Particularism and Invariant Valence

Here’s the second-last section of my Garage Blackboard Lectures talk on particularism. I deal with one common objection to the theory.

Let’s take a quick look at one common objection to particularism. People who aren’t particularists – generalists – generally say at this point that particularists are just looking at the wrong principles. Generalists think there are actually some moral reasons that don’t change in an organic whole: that, if they count for an action, will count for it no matter the context. Here’s an example: “the fact that you’ve made a promise is always a moral reason to keep it”. That’s a little more sophisticated than “keep your promises!” Let’s say that you borrow a book, and then find that you could destroy the book to save a life. The principle “keep your promises!” seems to be just defeated by the context. But it might still be true that you have a moral reason to give the book back – it’s just that such a reason is outweighed.

However. What if you find out the book is stolen, and the person who it was stolen from desperately wants it back? It looks like in that situation you have no reason at all to return the book to the thief – your promise is quite literally voided by the context. Take another example of an unchanging principle: “the fact that an action would increase happiness is always a moral reason to do it”. Well, what about the pleasure of a sadist? The sadist’s pleasure is not the “moral silver lining” of the situation. It’s part of what makes the sadist so morally repulsive. It changes the moral character of the sadist’s actions for the worse. I think these examples show us how hard it is to find a moral principle that doesn’t change itself in different contexts.


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