Seattle Analytic Philosophy Club Message Board › Particularism and Principlism

Particularism and Principlism

Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 173
Gene,

Particularism could be taken two ways: First, as simply denying that any single principle governs ethics. So far this is metatheory and descriptive. It leaves it open which particularist theory or non-principlist theory is to be recommended (virtue theory, etc.). But advocates of these non-principlist, particularist theories do recommend their theories, so they are not being particularist in the descriptive sense in doing so, but normative. Aristotle didn't think virtue ethics was just one among various plausible theories. It was the correct way of looking at ethics.

Particularism at the level of metatheory is basically a denial of principlism: it is the belief that there is no single moral theory that will make sense of all human ethical experience. Beyond that, it doesn't advocate any particular theory. One might, for instance, combine being a particularist at the metatheoretic level with thinking that more than one of the first order normative theories is actually correct in the sense that they reflect a real part of moral experience accurately---just not the same or the only part. One would be essentially denying a unified human moral experience. How diversified it may be is still left an open question. It may not be as diversified as we think. It may be the persistence of a small number of ethical theories exactly corresponds to that diversity. It may be that theories being what they are actually tell us something about moral experience: that it is not unified, while not, at the same time, open-ended either. There is a discrete number of true, reality-based, theories. (This is in fact what I actually think is the case and have hinted at before when we discussed a circumscribed sort of non-cultural, sex-based moral relativism.)

So when we call virtue theory particularist all we can mean is that it doesn't boil down ethics to one or very few principles from which ethical experience is exhaustively evaluated. Particularism, the minimalist descriptive form, itself cannot coherently also be a first order moral theory: that would be tantamount to saying there is no overarching touchstone on ethical matters, but, despite that, this is what you should do or think about ethical matters.

In other words, if we call virtue theory and moral sense theories particularist theories, this classification is done from the outside. An advocate of those theories cannot be a self-avowed particularist, unless they also admit to fundamental disunity in human nature, which almost no advocates (I know) do.

By "disunity of human nature" I mean the thesis that there are in fact vast classes of human beings (as opposed to aberrations from a single norm) who do not share fundamental moral experiences and intuitions with whole other large classes. If such is the case, it would necessitate more than one true moral theory. The presence of such diversity may not be as obvious as we might think if the classes have developed more or less functional ways of interacting with others both of their own and other groups. I suspect there would be motivations to turn a deaf ear to certain dissonances in the interest of mental economy. Although I think certain conflicts or situations will bring out the differences unmistakably.

To take seriously the possibility that there is disunity in human nature is the other way we might be particularist. This way isn't metatheoretical, though.
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 174
Moral sense theory

Gene, you are right that there is something metaethical about moral sense theory. It is the view that normal healthy human beings have some fellow feeling for others and that this is ultimately what keeps them from being what they might otherwise be: morally well-behaved but only for self-interested reasons such as a successful psychopath (who lacks this moral sense) might be.

It seems metaethical because it merely describes, not advocates, a moral picture. Someone who does not have any empathy for others is not automatically someone we should do anything about. If an individual has at least a kernel of the feeling, then of course we might try to nurture and develop it in the interest of synchronizing the individual to the norm, but if there is nothing there to work with, we can't. At worst, if they are utterly lacking, if their psychopathic tendencies are intolerable, we manage them as best we can. And, as some have noted, psychopaths may have particular abilities that allow them to excel at certain things that benefit others. They may become almost like natural resources for society: to be responsibly managed, but, in and of themselves and morally speaking, neutral. Of course, this moral neutrality also applies to the normal people, too. You can't really praise people for being altruistic. They were just born that way...

Ok, all this has a ring of truth about it. But I see it as background or staging to the real moral drama wherein people do get worked up, big time, about blame, praise, innocence and responsibility. That's where the moral action is. And that's what normative theories try to provide interpretations of.

But, assuming moral sense theory is descriptively correct, does anything normative follow from it? I think it suggests itself as a corrective to the over-the-top and after-the-fact character of principlist theories with their endlessly fascinating dilemmas. It suggests morality is really a resource management problem. Good will toward others naturally occurs in certain quantities that vary from person to person. The quantities are usually adequate for basic moral functionality. And total lack may not necessarily be functionally a bad thing in the big scheme of things. The best thing to do is to work with what's there and see what we can make out of it.

But I think moral sense theory, at this point, does enter the moral fray with recommendations and thereby ceases merely to be background and begins to offer substantive moral foreground advice. It ceases to be quietly descriptive, it becomes normative. And, as such, will have to contend with other theories in the drama of insistence backed by rational justification which comprises moral normativity. I think this is when moral sense theory stops being metatheory: the moment it becomes defensive.

And that seems to be what happens when you read contemporary literature by moral sense theorists---feminist care theorists, for example, the most prominent modern exponents of moral sense theory. They draw normative conclusions from the bare assumption that some human capacity for beneficence is a requirement for any talk about morality. Most people want to be good and, given half a chance, will be. Some care theorists argue, for instance, that prisons should be primarily places for rehabilitation and, if that fails, humane quarantine. They should not be used for deterrence or punishment (both principlist notions).

I do think a thorough-going moral sense theorist has familiar problems with ultimate justification. It seems the theory comes down, in the end, to something like "wouldn't it be nice if..." Yes, it would be. But this seems to shift value from the agent's acts (deontology) or their consequences to a situation. Why should a situation's niceness be a matter of such overriding concern?... The bottom line here, though, is that this is no longer metatheory. It's straightforward first-order moral theorizing positing another target for value: situations or conditions.
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 175
Contractualism

Contractualism, if it is thought of as a normative theory, is usually classed as a species of deontology. It's about setting initial rights, and "rights" talk is a form of patient-centered deontology. Consent is critical to contractualism---and why should consent matter unless there is a high regard for the autonomy of the consent giver?

But there is some controversy as to whether contractualism is at all a theory about ethics and not metaethics. (Scanlon's version in particular: see the article on deontology in the SEP cited at the end of the writeup.) If it is metatheory, then it is not really relevant here.
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 176
Particularism and ethical codes

Jon:

I don't see the need for laws and consequences as really the same as moral principlism in preference to particularism. Even the Code of Hummurabi had a finely worked out system of punishments that reflected (antiquated) nuances of gender, slavery, fairness, mercy, and so on. What people want from laws is that equal circumstances are treated equally and there is fair treatment between different kinds of offenses. So right away there are more abstract concepts and senses that drive what the laws should be, so the laws are not the defining element of moral, but are simply a practical implementation of whatever moral system there is.
The Code of Hammurabi is not a moral theory. It was a public list, a codification of the practices of a certain community. Certain notions in it---"an eye for eye," for instance---may well have been raw material for later moral theorizing about things like principles of fairness, but a code per se is a long way from being a finely wrought moral theory.

Modern legal and political theory grew out of the Enlightenment, the so-called "Age of Reason," and every major concept that consumes the attention of legal and political theorists today and for the last several centuries had its origin in the moral philosophies of that period, including notions such as rights, fairness, justice, equality and freedom or liberty as well as how those things get worked into a full and complete life. Kant and later Mill, among others, were essential in that development and that's why their respective moral philosophies still have the sway they do.

People want equal treatment in equal circumstances, you say. But such desires are quite modern and owing to the emphasis that philosophers like Bentham and Kant, for very different theoretical reasons, placed on impartiality and anti-exceptionalism. People today expect equality and fairness, but only freaks would have expressed such sentiments prior to the Enlightenment. Prior to then, the plan was to wait for the afterlife for a measure of justice. Thanks to Enlightenment moral philosophers, people nowadays have the gall to demand such things now.
Jon C.
JonCohen
Mercer Island, WA
Post #: 211

The Code of Hammurabi is not a moral theory.
Exactly. My comment was directed at


whereas the criminal justice system is deontological to the core.
The criminal justice system, like everything else, is somewhat guided by morals, but it is not a moral system at all.

The Enlightenment gave us equal rights for people (eventually), but it was the Code of Hammurabi that gave us equality before the law, meaning people in the same criminal circumstances would be treated equally.
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 177
The criminal justice system, like everything else, is somewhat guided by morals, but it is not a moral system at all.
Criminal justice systems are not moral systems, of course. But to understand why justice systems have the shape they do (which is the philosopher's interest) requires asking questions about their fundamental concepts and those concepts developed (and are still developing) out of still more fundamental moral pictures of the human world. The example you gave of equality before the law is a case point.

The Code of Hammurabi does talk about equality of some sort before a law of some sort, but it is a far cry from anything resembling "equality before the law" as we know it today. The Code took this to be understood: some people involved in some sorts of dispute are to be treated equally. Assuming the person you have a dispute with is in the same class as you, the law should not play favorites between you and them. Shepherds arguing over rights to a pasture were to be treated impartially by the law. The idea that I, as a slave or tradesman, might be treated on a par in a dispute with you, as a property owner or a member of the ruling class, was not even remotely contemplated until several thousand years later. Not even in the Athens of Plato and Aristotle was anybody thinking that.

When a member of the elite committed a grievous crime against a person of lower status, he or she may have been asked to pay a fee. When the roles were reversed, the lower-class criminal might receive a harsher punishment.
http://history.howstu...­

So much for equality before the law.

The leap to the idea that equality before the law should apply irrespective of what sort of person you are developed from philosophers asking questions about the basis for the notion of equality. Why were there distinctions between people? Could those distinctions be rationally justified?... Questions like those led to the expansion of the concept. Gay marriage would be a contemporary example. Moral philosophers have been debating the concept of marriage, its meaning and range, for decades if not centuries. It took a while for the abstract debates to get much notice outside philosophical circles. Similarly with the rights of women, the disabled, animals... moral philosophers are already talking about the moral rights of artificially intelligent machines.

Two ideas that guide the development of morals are universalization and impartiality. These are at the heart of principlist moral theories. The function of such principles is to counter otherwise unruly human tendencies.
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 573
Moral sense theory

But I think moral sense theory, at this point, does enter the moral fray with recommendations and thereby ceases merely to be background and begins to offer substantive moral foreground advice. It ceases to be quietly descriptive, it becomes normative. And, as such, will have to contend with other theories in the drama of insistence backed by rational justification which comprises moral normativity. I think this is when moral sense theory stops being metatheory: the moment it becomes defensive.

And that seems to be what happens when you read contemporary literature by moral sense theorists---feminist care theorists, for example, the most prominent modern exponents of moral sense theory. They draw normative conclusions from the bare assumption that some human capacity for beneficence is a requirement for any talk about morality. Most people want to be good and, given half a chance, will be. Some care theorists argue, for instance, that prisons should be primarily places for rehabilitation and, if that fails, humane quarantine. They should not be used for deterrence or punishment (both principlist notions).

I do think a thorough-going moral sense theorist has familiar problems with ultimate justification. It seems the theory comes down, in the end, to something like "wouldn't it be nice if..." Yes, it would be. But this seems to shift value from the agent's acts (deontology) or their consequences to a situation. Why should a situation's niceness be a matter of such overriding concern?... The bottom line here, though, is that this is no longer metatheory. It's straightforward first-order moral theorizing positing another target for value: situations or conditions.
Victor,

Ok I think I see what you are talking about. I think "care ethics" or "ethics of care" is probably the standard term? There is some relationship to "moral sense" theory, but I think that "sentimentalism" is the commonly used term, and that has a variety of primarily metaethical uses. So it is largely a terminological issue. However, I don't see care ethics often listed as a competitor to deontology/consequentialism - although it is - probably because it hasn't gotten a lot of attention outside of feminist philosophy?

http://www.academia.e...­
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 574
Contractualism

Contractualism, if it is thought of as a normative theory, is usually classed as a species of deontology. It's about setting initial rights, and "rights" talk is a form of patient-centered deontology. Consent is critical to contractualism---and why should consent matter unless there is a high regard for the autonomy of the consent giver?

But there is some controversy as to whether contractualism is at all a theory about ethics and not metaethics. (Scanlon's version in particular: see the article on deontology in the SEP cited at the end of the writeup.) If it is metatheory, then it is not really relevant here.
Ok I see that in the SEP deontology article, however, the SEP consequentialism article lists it as a first-order theory separate from deontology/consequentialism. The reason I mentioned contractualism is that some philosophers do consider it a normative candidate separate from deontology - Derek Parfit for example in his recent magnum opus On What MAtters - but there is a bit of controversy about its status.
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 575
Gene,

Particularism could be taken two ways: First, as simply denying that any single principle governs ethics. So far this is metatheory and descriptive. It leaves it open which particularist theory or non-principlist theory is to be recommended (virtue theory, etc.). But advocates of these non-principlist, particularist theories do recommend their theories, so they are not being particularist in the descriptive sense in doing so, but normative. Aristotle didn't think virtue ethics was just one among various plausible theories. It was the correct way of looking at ethics.

Particularism at the level of metatheory is basically a denial of principlism: it is the belief that there is no single moral theory that will make sense of all human ethical experience. Beyond that, it doesn't advocate any particular theory. One might, for instance, combine being a particularist at the metatheoretic level with thinking that more than one of the first order normative theories is actually correct in the sense that they reflect a real part of moral experience accurately---just not the same or the only part. One would be essentially denying a unified human moral experience. How diversified it may be is still left an open question. It may not be as diversified as we think. It may be the persistence of a small number of ethical theories exactly corresponds to that diversity. It may be that theories being what they are actually tell us something about moral experience: that it is not unified, while not, at the same time, open-ended either. There is a discrete number of true, reality-based, theories. (This is in fact what I actually think is the case and have hinted at before when we discussed a circumscribed sort of non-cultural, sex-based moral relativism.)

So when we call virtue theory particularist all we can mean is that it doesn't boil down ethics to one or very few principles from which ethical experience is exhaustively evaluated. Particularism, the minimalist descriptive form, itself cannot coherently also be a first order moral theory: that would be tantamount to saying there is no overarching touchstone on ethical matters, but, despite that, this is what you should do or think about ethical matters.
.
Victor,

It's my preference to consider the issues of particularism/principlism, and the various first-order theories, separately. I think that calling certain theories "principlist" and "particularist" is gerrymandering. Why not just consider the first order theories on their own merits? If you just start with considering say, consequentialism, and decide that is the one "true" moral theory, then you have your answer, and after the fact, you could call that "principlism", but why is that relevant?. On the other hand a major reason to adopt particularism is if you think that consequentialism and deontology are both wanting with no resolution in sight. But you first have to deal with the first-order theories themselves. And sure, particularism tells you a bit about first-order ethics - it tells you that you shouldn't say, apply consequentialist reasoning in every case, and that in itself says a lot. Also, as I think you suggest, a true particularist isn't going to be fully advocating any of the first-order theories, including virtue ethics or care ethics. So there certainly is a relationship between the first order theories and the issue of particularism/principlism, but it isn't a straightforward one and trying to make it simple involves a lot of gerrymandering.
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 178
Gene, I use principlism and particularism here in a very basic way: as a way to sort theories into those that want to reduce ethics to one or a very few perspicuous rules and those that do not. Why this distinction should matter I hope to make clear eventually as I work towards what is an ultimately metaethical claim about the structure of the four major theories, why they have the structure they do, and what their relation to each other is. At this point, nothing much hangs on the distinction other than to note that the principlist theories have usually had the upper hand in terms of followers among philosophers. The Chalmers/Bourget survey ( http://philpapers.org...­ ) confirmed this.

I draw a few conclusions from the survey about philosophers and the relative popularity of the major moral theories:

1. Particularism as a whole, which I take to include most of the "other" category below as well as virtue theory, is underestimated.

2. Among what I am calling "principlist" theories, deontology was seriously underestimated---or consequentialism overestimated, depending on how you want to look at it. The majority view was thought to be one (in the metasurvey) and turned out to be the other (in the survey).

3. But principlist theories taken together still dominate. Why? I don't think it's obvious that they are "truer" than what I am calling particularist views. But I will eventually speculate about why it is principlism gets the attention it does.

4. I suspect that a significant portion of the large "other" category below are views that I am loosely calling "moral sense" (particularist) theories: sentimentalism, ethics of care, communitarian, and Marxist understandings of ethics. (Curiously, both Adam Smith---author of the bible of laissez-faire capitalism The Wealth of Nations as well as The Theory of Moral Sentiments---and Karl Marx---of Das Kapital fame---are in the same boat here.) These, of course, shade off into political theories but they do share ethical underpinnings that I think are deeply consonant with an anti-psychological egoism in contrast to the principlist theories which are both very psychologically egoistic. Put another way: the particularist theories don't see morality as inherently in conflict with human psychology as the principlist theories do.

Here are the most interesting results on the relative popularity of first order moral theories:

("Estimated"---what philosophers guessed would be the majority view among their colleagues. "Actual"---what the survey showed.)

Consequentialism: Estimated: 41.5% Actual: 34.9%
Deontology: Estimated: 34.4% Actual: 38.3%

Total principlist views: Estimated: 75.9% Actual: 73.2%

More detailed breakdown:

Normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics?

Other 32.3 (plus or minus 1.2)%
Accept more than one (8.4%),
Agnostic/undecided (5.2%),
Accept an intermediate view (4.0%),
Accept another alternative (3.5%),
Insufficiently familiar with the issue (3.3%),
Reject all (2.7%)
(Options that did not reach 2% are omitted.)

Deontology 25.9 (plus or minus 1.1)%
Lean toward (16.0%),
Accept (9.9%)

Consequentialism 23.6 (plus or minus 1.0)%
Lean toward (14.0%),
Accept (9.7%)

Virtue ethics 18.2 (plus or minus 0.9)%
Lean toward (12.6%),
Accept (5.6%)

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