Moral duties or obligations are requirements to perform actions in order to comply with given principles of morality. They are imperatives that must be satisfied in order for given moral standards to be fulfilled. Moral prescriptions, on the other hand, are directives to perform actions that are advised or recommended but not necessarily required or obligatory. Compliance with moral duties presupposes compliance with moral prescriptions; if actions are obligatory, then they must at least be advised or recommended. However, duties are more binding and stringent than prescriptions insofar as they require, rather than merely recommend, actions to be performed. The more binding nature of duties as compared with prescriptions also accounts for the fact that the moral consequences of failure to perform actions that are obligatory may be worse than those of failure to perform actions that are merely advised or recommended.
If compliance with moral duties is by nature obligatory, then how do we choose among them when they conflict or compete with each other? For example, is it more important not to harm an individual’s well-being than it is to promote her well-being? Is the duty to respect the moral autonomy of an individual more important than the duty not to let her harm herself? Should the degree of harm that an individual may do to herself be the decisive factor in determining whether or not to interfere with her autonomy and prevent her from harming herself?
Should the nature of our relation to the person to whom we owe a duty be the most decisive factor in determining the priority of that duty? For example, should the duty owed to a family member be considered to be of a higher priority than that owed to a non-family member? This is in fact what the ancient Chinese philosopher Mengzi (Mencius, 371-289 B.C.E.) says, that the duty to love one’s own parents is the most basic moral duty, and that this duty is more important than the duty to love other persons.1
Should the duty to promote the good of other persons be assigned a higher priority than the duty to promote one’s own good (if there is such a duty)? Should the duty owed to a friend be considered more important than the duty owed to a stranger?
One way of prioritizing moral duties is to divide them into primary and secondary duties. Another way is to divide them, as proposed by W.D. Ross (1930), into prima facie duties (apparent duties, or duties at first appearance) and duties proper (duties in the final analysis, or actual duties). Examples of prima facie duties, according to Ross, are the duty of fidelity (the duty to keep promises), the duty of gratitude for the kindness of others, the duty of reparation for wrongful acts, the duty to promote justice, the duty of beneficence (the duty to promote the greatest possible amount of good), and the duty of non-maleficence (the duty not to harm others). Ross admits that it may be difficult to establish any general rules for the proper prioritization of all these duties, but he does say that non-maleficence is a more stringent duty than beneficence.2
Another way of prioritizing moral duties is to divide them into relative and absolute duties. Thus, Immanuel Kant (1785) divides moral imperatives into conditional (hypothetical) and unconditional (categorical) imperatives. Hypothetical imperatives are necessary for the attainment of ends beyond themselves, but the categorical imperative is necessary in itself, apart from its relation to any further end.3 According to Kant, the categorical imperative is the only moral imperative that is applicable to all situations, and it contains the principle of all duty.4
Kant also divides moral duties into duties to oneself and duties to others, and into perfect duties and imperfect duties.5 Perfect duties must always be complied with, but imperfect duties allow some exceptions to compliance (if perfect duties must be complied with). However, these different kinds of duty are never actually in conflict, since the categorical imperative is the supreme principle of all duty.
Another way of prioritizing moral duties is described by John Rawls (1971), who says that the duty not to infringe on the basic rights of individuals should be assigned a higher priority than the duty to promote the greatest possible amount of good for the greatest number of individuals. While utilitarianism may try to justify infringements on the basic rights of some individuals if these infringements produce a greater total amount of good for a greater number of individuals, Rawls rejects this position, saying that acts of injustice toward particular groups of individuals are never justified, unless those acts are necessary to prevent even greater injustice.
According to Rawls, the duty to comply with “the principle of greatest equal liberty” (the principle that each individual should have an equal right to as much liberty as is compatible with the rights of other individuals) should be assigned a higher priority than the duty to comply with “the difference principle” (the principle that any social or economic inequalities that occur between individuals should be designed to benefit every individual) and the duty to comply with “the principle of fair equality of opportunity” (the principle that any social or economic inequalities that occur between individuals should belong to positions that are equally available to all individuals). Thus, the failure to comply with the principle of greatest equal liberty cannot be justified on the grounds that the difference principle and the principle of fair equality of opportunity have been complied with. Similarly, the duty to comply with “the principle of fair equality of opportunity” has a higher priority than the duty to comply with “the difference principle.” Thus, the failure to comply with the principle of fair equality of opportunity cannot be justified on the grounds that the difference principle has been complied with. The first principle of justice (the principle of greatest equal liberty) must be complied with before the second principle of justice (the difference principle and the principle of fair equality of opportunity) can be complied with, and the first part of the second principle of justice (the principle of fair equality of opportunity) must be complied with before the second part (the difference principle) can be complied with, if justice is to be attained.
From a utilitarian standpoint, the prioritization of moral duties is governed by the principle of utility: the duty to perform an action A has a higher priority than the duty to perform some other action B if A has a greater utility (will produce a greater amount of good) than B.
From the standpoint of moral relativism, the priority of a moral duty is always relative to the particular moral agent for whom compliance with that duty is obligatory, and is also relative to the particular situation in which that moral agent is a participant. From the standpoint of moral absolutism or intuitionism, however, there are absolute moral duties (such as the command, “Thou shalt not kill”) that are not relative to the particular moral agent or situation.
Is it more important not to do harm than to do good? If so, then perhaps negative moral duties (such as “Thou shalt not kill”) are more important than positive moral duties (such as “Honor thy father and thy mother”).6
The admonition, primum non nocere (“first, do no harm”), is a principle of biomedical ethics that indicates the priority, for healthcare professionals, of the negative duty of not doing harm over the positive duty of doing good.
A (personal, social, professional, moral, or religious) code of duty may in some cases be formulated in order to prioritize a set of duties, but in other cases it may simply list a set of duties and identify those individuals who must comply with those duties. Thus, the attempt to prioritize duties may be necessary even for someone who adheres to such a code.
The fact that positive duties (such as the duty of beneficence) may not necessarily have priority over negative duties (such as the duty of non-maleficence) means that moral judgment is always necessary in order to properly evaluate the relative importance of competing or conflicting moral duties.
The proper prioritization of moral duties requires that we be able to recognize and acknowledge our moral duties and that we be able to properly define and evaluate the relations between them. Thus, compliance with some moral duties may require that we not only recognize and acknowledge those duties, but also properly define the relations between those duties and other duties, and evaluate the relative importance of those duties as compared to other duties.
A question that is raised by the attempt to prioritize moral duties is whether each duty that is prioritized will be complied with to the same degree or whether some duties will be complied with to a greater degree than others. It would be expected that the higher the priority assigned to a duty, the greater would be the importance of strict compliance with that duty, and thus the greater the incentive to strictly comply with that duty. It would similarly be expected that the lower the priority assigned to a duty, the less incentive there would be to strictly comply with that duty, and thus compliance with that duty would be expected to be less strict.
The prioritization of moral duties may not be a problem for the moral intuitionist who holds that judgments about the relative importance of competing or conflicting duties can be made intuitively. However, it may be argued that if duties are seen as moral rules or principles of conduct, then there must also be rules or principles for the application of those moral rules or principles of conduct. Logical consistency may require that if we are going to assign importance to a given set of moral principles, then we must try to find the best way to apply them to the kinds of moral situations with which we will be confronted.
The prioritization of duties may also not be a problem for the moral egoist who holds that the highest priority should always be given to those duties that promote his own personal advantage or gain, regardless of the needs and concerns of other individuals. For the moral egoist, the duties he owes to himself (if there are such duties) will always be of a higher priority than the duties he owes to others.
The prioritization of duties may be a means of determining the proper amount of blame to be placed on persons who fail to comply with their moral duty, insofar as the higher the priority of a duty, the greater the amount of blame that may be placed on persons who willfully or negligently fail to comply with that duty.
The amount of blame that may be properly placed on persons for noncompliance with moral duty may also be determined by whether they actually recognized their moral duty. Failure to recognize duty may be due to defects in moral intuition, reasoning, judgment, and understanding (all of which may contribute to a person’s sense of moral duty).
Given that a person may only to able to fulfill a limited number of obligations or commitments within a given amount of time, it may be important to be able to prioritize them so that those obligations or commitments considered to be of highest priority can be attended to before that person finds herself unable to attend to those of lower priority. In this way, the amount of blame that she may incur by not being able to fulfill all of her obligations or commitments may perhaps be kept to a minimum.
1Mencius, translated by D.C. Lau (London: Penguin Books, 1970), Book III, Part B, Ch. 9.
2W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930), p.22.
3Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, translated by H.J. Paton (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), p. 82.
4Ibid., p. 92.
5Ibid., p. 89.
6Ross, The Right and the Good, p. 22.
Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. Translated by H.J. Paton. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.
Mencius. Translated by D.C. Lau. London: Penguin Books, 1970.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.
Ross, W.D. The Right and the Good. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930.