Is a universal ethic possible or desirable? Current philosophical debate over ‘universalism versus contextualism’—over abstract, impartial, absolute, universal perspectives versus concrete, local, historically specific, contextual perspectives- suggests radically different answers to this question. From the perspective of canonical Western philosophy, the answer is yes. Various competing consequentialist theories (e.g. Ethical Egoism and Utilitarianism) and deontological theories (e.g. Divine Command Theory, Kantianism, Rights-Based theories, perhaps Virtue Ethics) have been offered to fill this role. From the perspective of some feminisms, as well as what has come to be called post-modernism, the answer seems to be no. Various alternative theories (e.g. a feminist ‘ethic of care’, radical deconstructionist positions) have been proposed. Navigating these waters is no easy task, especially if one finds oneself, as I do, wanting to defend some version of both universalism and contextualism.
In this chapter I suggest a way through the horns of the dilemma of ‘universalism versus contextualism’ (and absolutism versus relativism). I do so by defending three claims. First, we need to think of the universality of ‘universal ethical principles’ not in the canonical sense of ahistorical, transcendent, abstract principles but, instead, as guidelines, strategies or ‘useful heuristic devices’ (Kellert, 1995). As guidelines, ethical principles remind us to pay close attention to local, historically situated, contextually dependent practices. In this sense, universal principles are ‘situated’. I call this position about universals ‘situated universalism’. Second, regardless of which particular ethical principle one adopts in a given situation, a moral requirement of ethics, in general, and any candidate ethic, in particular, is that it must be ‘care sensitive’. Third, which particular ethic or situated ethical principle ought to be adopted as most appropriate in a given situation will be determined by the extent to which application of that ethic or ethical principle reflects, creates or results in care practices. I call this the ‘care practices condition’.
Taken together, the three claims that ethics must be care sensitive, that universal principles are ‘situated’ and that the appropriate ethic or ethical principle for a given context must reflect or result in ‘care practices’ presuppose a commitment to ethical pluralism (rather than to ethical monism). On the pluralistic