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?

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