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A Particular Consequentialism: Why Moral Particularism and Consequentialism Need Not Conflict

  • Jonas Olson (a1) and Frans Svensson (a1)


Moral particularism is commonly presented as an alternative to ‘principle- or rule-based’ approaches to ethics, such as consequentialism or Kantianism. This paper argues that particularists' aversions to consequentialism stem not from a structural feature of consequentialism per se, but from substantial and structural axiological views traditionally associated with consequentialism. Given a particular approach to (intrinsic) value, there need be no conflict between moral particularism and consequentialism. We consider and reject a number of challenges holding that there is after all such a conflict. We end by suggesting that our proposed position appears quite appealing since it preserves attractive elements from particularism as well as consequentialism.



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1 Two clarifications are in place: First, the kind of principles rejected by particularism are of a substantial kind that assumes indefeasible supervenience functions holding between the non-moral and the moral, such as ‘lying is always wrong’ or ‘producing the greatest amount of sensory pleasure is always right’ (cf. the ‘anomalous’ supervenience function that Donald Davidson takes to hold between the mental and the physical; see Davidson, Donald, ‘Mental Events’, Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford, 1981). But a particularist need not have any quarrel with formal principles that assume no such indefeasible supervenience functions and hence lack non-moral substantive content, such as ‘act rightly’ or ‘act so as to produce the greatest amount of intrinsic value’ (see our response to objection (ii) in section IV below). Second, it may be the case that the particularist's contention is that there is no space or use for principles in ideal practical reasoning. However, whether we humans with finite and fallible capacities need some fairly easily stated and defeasible principles to get on in everyday moral life is, we think, still left open (more on this below). Cf. Little, Margaret, ‘Moral Generalities Revisited’, Moral Particularism, ed. Hooker, B. and Little, M., Oxford, 2000.

2 The supposed connection between moral particularism and virtue ethics is, we think, not entirely clear. It is sometimes stated with reference to Aristotle's view that we cannot expect to find any precise principles in ethics. Cf. Dancy, Jonathan, Moral Reasons, Oxford, 1993, p. 50. However, whether Aristotle was a particularist in the sense of e.g. Dancy is debatable, as is whether Aristotle would embrace anything like a modem conception of virtue ethics. Another thing that deserves to be mentioned here is that at one place Dancy allows that what he calls ‘holism of reasons’ need not be incompatible with some version or other of consequentialism. Here Dancy seems to more or less anticipate something fairly close to what we argue for in this paper. Unlike him though, we argue the point by way of focusing primarily on axiological considerations. See Dancy, , Moral Reasons, p. 232n l5. We are indebted to an anonymous referee for drawing our attention to this passage.

3 Hare, R. M., Moral Thinking, Oxford, 1981, p. 108.

4 Note that the the universalist, as we picture her, need not be a consequentialist. As Philip Pettit has pointed out: ‘[universalizability] is so commanding that (…) every account of right action must give it countenance’. Pettit, , ‘The Consequentialist Perspective’, Baron, M., Pettit, P., and Slote, M., Three Methods of Ethics, Oxford, 1997,p. 141.

5 It is sometimes suggested that this makes the universalizability thesis per se philosophically uninteresting. But we do not agree. As R. M. Hare once remarked, ‘it is wrong to take too narrowly utilitarian an attitude towards philosophical theses’. Hare, R. M., Freedom and Reason, Oxford, 1963, p. 12. Even if empirically unlikely, it is still conceptually possible to encounter (perhaps imaginatively) two distinct x and y identical in all universal properties. In such a case the universalizability thesis per se tells us at least that purely numerical and indexical properties lack moral significance.

6 Hare, , Freedom and Reason, p. 39.

7 Cf. Kagan, Shelly, Normative Ethics, Boulder, 1998, pp. 184–6.

8 We believe that most often particularists are concerned merely to make the former claim. However, Dancy is one prominent proponent of particularism who occasionally indicates that he takes particularism to be a metaphysical doctrine. See Dancy, Jonathan, ‘Can a Particularist Learn the Difference between Right and Wrong?’, Proceedings of the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, I, Ethics, ed. Brinkmann, K., Bowling Green, 1999, p. 60; On the Logical and Moral Adequacy of Particularism’, Theoria, lxv (1999), 144.

9 Some consequentialists, e.g. rule-consequentialists, might disagree. But we will not discuss rule-consequentialism in this paper. Our focus is on act-consequentialism.

10 Whether ‘being conducive to the greatest amount of value’ should be seen as an outright definition of, or rather co-extensive with, ‘right’ is not important here.

11 As is well known, Mill's view departed from Bentham's in so far as Mill defended ‘qualified hedonism’, according to which the value of an experience of pleasure is not determined solely by its intensity, but also by its quality. It is perhaps not quite right to attribute to Mill the view that (experience of) pleasure is the only thing of positive intrinsic value. An anonymous referee suggested that Mill might have held that pleasure is the only positive thing of intrinsic value, while the absence of pain is another thing of intrinsic value which is in some sense negative. A third possible interpretation is that for Mill, the only thing of positive intrinsic value is happiness, where this is understood as comprising the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. See Utilitarianism, Essays on Ethics, Religion and Society, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. Robson, John M., Toronto, 1969, vol. x.

12 Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica, Cambridge, 1903.

13 McNaughton, David, Moral Vision, Oxford, Blackwell, 1988, p. 194.

14 Cf. Crisp, Roger, ‘Utilitarianism and the Life of Virtue’, Philosophical Quarterly, xlii (1992), esp. 159.

15 There are reasons to believe that the normative and the axiological might pull in different directions if one endorses a morality with deontological constraints that hold irrespective of consequences, and an axiology according to which certain natural features carry context-independent indefeasible evaluative relevance. But a true particularism contains no such indefeasible moral rules or axiological regularities.

16 We need not, and do not, deny that it is possible to be a particularist both aboutnormative concepts and axiological concepts, and claim that these concepts might pull apart, i.e. that ‘right’ and ‘conducive to the greatest amount of intrinsic value’ need not be extensionally equivalent. But while we grant that such a position would not be incoherent we do not find it at all recommendable. First, considerations of theoretical economy indicate that allowing the normative and the axiological concepts to pull apart is theoretically extravagant. Second, and more importantly, such a view seems to cut off the intimate tie between intrinsic values and practical relevance, for it says that, in some situations at least, it is not right to respond or to act so as to maximize the amount of intrinsic value.

17 Cf. Danielsson, Sven, ‘Konsekvensetikens granser’ (‘The Limits of Consequentialist Ethics’), Filosofiska Utredningar, Stockholm, 1988, p. 77; Carlson, Erik, Consequentialism Reconsidered, Dordrecht, 1995, pp. 42 f.

18 See Moore, , ‘The Conception of Intrinsic Value’, Philosophical Studies, London, 1922; Principia Ethica, esp. pp. 286, 293.

19 One of us do so in Olson, ‘Intrinsialism and Conditionalism about Final Value’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice (forthcoming). See also Dancy, , ‘On the Logical and Moral Adequacy of Particularism’, 144; ‘The Particularist's Progress’, ed. Hooker, B and Little, M, esp. pp. 137–41; Korsgaard, Christine, ‘Two Distinctions in Goodness’, Creating the Kingdom of Ends, Cambridge, 1996, esp. p. 271; Hurka, Thomas, ‘Two Kinds of Organic Unity’, Journal of Ethics, ii (1998).

20 Foot, Philippa, ‘Utilitarianism and the Virtues’, Consequentialism and its Critics, ed. Scheffler, S., Oxford, 1988, p. 227.

21 Earlier versions of this paper were read at the Higher Seminar of Practical Philosophy at Uppsala University and at the ISUS 2003 Conference in Lisbon. Many thanks to the audiences on these occasions for their helpful comments.

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