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?