There’s an approach to a number of different domains in ethics, which we can call “specificationism”, that is seldom explicitly discussed but that I think warrants greater attention. Easily the most famous example of specificationism is found in the theory of rights and is owed to Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion”, where she argues that no one has a right not to be killed simpliciter, only a right not to be killed unjustly. The basic idea is that the content of the right not to be killed – or indeed any right if we wish to generalize – must be specified to reflect what may and may not be done to the right-holder. The right not to be killed may clearly prohibit killing in some uncontroversial cases, but according to this picture it is rife with qualifications that reflect the many instances where one may be permissibly killed. This is a thumbnail sketch of a specified conception of rights, but the theory of rights is only one of the domains where the strategy of specification is employed.
Scanlon, for example, employs the strategy with respect to principles in What We Owe to Each Other. Regarding the principle of fidelity to promises, Scanlon maintains, “We are not morally required to keep a promise no matter what. The clearest part of the principle is this: the fact that keeping a promise would be inconvenient or disadvantageous is not normally a sufficient reason for breaking it, but “normally” here covers many qualifications.” (199) In other words, the seemingly simple principle to keep promises masks a complicated, highly contextualized set of duties and permissions that are revealed as one specifies the principle.
Obligation, too, is a candidate for specification. In The Second-Person Standpoint, for example, Darwall argues that “if someone were able to establish that she did in fact have good and sufficient reason for a putative violation of a moral obligation, then it seems she has accounted or answered for herself and shown she did no wrong.” (98) Moral obligations, then, are subject to qualification by Darwall’s lights – if there is good reason to do that which is normally wrong, then doing it isn’t wrong all-things-considered.
What all of these examples of specificationism have in common, I think, is a commitment to the primacy of basic if complicated normative reasons in moral reasoning. It is the particular reasons that one has in a particular situation –not rights, principles, or obligations – that do the real normative work. These normative reasons are more fundamental or primitive than rights, principles, or obligations on this picture because the contents of rights, principles, and obligations are provided by the interaction of the various normative reasons that one has in a particular situation. On this view, to appeal to a bona fide right, principle, or obligation is conclusory. Fundamentally, one argues towards rights, principles, or obligations and not from them.
For my part, I have long been attracted to specificationism generally, and to a specified conception of rights in particular. But it is worth noting that Thomson subsequently rejected the specified conception of rights that “A Defense of Abortion” relied on in “Self-Defense and Rights”. One of the chief reasons why she rejected specificationism was that it rendered rights explanatorily impotent. After all, if one has (only) a right not to be killed unjustly, then determining that the right has been transgressed is to conclude that the transgressing action is wrong for reasons that have nothing to do with its being the violation of a right. This is just an implication of the fact that one does not argue from rights according to specificationism. That some action transgresses a right cannot be a potential explanation of the action’s wrongness. Clearly, Thomson couldn’t live with this feature of the specified conception of rights because she believes that rights have explanatory power. She believes that rights must be among the potential reasons why what is wrong is, in fact, wrong. (This commitment led her famously to distinguish between a right violation and a right infringement, a distinction that allowed her to hold that rights have a content that does not depend on what it is permissible and impermissible to do to the right-holder.)
Now, Thomson’s worry about specified rights can be restated as a general worry about specificationism in any moral domain. Whether it is a right, a principle, or an obligation, as soon as one specifies the object, that object would seem to lack explanatory power – one cannot explain what is wrong about some action by appeal to a specified right, a specified principle, or a specified obligation. For the content of that right, principle, or obligation is precisely what is at issue.
Is Thomson’s rejection of the specified conception of rights well-founded? Is specificationism across all of the moral domains tenable? Is the case for it stronger or weaker depending on the moral domain at issue? I am inclined to go primitive across the board here and defend specificationism generally. I’d be curious to know what you think.