Monthly Archives: July 2014

Particularism: The Problem with Mainstream Moral Philosophy

Here’s the next section of my talk at the Garage Blackboard Lectures:

In 1912, H.A. Prichard wrote a hugely influential paper called “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake” – a provocative title – where he expressed a dissatisfaction with ethical philosophy. The emphasis on arguments and abstraction left him pretty cold. If we wanted to be convinced about our moral obligation to not steal or kill, he wrote, we just have to get face to face with a particular instance of, say, murder or theft. All this general argument stuff just won’t do it.

In 1976, half a century later, Michael Stocker wrote another influential and provocative paper called “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories”. He pointed out the way popular ethical theories like our Big Three fail to take account of motive. If you’re a utilitarian, say, you’ll act to produce the most happiness in the greatest number. But if you’re visiting your sick friend in the hospital, and he thanks you for coming, and you say “well, I didn’t come because of my friendship with you, but because I judged it was the act that would produce the most happiness in the greatest number…” Well, your friend would probably not be impressed with how saintly you are.

In 1985, Annette Baier wrote a great paper arguing that the way the Big Three are taught tends to produce not more ethical students, but totally amoral students. When you’re taught three (or thirty, since the Big Three have a ton of variants) different abstract frameworks for ethics, that in some places are similar and in some places are different, that seem to have exactly the same weight of evidence behind them, Baier thinks it’s tempting to just reject ethics altogether and opt for a more univocal motivation: like self-interest.

There’s some reason to think Baier’s right! In 2009, the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel published a somewhat tongue-in-cheek study that showed this: relatively obscure, contemporary ethics books of the sort likely to be borrowed mainly by professors and advanced students of philosophy were actually about 50% more likely to be missing than non-ethics books, and that classic (pre-1900) ethics books were about twice as likely to be missing. So! I hope all that has given you reason to believe that there’s something wrong in ethical philosophy – and I should note that this is all analytic ethical philosophy; these criticisms don’t necessarily extend to continental or Asian ethical philosophy.

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What is Ethical Particularism?

After a long hiatus, I’m back for a bit. Over the next week or two I’m going to post sections of a talk I gave the other day at the Garage Blackboard Lectures on ethical particularism. Here’s the introductory bit:

Hi everyone! In this talk I’ll try to convince you that you ought to be an ethical particularist – or, failing that, I’ll at least try to explain what ethical particularism is and why it’s interesting. Ethical particularism is the view that says there are no ethical principles, and we shouldn’t rely on ethical principles when we make decisions. Of course that’s a controversial view, and the first part of my talk will attempt to show why such a radical approach is warranted. I’ll be arguing that there’s something fundamentally weird about large parts of ethical philosophy. Then I’ll talk about reasons – in particular, moral reasons – and what the particularist thinks about the way moral reasons combine. Finally I’ll try address the common objection that without general principles we can’t do ethical philosophy or communication. Two notes: I’ll be talking in the context of analytic philosophy, and I’ll be using “moral” and “ethical” interchangeably.

I don’t know how many of you have taken undergrad courses in ethical philosophy, but if you have you’ll know the Big Three theories in ethics: utilitarianism, virtue ethics and deontology. These are the three main things you get taught, and different theories are usually situated in relation to these big ones. Utilitarianism is the theory that we ought to do what would promote the most happiness. Virtue ethics is the theory that we ought to do what the just, courageous, etc person would. Deontology is the theory that we ought to abide by the Moral Law – and usually deontologists have a pretty clear idea of what that law is. Now this is a pretty rough statement of these three theories, but I think it’s pretty clear that they occupy a certain level of abstraction. That is, they’re theories about what we should do in general. General principles, in other words. They all take for granted that we can devise a set of abstract precepts that will cover all instances (or at least cover them well enough). But why should we think this is the right way to think about ethics?