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.