Here’s the third section of my Garage Blackboard Lectures talk about particularism. In it I outline what I take to be the mainstream philosophical method of ethics, which particularism vehemently disagrees with:
So what’s the problem with ethics? I think it’s a tendency – maybe a post-Enlightenment thing – to try and treat ethics like a science. Certainly in deontological and utilitarian approaches you can see the standard scientific approach play out: break everything down into atomic units, then find the laws governing how those units relate to each other. Just as physicists try and figure out the ‘most basic’ particles and how they work together – or astronomers calculate the interactions between bodies of mass – moral philosophers have tried to find the most basic moral reasons and how those reasons interact.
Utiltiarians think the most basic moral reason – the only one, in fact – is happiness. That an act would increase happiness is a moral reason to do that act. Deontologists think there are a few basic moral reasons – to avoid killing, to respect others, and so on. Nearly everyone agrees that if we can find more fundamental reasons that would encompass our existing ones, then we should take those as ‘better’ moral principles. The basic assumption is that the moral landscape is governed by general rules. The ultimate goal, presumably, is a set of rules – a theory – such that we could plug in every difficult moral decision and get the right thing to do.
I want to note here that this philosophical approach to ethics is painfully at odds with how we actually engage in ethics daily. We don’t reach for theories when making decisions. If we’re asked to explain why we’ve acted in a certain way, I think our general impulse is not to go more abstract (I bought Tim a coffee because it is always right to do X in situation Y) but to focus on the particular details (I bought Tim a coffee because he had a bad day, because he looked worn-down, etc etc etc).