[Paleopsych] Routledge: Roger Crisp: Moral Particularism
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Roger Crisp: Moral Particularism The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Moral particularism is a broad set of views which play down the role
of general moral principles in moral philosophy and practice.
Particularists stress the role of examples in moral education and of
moral sensitivity or judgment in moral decision-making, as well as
criticizing moral theories which advocate or rest upon general
principles. It has not yet been demonstrated that particularism
constitutes an importantly controversial position in moral philosophy.
Moral particularism is the view that general moral principles play
less of a role in moral thought than has often been claimed. In its
most extreme form, particularism states that there are no genuine
moral principles, and that therefore moral agents who attempt to guide
their action by reference to moral principles, and philosophers who
attempt to construct moral theories based on principles, are seriously
mistaken (see Moral realism §5; Situation ethics).
Many particularists are influenced by the view of Wittgenstein that
one acquires a concept not by being taught some universal rule for its
application, but through introduction into a human practice and a way
of seeing things (see Wittgensteinian ethics §3). The particularist
view of moral education will stress the importance of examples and
actual experience of individual moral cases rather than the learning
of universal moral rules under which particular cases can be subsumed
(see Examples in ethics §2; Moral education §3).
A link is often drawn between moral particularism and so-called
'antitheory' in ethics. Antitheorists suggest that ethical theorists
are in error in postulating principles according to which actions are
right to the extent that they are in accord with these principles.
Utilitarianism, for example, claims that acts are right to the extent
that they maximize utility (see Utilitarianism). A further link is
often alleged between particularism, anti-theory and virtue ethics
(see Virtue ethics). But this link may rest on a confusion between
particularism about moral theory and particularism about moral agency.
Virtue ethics has its own principle: right actions are those that the
virtuous person would do. The virtuous person will indeed not in
practice proceed by attempting to apply this principle directly. Here,
however, virtue ethics and utilitarianism are in agreement, since most
utilitarians have claimed that moral agents should not attempt to
apply utilitarianism in practice.
Moral particularism can also emerge out of the theory of reasons for
action. On the view of Dancy (1993), reasons are not universalizable
across cases, so that what counts as a reason in one case need not be
assumed to function as a reason in the same way in other cases (see
Logic of ethical discourse §7). My enjoying giving you a present
counts in favour of my action; but my enjoying torturing you counts
against. Against this, it can be suggested that reasons are
universalizable at a higher level (innocent pleasure, perhaps, always
counts as a reason), and that to deny this is to embrace a form of
According to less extreme particularists, principles can play some
role in theory and in practice (see Casuistry). On one view, they
serve as useful generalizations, but there is always a need for
judgment in particular cases (see Moral judgment §2; Theory and
practice §2). Aristotle is best seen as such a particularist. Once
again, it is not clear that, for example, utilitarians or Kantians
would wish to deny such a role for judgment (see Kantian ethics;
Universalism in ethics §3).
See also: Aesthetics and ethics
References and further reading
Aristotle (c. mid 4th century BC) Nicomachean Ethics, trans. with
notes by T. Irwin, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1985,
NOTE: (Contains an account of moral judgment or 'practical
Dancy, J. (1993) Moral Reasons, Oxford: Blackwell. (Central outline
and defence of modern particularism. Difficult.)
McDowell, J. (1979) 'Virtue and reason', Monist 62: 331-50.
(Defence of a form of particularist virtue ethics involving both
Aristotle and Wittgenstein. Difficult.)
Ross, W.D. (1930) The Right and the Good, Oxford: Clarendon Press,
chaps 1-2. (Has been influential on the development of modern
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