Particularism and Moral Theory

In the final section of my talk on particularism I deal with a second objection: that particularism leaves us no room for philosophy as such.

Finally, let’s look at another objection to particularism. So far in this talk I’ve presented particularism as a kind of negative position: arguing that we can’t have ethical principles, but not really presenting what we should have instead (outside of a careful attention to the facts).  Opponents of particularism generally say here that particularism offers no actual way of talking about ethics. They argue that there’s no room for ethical philosophy as such in a particularist view. That’s not quite as serious as a claim that particularism is false, but it’s an objection that particularists have been quite concerned with – as they should be. Ethical philosophers don’t want to philosophize themselves out of a job.

The particularist’s aim here is to avoid total reliance on a kind of Aristotelian ‘practical wisdom’, which is a “just practice and develop your ethical awareness” approach. I want to say there’s at least two ways the particularist can do this, and probably many more. Let’s start with the first, which I find the most convincing. Margaret Little and Mark Lance – both ethical particularists – have argued that particularists should be able to use something very like ethical principles. Take the principle “murder is wrong” or “do not murder” – of course, the particularists say, this gets us nowhere if we see it as a grand truth about what is right. But what if, as Little and Lance suggest, we see it as something like a musical theme? “Murder is wrong” becomes then a kind of motif for ethics: it’s not present everywhere, just as a musical theme isn’t constantly repeated in a symphony. But we can see echoes of it all over the place. Cases where murder is right, Little says, are going to be weird cases. That doesn’t have to mean uncommon cases, but it does mean a case where something has gone wrong – i.e the dog-eat-dog world of Mad Max or an instance of violent self-defense.  Particularists can theorize about ethics like people theorize about music: picking out the themes, noting the variations and so on. Anyway. I don’t want to belabour this point; I’m just suggesting a way particularists can use theory.

A second way has been outlined by Gerald Dworkin, who suggests we engage in something like common-law legal reasoning when we do ethics. Instead of dealing with principles at all, we talk exclusively about cases and precedent: picking out past or hypothetical instances where certain judgements seem clear, and trying to see the relevant similarities and differences between those instances that might motivate new judgements. This is a way more modest approach than Little’s: Dworkin isn’t saying that we can isolate relevant moral considerations this way: a relevant factor in one case might be irrelevant in another. He’s saying we can make particular decisions on a case-by-case basis. That’s it.

I haven’t really argued for either Little’s view or Dworkin’s view – that’s outside the scope of this talk. All I want to demonstrate is that particularism has a few options for doing ethical philosophy. If you’ve got no interest in philosophy and just want to make good ethical decisions, you can forget this part of the talk right away.


3 thoughts on “Particularism and Moral Theory

  1. rough equation

    A second way has been outlined by Gerald Dworkin, who suggests we engage in something like common-law legal reasoning when we do ethics.

    Any relation to Ronald Dworkin?

    If you travel back in American jurisprudence to the days and places where there was a Court of Chancery applying principles of equity, rather than following codified or declaratory laws, you would see that branch of the common law appearing much like ethics. Equity courts continue in NJ and DE and may be elsewhere in American court systems. Outcomes are tailored to the situation, not because of their fit within a hierarchy or framework found in regulations, statutes or prior decisions.

  2. Socrates


    I think what you want to do is point out that moral principles do exist (they are the objective component), but the intent of the person (the subjective component) must also be taken into consideration.

    I see only two ways to ground ethics: command morality or rational morality.

    Rational morality is based on human nature and its telological ends (Plato, Aristole, and the Stoics, as well as the Catholic, Orthodox, and Coptic communions are of this flavor. Western political theory is based on this principle, or at least in theory).

    Command morality can take many forms, but the general groups of interest are Divine Command and Societal Command.

    Divine Command is, as you might know, is based on the commands of God and the Bible or Quran or whatever (Luther, Calvin, and Locke are this).

    Societal Command is the idea that morality is based on the culture of a society (Most Western nations take this view today, as relativism has prevailed. Eastern culture have always taken this view). Now, this view logically ends with Nietzcheism, with the powerful deciding what is good, be it the emperor, the corporate leaders, the media thugs, or Hitler (Godwin’s law!!!). I mention Hitler because I wish to point out how dangerous this view is. It leads to fascism. Look at the eastern world. They never developed republics or democracies because of this moral theory often took the form of godkingism. If the emperor claims that Jews are not good with the sword, then under this view, they are ultimately bad (although the this is a bit more complicated: I’m just painting a general picture for now).

    Christianity rejects Societal Command morality, and as such can progressively denounce a nation or society, pointing out its flaws, based on either Divine command or nature morality.

    Christi pax,



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s