Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

On Knowing the `Why' Particularism and Moral Theory

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

On Knowing the `Why' Particularism and Moral Theory

Article excerpt

If particularism is right, the broad moral claims we make are usually riddled with exceptions. But such generalizations can still be a useful, even necessary part of moral life. They help us show what we should do, and they are essential for understanding why we should do it.

Moral particularism--or situationism, as it has sometimes been called--seems to present an especially radical objection to the enterprise of moral theory. While the project of many "antitheorists" has been to battle philosophers' tendency toward arid or overly tidy pictures of morality, particularism seems to put pressure on the point or possibility of doing moral theory at all. It argues, (in)famously, that the moral import of any consideration is irreducibly context dependent, that exceptions can be found to any proffered principles, and that moral wisdom consists in the ability to discern and interpret the shape of situations one encounters, not the ability to subsume them under codified rules.[1] The position thus seems, in the minds of many, to suggest not that moral theory needs to be richer than has been its makers' wont, but that there is no such thing, or at least no such thing we need.

Contemplation of such an idea often provokes feelings of vertigo--not to mention derision. But it also provokes confusion. Is the particularist really saying that theory has no place in the moral life? Such a view seems curious. After all, the philosopher most often claimed as an ally to particularism, Aristotle, didn't seem to eschew theory so entirely. He didn't confine himself to commenting on individual cases; and he insisted that the person of moral wisdom must know the `why,' not just the `that'--something that sounds, one might have thought, like a call to theoretical abstraction. Add to this the fact that many particularists agree that principles have some role or other, and it's fair to wonder whether some notion of theory is compatible with particularism--and what that notion might be.

As a card-carrying moral particularist who makes a living doing something I'd be happy to call moral theory, I do think the two are compatible. But I think the insights underlying particularism offer profoundly important lessons on how moral theory should be conceived. For one thing, theory turns out to be less central to the moral life than certain traditions have thought. More importantly, particularism, properly understood, presents a different picture of the kinds of generalizations that make up moral theory--that make up, in the end, our understanding of the `why.'

Varieties of Antitheory

I want to start by isolating the distinctive challenge that particularism seems to pose for moral theory. As many have noted, the objections presented under the "antitheory" rubric form a diverse class.[2] Sometimes, the point has been to object to ambitiously reductive theories, in which a very few concepts are said to be able to generate all of our moral considerations if only we spin them out properly--such as Kant's theory that all of morality (including the virtues, as it turns out) could be generated out of the notions of respect for self and others.[3] Such views, it is argued, buy simplicity at the cost of accuracy: the moral landscape cannot be understood by reference to some one or two concepts.

Other objections target theories that bleed out any distinctive role for judgment. On some treatments of morality (hedonic utilitarianism comes to mind), the considerations said to have moral import are ones we could in principle design a sensor to detect for us, and their relative weights something a computer could render algorithmically (they are lexically ordered, say, or commensurable in the strong sense that renders all weightings quantitative). In contrast, it is argued, moral expertise just isn't the sort of thing a machine could have. It takes interpretation to determine when an action counts as merciful, and again when the demands of mercy trump those of justice instead of the other way around. …

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