Is particularism no surprise at all?

This post over at E.G. got me thinking.  E.G. writes:

"Consider two demands:

1. A moral theory must be able to accommodate many or most of our
deeply-held, commonsense intuitions.  If a moral theory tells us to do
something we feel strongly we ought not do, then there is something
wrong with the moral theory.

2. A moral theory must be capable of surprising us.  That is, it
must be able to tell us something we would not have been able to know
prior to taking up a systematic approach to moral questions.  If a
moral theory cannot do this, we should abandon it; and if no
moral theory can do this, we may as well abandon moral philosophy and
just listen to our consciences, which is easier, faster and (in terms
of opportunity cost, anyway) cheaper than doing ethics."

Utilitarianism and other consequentialisms are well-known for having trouble meeting the first demand.  But I was curious whether particularism, a recently ascendant position within normative ethics, is especially hard-pressed to meet the second demand.  As I understand it, based on my reading of Dancy, Timmons, McNaughton, etc., the core of this position are the denials that there are defensible ethical principles and that correct moral deliberation consists in the application of principles to particular cases.  (I’m taking particularism to be the same position as ‘contextualism’ or (certain kinds of) ‘pluralism’, but if there are important differences among these views, people should let me know.)  One of the main motivations for particularism is that generalist theories cannot accomodate the complexity of our moral experience and wrongly suppose not only that a single consideration (the production of utility, respecting indviduals as ends in themselves, etc.) is the basis of moral obligation, but that a single morally salient consideration always contributes to the moral evaluation of a situation in precisely the same way. So, e.g., according to the utilitarian, that an act would maxmize utility compared to any alternative act is the only right-making feature and makes the same contribution to any moral decision, to wit, to make it obligatory to perform the utility-maximizing act.

This would seem to enable particularism to accomodate virtually  any considered moral judgment we have, and if ever we have ‘principled’ doubts about such judgments, these can be dismissed as the byproduct of our fixation on moral principles.  (So the methodology of particularism is not that of refelctive equilibrium, where we seek the best fit between principles and cases.)  So if I, who tend to favor Kantian moral judgments, conclude that in situation S, it would be right to perform act A because it would prevent some great catastrophe (the killing of hundreds of innocents), though it would involve treating one innocent person as a mere means, the particularist can accomodate that judgment.  But I worry that unless a moral theory has the resources to "surprise us" by, e.g., ruling out certain judgments as flatly mistaken, it subscribes to a suspiciously conservative theoretical methodology.  And since particularism seems able to accomodate any sincerly held moral judgment, it can’t surprise us (in the way that utilitarianism often surprises us), whereas generalist positions can surprise us by pointing out the  surprising implications of a principle we endorse.  My complaint, then, is that in accomodating all of our intuitions, thus meeting the first demand quite decisively, particularism makes meeting the second demand effectively impossible.  So is particularism methodologically flawed in this regard?

7 Replies to “Is particularism no surprise at all?

  1. Hi, Michael. Let’s distinguish between stronger and weaker readings of (2). On the stronger reading, a moral theory must surprise us in the sense of getting surprising moral verdicts about particular cases or act-types, e.g., it turns out that lying is generally okay. I don’t like the strong reading, for two reasons. First, I’m not feeling the intuitive pull of it: why should a moral theory do this? Second, it means that no moral theory can satisfy both (1) and (2) (which may be EG’s point, I suppose, though I haven’t read his/her post). And something would be wrong with a set of methodological principles (not the moral theories that those principles constrain) if those principles are mutually unsatisfiable.
    So go to a weaker reading of (2): a moral theory should surprise us in the sense that it should tell us something – anything substantive, anyway – we didn’t already know. In this sense, particularism would be illuminating (i.e., it would satisfy (2)), since it would be novel to learn that there is nothing that all right or wrong acts have in common, and that any right-making feature of an act can be wrong-making in some circumstances (and vice versa).
    FWIW, I take there to be two (related) differences between particularism and pluralism (here the influence is Timmons, though I confess it’s been awhile). (3) Pluralism holds that there is a finite, and indeed small, set of irreducible principles that spell out the rightness of all right actions (a la Ross); by contrast, particularism holds that there is no codifiable-in-principle finite set of such principles. Furthermore, (4) for whichever principles we do have, pluralism holds that the wrong- (or right-)making feature of the act has a static valence, e.g., if lying is wrong, then the fact that an act is a lie *always* “counts against” doing that act; particularism, by contrast, holds that all such “principles” actually only contain wrong- or right-making features that have dynamic valences, e.g., while lying might be generally wrong, there are actually some cases where it counts in favor of doing the action.

  2. I wouldn’t be surprised if particularists could argue that their theory, if understood as a theory of normative ethics, offers some prescriptions, which may be actually quite surprising. What I have in mind are certain cases in which one isn’t required to follow the basic, general and ‘robust’ moral principles one has internalized in one’s moral education. It may be that such internalised moral principles provide a motivational ‘push’ towards complying even in situations in which the particularist can point out to some disabling conditions that disable the normative force certain considerations the principle tracks would otherwise have had. This may come as quite a surprise when pointed out to the agent. Not having to comply with the promise-keeping principle is at least for me sometimes such a surprise.
    I too worry about the second condition. At least, there are many ways in which a moral theory can surprise us. It may be a fair demand that it surprises us in some way. There is no need for completele uninteresting, trivial theories. However, providing unintuitive moral demands is not the only way for a moral theory to surprise us. It could also surprise by providing us new self-understanding of the grounds for the moral demands. It can illuminate in many ways the reasons we respond to while we act morally. I guess this kind of more ‘meta-ethical’ surprise is something intuitionist particularists can also claim to provide.

  3. I’m very happy to see this topic discussed here on PEA Soup, where so many smart people are sure to throw in shiny pairs of cents. As it turns out, I’m reading Dancy’s book this semester, so I might have clearer thoughts on Michael’s interesting suggestion in the future. For now, I only want to respond to a point Josh made in his comment.
    The “strong” reading of the second demand is the reading I intended. (Of course, that doesn’t mean another reading isn’t more interesting.) I disagree, though, with Josh’s claim that one moral theory cannot meet both demands on this strong reading.
    As I argued in the post: I think we only expect a moral theory meet the first demand, i.e. to conform to our intuitions, when we actually *have* determinate, deeply-held intuitions about the answer to a given question. But there are moral questions for which no determinate, deeply-held intuitions exist. These, I think, are the questions to which a moral theory should give us our “surprise answers,” and thus meet the second demand. So I think it is *possible* for one moral theory to meet both demands. (This doesn’t mean it isn’t extremely *difficult* for one moral theory to meet both demands. Also, it’s possible that every moral theory which does happen to meet both demands will have other fatal flaws.)

  4. David, the consistency of your reading of (2) and (1) sounds plausible (though I’m still a bit iffy on the intuitive pull of (2), since I generally believe that a plausible theory of rightness will have to leave some matters indeterminate, and, though this isn’t much of an argument, this is because (1) our intuitions towards indeterminacy in some cases are so strong). If I’m following properly, (2) now actually sounds not quite as strong as the stronger reading (perhaps medium-strength?). According to the strong (2), a moral theory must surprise us by implying that our ordinary intuitions about whether concrete cases or act-types are right or wrong turn out to be incorrect. That is, right turns out to be wrong and wrong turns out to be right for some cases and act-types. According to the medium-strength (2), a moral theory must surprise us by (at least?) showing that while we thought that the moral verdict on cases or act-types was indeterminate, it actually turns out to be determinately right or wrong.

  5. Josh-
    That sounds right. The only amendment I’d make is to say that by an “indeterminate” question I really had in mind questions whose answers we don’t know — not necessarily questions which we believe don’t have any answers. But an answer to that latter sort of question would also enable us to meet demand 2 without impeding our ability to meet demand 1.
    So, yeah — I think we’re on the same page.

  6. Glad to see this sparked some discussion. I read David’s original demand (2) in the stronger second way as well. The force of this demand depends, I think, on what one takes as the background conditions in which moral theorizing occurs. I would say that my own conception of these background conditions is somewhat Rawlsian: that we are confronted with disagreements among otherwise rational people about moral questions; that we often find ourselves unsure what to say about particular cases; and that we have trouble figuring out the logical terrain of morality (e.g., we can’t readily identify why we judge apparently simliar cases differently, or vice versa). (David’s first reply above suggests he might have the same picture of what motivates moral theorizing.) Under those conditions, the role of moral theorizing is to attempt to bring as much systematicty to that logical terrain as it will allow. In so doing, a theory may ‘surprise us’ in reaching verdicts about particular cases or act-types that contradict what we believed prior to understanding the theory. That’s what I had in mind when I denied that particularism could ‘surprise us.’ (I’d include here what Josh describes as one sort of surprise, a theory settling a question that we previously took to have no determinate answer.) In some ways, I gather that I’m issuing the same complaint against particularism that Rawls offered against intuitionism.
    These possibilities do not exhaust the possibilities for theory surprises. As Josh and Jussi both point out, in the case of particularism, particularism itself appears to be the surprise!
    Let me also add quickly that what seems odd to me about particularism is that it rules out surprises a priori. That certain moral theories don’t in fact surprise us doesn’t mean that their underlying methodologies or epistemological suppositions rule it out. (Kant thought he was reconstructing moral common sense, after all.) What strikes me as contentious about particularism is that it seems to take the absence of the kind of surprises I have in mind as a methodological precept, not just a happy accident of the theory’s assessment of different cases and actions.

  7. michael;
    may peace be within me
    may peace be within you
    1. A moral theory must be able to accommodate many or most of our deeply-held, commonsense intuitions.
    i agree
    i have written my own constitution, ethics,
    morals, principles, and re-education.
    should you be interested i can send you a copy.

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