a parallel between the attempt to do our duty and the attempt to do what is to our personal advantage, on pp. 31, 32). But, on his premises, no amount of reflection is going to lessen by one jot our uncertainty as to how we should calculate. We may certainly vastly augment our knowledge of the 'facts of the case,' but that will not help us if we don't know how we are to deal with the facts when we've got them.
The first main objection to Intuitionalism is, then, that it is incapable of affording us a principle for the determination of our actual duty in cases where its self-evident obligations prescribe contrary courses - even if these self-evident obligations be conceived as not 'absolute' but merely prima facie. The second main objection is this: Intuitionalism offers us a definitive set of obligations which, it affirms, may be intuitively discerned to be self-evident. How are we to reconcile this intuitive self-evidence with the prodigious diversity of historical moral codes? If these obligations are really 'self-evident,,' why do so many persons, and so many races, fail to recognise their authority - nay more, frequently accept the authority of obligations which seem directly contradictory of those claimed to be self-evident? Can the findings of comparative ethics really be squared with the hypothesis of a definitive 'set' of self-evident obligations?
I am well aware that many Intuitionalists (and even some critics of Intuitionalism) do not admit that there is here any difficulty at all. They believe themselves to be in possession of a simple but perfectly satisfactory answer. I agree that the answer is simple. But I am convinced that any close scrutiny of its nature will reveal it to be anything but satisfactory.
What then is the Intuitionalist's answer? It is, in effect, as follows: It is pointed out that to be 'self-evident' does not mean to be evident 'at once, or to all.' It may well be necessary that certain conditions be fulfilled, a certain stage of development achieved, before the mind is competent to discern the truths in question. Thus, the truth of mathematical axioms is not luminous to the young child or the savage. But no one supposes that this failure to be evident to undeveloped minds makes these truths one whit the less genuinely 'self-evident.' When 'self-evidence' is claimed for a moral truth, we mean (to quote Mr Ross) 'not... that it is evident from the beginning of our lives, or as soon as we attend to the proposition for the first time, but... that when we have reached sufficient mental maturity and have given sufficient attention to the proposition it is evident without any need of proof, or of evidence beyond itself. It is self-evident just as a mathematical axiom, or the validity of a form of inference, is evident.' l When this is understood, no difficulty remains in the divergence of historic moral traditions from the definitive set of self-evident moral obligations. We can always suppose that the conditions necessary to the apprehension of these obligations were not fulfilled.