Here’s the fourth section of my Garage Blackboard Lectures talk on particularism. I’m finally getting into an actual explanation of what particularists believe:
Now the particularist doesn’t like the science-like approach to ethics at all. And that’s because the particularist has a view about reasons that’s very interesting. Jonathan Dancy, perhaps the best-known particularist currently writing, begins one of his books by comparing reasons to rats. If you put two or more rats together, it’s very hard to predict what they’ll do. They might fight, they might ignore each other, they might have any kind of relationship. And the particularist thinks it’s the same with moral reasons. The landscape of moral reasons is horrendously complicated – certainly too complicated for general principles.
Here’s an example from Dancy. Say you’re visiting a friend in LA, and she asks if there’s any dietary restrictions you have. You tell her that you don’t eat veal, because you think it’s unethical. She replies: “yes, the conditions in which they keep those calves are terrible – and besides, it’s impossible to get good veal in Los Angeles anyway!” Now those two reasons are both reasons not to eat veal. But there’s a kind of inconsistency in putting them together that makes them weaker than either reason would be by itself.
In technical terms, moral reasons form organic unities. The concept of an organic unity was popularized in 1903 by G.E. Moore (who obliquely attributed the idea to Hegel). Moore’s idea – which particularists more or less agree with – was that in any given case, the set of relevant moral considerations combines in weird ways to form one general consideration. You can’t figure out your moral obligation by just listing the various considerations for or against – you have to take a good, holistic look at how these considerations combine to form a whole.
So. Particularists think that our moral reasons tend to combine in complicated, unpredictable ways. We think that any principle like “murder is wrong” or “we should create happiness” is going to be unhelpful: not only are there going to be a ton of exceptions, but there’s no way to predict in advance how all our principles are going to interact in cases of conflict. Hardcore particularists conclude that there just don’t exist any good moral principles. More modest particularists think that good moral principles might exist, but we don’t need them. The real task of ethics is not going to be figuring out or applying principles, but getting a good look at what exactly is going on in any particular case.