Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Principle Ethics, Particularism and Another Possibility

  • Soran Reader (a1)

One of the most striking contributions of particularism to moral philosophy has been its emphasis on the relative opacity of the moral scene to the tools of rational analysis traditionally used by philosophers. Particularism changes the place of the philosopher in relation to the moral life, pointing up the limits to what philosophy can do here. The modern moral philosopher who takes particularism seriously no longer has the luxury, endemic in our tradition, of imagining that moral philosophy can be done with only passing illustrative reference to experience, or that the truth about the whole of our moral life may be read of a list of a priori moral principles, whose rationality is underwritten by the mechanistic account of what it is to follow a rule that pre-Wittgensteinian philosophers took for granted.

Hide All

1 Jonathan Dancy, ‘Caring About Justice’, Philosophy 67, (1992), 466.

2 Dancy J., Moral Reasons (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 83, makes the point about how queer it would be if rationality required that I consistently follow the principle, whilst having nothing to tell me about why I should prefer this principle to another. Kant, of course, attempted to show precisely that there may be principles which are binding on all moral agents just insofar as they are rational. But two important objections are available to his claim. First, the categorical imperative, whatever its pedigree, is too abstract to count as a principle which might guide, let alone specify, action or judgment; second, Kant's argument that the categorical imperative is binding on all rational beings qua rational relies, in the end, on a dogmatic stipulation about human nature, viz., that a will which does not act in accordance with the imperative is thereby ‘enslaved’. No a priori consideration is available that will show how it is that the (rational) amoralist or the occasional moralist cannot respond to this with a dogma of her own, say about how self-interest is the only proper source of motivation for rational beings.See David Wiggins, ‘Categorical Requirements’, Virtues and Reasons, Hursthouse R., Lawrence G. and Quinn W. (eds) (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), 297, for an illuminating discussion of Kant in this regard.

3 See Ross W. D., The Right and the Good (Oxford: Clarendon, 1930) and Foundations of Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon, 1939).

4 Op. cit. note 2, 465.

5 John McDowell, ‘Values and Secondary Qualities’, Morality and Objectivity, Honderich T. (ed.) (London: Routledge, 1985), 110–29, and in Dancy, Op. cit. note 2, 155-63. This problem can emerge only with the adoption of a Humean psychology of moral motivation.

6 In Op. cit. note 2, 85. This hardly seems sufficient reason to reject the possibility.

7 See, for example, McDowell J., ‘Virtue and Reason’, The Monist 62, (1979), 331–50 (346).

8 It may be that particularists are not too troubled by this—certainly, Dancy's comment that there is nothing distinctive about moral motivation as opposed to other kinds, suggests that he does not see this as a potential problem. Op. cit. note 2, 18, x: ‘my theory … is especially aimed at showing that there is nothing very special about moral reasons’. If this really is his view, why does he write about moral reasons, and not just about reasons simpliciter? There may be an explanation: particularists are at pains to rehabilitate moral reasoning, to show how it is just one of many reasoning practices that characterize human life. But in their desire rightly to emphasize the continuity of moral reasoning with other kinds of practical reasoning, particularists run the risk of losing any explanatory grip on what is distinctive about it.

9 Introducing the notion of self-interest might just solve one important puzzle—for the evolutionary biologist. But that is because she is concerned with questions about how behaviours persist, rather than with the questions that concern the moral philosopher: viz, what motivates those behaviours, and how may they be rational?

10 Mackie J. L., Ethics (London: Penguin, 1977), 15, has this much right in his dramatic opening line: ‘There are no objective values.’ His mistake is to take it that this claim licences any inference, whether positive or negative, about the status of ethics; and he makes that mistake because he assumes, as writers who work within the inherited framework tend to do, that ethics must be understood as a matter of evaluation. I describe an alternative to that view in Section 3.

11 See McDowell, Op. cit. note 5.

12 Dancy, op. cit., 214, shows some awareness of the awkwardness of the role which the notion of value must fill in moral philosophy; he even suggests that we should ‘recast the matter in terms not of values but of valuings’. But the unargued use of economic concepts to explicate morality persists in his work—valuings are ‘cost-countings’—and the difference between supererogation and ordinary (obligatory) decency is cashed out in terms of the difference who the cost-bearer is makes to whether or not we can treat an action as obligatory.

13 I am taking ‘need’ here in the useful sense painstakingly established by Garrett Thomson, Needs (London: Routledge, 1987), who took his cue from David Wiggins, Needs, Values, Truth (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985). Needs refer to things without which the subject cannot do, and meeting of a patient's needs is therefore the most basic way of seeking their good.

14 Dancy, op. cit. 127-143, devotes a chapter to this task, responding to the work of Thomas Nagel and Bernard Williams. He is on the side of the majority in professing the intuition that ‘supererogatory acts cannot be obligatory on an acceptable moral theory’.

15 Rosalind Hursthouse, ‘Applying Virtue Ethics’, Virtues and Vices, Hursthouse R., Lawrence G. and Quinn W. (eds) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 5776, makes a similar point against the untutored assumption that moral theories should tell us what to do in cases of conflict. However, she argues from the complexity of what the virtuous person knows, and the kind of judiciousness that she must bring to bear in deciding. I argue instead that moral theories cannot tell us what to do because the question ‘Whose good shall I prefer?’ is not a first-order moral question at all.

16 See Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 163–6.

17 See Gavin Lawrence, ‘The Rationality of Morality’, Virtues and Vices, Hursthouse R., Lawrence G. and Quinn W. (eds.) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 89148, for an interesting discussion of Philippa Foot's efforts in this direction.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0031-8191
  • EISSN: 1469-817X
  • URL: /core/journals/philosophy
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 3 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 83 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 21st October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.