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January 11, 2007

consequences of particularism

I drafted a paper more than a year ago that drew some political implications out of a philosophical doctrine called "moral particularism" (click for pdf). I haven't had a chance to improve and expand that paper for publication. It actually covers a huge amount of ground very thinly (which makes it inappropriate, in its current form, for academic publication). Here are a few key ideas:

Some concepts have the following features:

1) They are morally important. When they show up as features of a situation, they usually ought to influence our moral judgment, albeit in conjunction with other features.
2) These concepts lack consistent moral "valence." Depending on the situation, they can make it worse or better. There are no general rules that reliably tell us what their valence will be in all the instances of a certain description. By way of analogy (which I owe to Simon Blackburn), we can't tell in advance--or by means of a principle or rule--whether a splash of red paint will make a painting better or worse. That is because the proper unit of aesthetic analysis is the whole painting, not an area within it. Nevertheless, a splash of red paint is important to the overall beauty of a painting. It might ruin a Vermeer but save a De Kooning. Likewise, we can't tell whether love makes a situation better or worse; but it usually matters.
3) These concepts are indispensable. We cannot resolve moral questions appropriately by appealing only to concepts that avoid 1) and 2).

I think these three features apply to all of the traditional virtues and vices: courage, pride, partiality, respect, and many more. As an example, consider love. Love is morally significant and can be either good or bad depending on the situation. The question is whether we can use a rule or principle to delimit the good cases of love from the bad. Then we could replace the ambiguous word "love" with two words, one for the good form and the other for the bad. (Or there might turn out to be more than two subsets of love.)

I don't have a proof that such an analysis must fail. But I doubt that it can succeed, because I suspect that we humans happen to have an emotion, love, that can be either good or bad, or can easily change from good to bad (or vice-versa), or can be good and bad at the same time in various complex ways. Even when love is good, it carries some problematic freight because of its potential to be bad. And when love is wrong, it nevertheless has some redeeming qualities because it is akin to love that is good. I think the instinct to divide it into eros and agape or other such subcategories is fundamentally mistaken.

(That does not mean, however, that there is no difference between good and bad love. Moral judgment is necessary, but it has to be about situations, not about concepts in the abstract.)

Numerous implications follow from this doctrine, but the one I want to mention here is political. For a particularist, there can be no technique for resolving moral questions that is analogous to the techniques of economics, engineering, or law. First, there cannot be a computational method (such as the one that utilitarianism promises) because that would presume that one consistent good, such as happiness, is the only concept that counts. The particularist replies that other concepts must also be considered, and they happen to be unpredictable. Second, the particularist doubts that we can develop a set of sharp and valid moral definitions or principles and then apply them to cases. Although some moral concepts may be definable in ways that give them consistent moral valence, others cannot.

Thus there is no expertise or procedure that will yield wise moral judgments. However, particularism is consistent with public deliberation. When people discuss what should be done, they apply rules and principles--sometimes validly and sometimes not. But they also tell stories so as to bring out the salient features of a situation and depict those features in a positive or a negative way. They place particular aspects of the situation in various contexts. And they bring out themes (not rules or principles but repeated motifs of moral significance). In making such arguments, they apply their distinct backgrounds and perspectives. This is the best form of moral reasoning, assuming that particularism is right.

I do not assume that everyone has equally valid and useful points to contribute in deliberation. Yet we should allow everyone to participate because: (a) rules that exclude some and favor others tend to be biased--merely to serve special interests, and (b) many more people have valid moral insights than one might think. Thus particularism does not imply egalitarianism, but it counts in its favor.

January 11, 2007 11:53 AM | category: philosophy | Comments


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