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December 5, 2003

universal v. particular in ethics

In ethics, the words "universal," "general," and "particular" are used in three entirely different contexts. First, there is the issue of cultural difference. Some people say, "Morality is universal," meaning that the same rules or judgments ought to apply to members of any culture. Their opponents reply that at least some moral principles are particular to cultures (they only bind people who come from some backgrounds).

Meanwhile, some people say, "Obligations are universal," meaning that we have the same duties to all human beings. For instance, perhaps we are required to maximize everyones happiness, to the best of our ability, not favoring some over others. Opponents of this kind of universalism reply that we have stronger obligations in particular people, such as our own children or compatriots. (See, for example, this good article by blogger and public intellectual Amitai Etzioni.)

Finally, some people say, "What is right to do in a particular case is shown by the correct application of a general or universal moral rule." Their opponents reply that we can and should decide what to do by looking carefully at all the features of each particular case. They agree that there is a right or wrong thing to do in each circumstance; but general rules and principles are unreliable guides to action. Any rule or principle that makes one situation good may make another one bad.

These three arguments are distinct analytically. If you take the "universalist" side in one debate, it does not follow that you must also take it in the others. One can, for example, believe that all people (regardless of culture) ought to be partial toward their own particular children. That view would combine two forms of universalism with one variety of particularism. Or one can believe that very abstract, general rules are never good guides to action, yet everyone from every culture should agree that this mother, in this particular set of circumstances, was right to feed her own child and to let a stranger go hungry. Or one can believe that we ought to treat everyone with precise equality, but only because we are members of a distinctly Western and modernist culture; there is an abstract rule of equal treatment that binds us but does not apply elsewhere.

I think that the only illogical combination is resistance to universal rules plus commitment to impartiality, because impartiality seems best construed as a rule that applies in all cases ("treat everyone alike"). Particularism is consistent with partiality, if partiality just means that sometimes it's OK to discriminate.

I suspect that there is a psychological tendency for some people to embrace universalism in all its forms, or else all forms of particularism; but there is no logical reason for this tendency. On the contrary, there may be some illogic involved. For example, some people favor partiality towards kin and countrymen, and they think but they can support this value by rejecting cultural universalism. That is a non sequitur, although probably a common one. (We see it in "Romantic" reactions against "Enlightenment" universalism.) Likewise, one might fear the nihilistic consequences of cultural relativism and therefore favor abstract, rule-based ethics, but this is another illogical move.

My own view, in a nutshell, combines cultural universalism (everyone should agree in their assessment of any particular case, if they understand it fully); openness to partiality (sometimes it is right to discriminate in favor of certain people with whom one has special relationships); and "particularism" about ethical judgments (we can and should judge cases by closely examining their details, not by applying rules).

December 5, 2003 8:00 AM | category: philosophy | Comments

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