Exploring the Ranks of Prima Facie Duties: A Rossian Analysis of Paul Baumer 

The character Paul Baumer is a young soldier fighting in World War I who is forced to confront the harsh reality of war in Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. As a result of these realities,  he is  often compelled to engage in actions that contradict moral principles despite his intent to uphold a just cause. This type of moral dilemma is addressed in the philosophy of William David Ross, who discusses the tension between prima facie duties and actual duties in his works, The Right and the Good  and Foundation of Ethics . Ross’s ethical framework  will be used to analyze Paul’s actions  and the ethical implications of his decisions.

Prima facie duties are moral obligations that individuals have a reason to fulfill, but may also have other reasons that prevent them from fulfilling said duties. William David Ross identifies several prima facie duties that individuals are morally obligated to uphold:  fidelity, reparation, gratitude, justice, beneficence, and self-improvement. Nevertheless, these duties may clash with outside circumstances, resulting in moral dilemmas. Ross therefore suggests that individuals must evaluate the relative importance of each duty and decide which one takes precedence in a given context.

In the case of Paul Baumer,  he often breaks the duty of fidelity which requires that individuals keep their promises and don’t deceive others. For example, Paul lies to Kemmerich on his deathbed saying, “Don’t talk rubbish Franz, in a couple of days you’ll see for yourself. What is it anyway-an amputated leg? Here they patch up far worse things than that” (All Quiet on the Western Front, p. 27). He also lies to Kemmerich’s mother about her son’s death when he told her that, “He died immediately. He felt absolutely nothing at all. His face was quite calm.” (All Quiet on the Western Front, p. 181) Although these instances violate the prima facie duty of fidelity, Ross also notes that there are situations where “one duty (e.g., relieving distress) may be ‘more of a duty’ than another duty (e.g., fulfilling a promise).”(W.D Ross’s Moral Theory)  This suggests that while Paul had a duty to be honest with Kemmerich and his mother, he may have felt that his duty to relieve their distress was more pressing in the moment.

Similarly, Paul violates the duty of non maleficence, which states that individuals should not harm others. For example, when he encounters a wounded enemy soldier, he suggests that they should “put an end to his misery.” (All Quiet on the Western Front, p. 72) However, Ross notes that some actions, such as acts of mercy, are only right in certain circumstances (Foundation of Ethics). In this case, Paul may have believed that ending the soldier’s suffering  was the right thing to do, especially since he and his fellow soldiers were already facing so much pain and misery themselves. 

The broader context of war and its impact on the soldier’s morality can also be considered when analyzing Paul’s actions. When an enemy soldier falls next to Paul during a bombardment, he violates the prima facie duties of maleficence and beneficence when he states, “I do not think at all, I make no decisions – I strike madly at home, and feel only how the body suddenly convulses, then becomes limp, and collapses.”  (All Quiet on the Western Front, p. 216) Ross argues that there are certain actions that are intrinsically wrong, such as actions taken for cruel pleasure or  “acting not from a sense of its rightness but from self-interest.” (The Right and the Good)  However, Paul’s actions on the battlefield were not driven by self-interest or cruelty but by a desire to survive and protect his comrades. This conflict between duties highlights Ross’ complexity of ethical decision-making in the context of war, where the line between right and wrong may be blurred.

In conclusion, William David Ross’s philosophy offers a useful framework for evaluating the morality of Paul Baumer’s actions in All Quiet on the Western Front. While his actions may appear to violate certain ethical norms and moral principles, the morality of Paul’s actions ultimately depended  on the specific context in which they occurred to determine which duty takes precedence in that situation.

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