Thursday, November 01, 2007

Moral Particularism

Last night was my first visit to a KCL Philosophy Society event and I was very impressed. Rory O'Connel is a witty and sharp chairman and Jonathan Dancy was truly great. Before the talk began Dancy told some anecdotes reminiscent in style and content of the greatest Rap stars. To an audience who were still stuck in “the ghetto” of doing a degree in a subject with dubious claim to any earning potential at all, he was telling stories of sipping perfectly made margaritas in heated swimming pools, then jetting back to the lovely English spring to be “pestered” by adoring graduate student fans. In true hip hop style, he bragged about the publishing figures of his classic, still going strong after twenty years. This is inspiring stuff!

When he gave his talk, it was obvious that his success was well deserved. He had the utmost respect for the audience and dealt with questions with a true intellectual humility. He was arguing for moral particularism. As is usual with me, I’ll give my own views on the issue rather than attempting to give an interpretation of Dancy’s view. The issue as I see it is a direction of fit, or of ontological priority. The particularist believes that the value of a particular action is ontologically prior to the value of any general rule from which it can be deduced. The opposing view is that particular actions derive their moral value from being the consequences of general rules. So, to use Ayers’ example: the fact that it was wrong of Jack to steal my bicycle has a relationship to the law-like statement “stealing is wrong”. The particularist will admit that such rules can be true in some cases, but believe their truth is dependent on the moral worth of the particular actions to which they apply, rather than the other way around. So it is not in virtue of the fact that stealing is wrong that Jack was wrong to steal my bicycle, but rather that it is in virtue of the fact that many or even most actions involving theft are wrong that the general statement “stealing is wrong” gains its truth.
The big problem facing the particularist is epistemological. How can we tell whether Jack was wrong to steal my bicycle if not in virtue of the fact that it follows from the general principle that stealing is wrong? Dancy’s answer is that we know a priori. The universalist can’t object to this as easily as may be thought, since the universalist must also claim that we know the general principles a priori.
But my view is that we know the value of particular situations through raw experience. For example, we can experience temperature. When in a cold room, we know through sensation that it is cold. But the sensation of cold is not value neutral. It certain situations we also know that it is bad that it is cold. The cold might have a bitter sting, which will be a quality of the sensation, rather than a judgement about the probability of hypothermia. Looking over the sea with a full belly and the sun on my face, I experience as good. I do not deduce this from general principles sun on face = good, full belly = good, sea view = good. The goodness is a part of the experience. It is clear that this is so if we consider the case of disappointment. I eat a big meal and sit over looking the sea on a sunny day expecting it to be good. But to my disappointment the sun is a torment, the fullness of the belly bloating and nauseating and the sea hideous. A ménage a trois may be experienced as seedy and immoral, an orgy of loveless selfishness, but could also be experienced as an enlightening and liberating celebration of erotic love. There is no necessity that one should be able to tell in advance a priori how the experience will go. If one has to experience it to be able to judge its moral worth, then surely one's knowledge of the moral worth is gained through experience.
By the end of the questions I came around to the idea that perhaps these immediate experiences of goodness, or moral relevance, or moral similarity, could just as well be called a priori as empirical. When I see that the object on the table is a cube, have I gained this knowledge a priori or through sensation? When I see a policeman racially abusing and humiliating a terror suspect and judge it to be wrong, is this judgement a priori, or do I experience the wrongness?
Any comments welcome. Anonymous comment permitted but frowned upon.

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Blogger Daniel said...

Hi Johnny, long time no speak.

Obviously I was not present at the Dancy talk but I have been doing a bit of reading/thinking about moral particularism, and interesting thing is the evident lack of consensus over the meaning of the term 'moral particularism'. This is particularly evident if you read the collection 'Moral Particularism' edited by Hooker and Little - at times it seems as if every writer is using the term in a slightly different way.

An important distinction, and one which your piece seems to be getting at, is between ontological and epistemological particularism.

The ontological thesis is that there do not exist any properties (except the thinnest, 'good' and 'right' etc which are useless as the basis for informative principles) which constantly count in favour of, or constantly count against, an action/situation that manifests them. This is the radical view that, I think at least, the early Dancy is subscribing to (though in the Hooker and Little volume Crisp suggests Dancy has never subscribed to this view).

Epistemological particularism, on the other hand, is the view that knowledge and appreciation of particular instances of principle-application is vital to an ability to apply any genuine (i.e. universally true) principles. In other words, genuine principles will necessarily involve evaluative concepts. This is a familiar thought in mainstream neo-Aristotelianism (e.g. MacDowell), but should be accepted by other ethical thinkers of any kind.

An interesting point to push Dancy on, I think, is whether his recent concessions have the effect of moving him from the former (radical, mistaken) position to the latter (familiar, correct) one.

6:57 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

That was Dan Turnbull btw

6:58 PM  
Anonymous jonny said...

Hello Dan, I don't even know where you are.
Re your comment: Whenever there is a lack of consensus about what it is to adopt a certain position, then I always find that position extremely attractive. I'm afraid you've made me more confused though. My head always swims when people distinguish between ontological theses and epistemological theses. For your information though, fromwhat I can gather, Dancy was actually arguing for the more radical ontological thesis, in the philsoc meeting at least. It was probably me, being inclined to dismiss as unintelligible any non epistemological thesis, who gleaned what you are calling the much more familiar and correct epistemological thesis from what i could understand of what he was saying.
But my head is still swimming.
you say:

"The ontological thesis is that there do not exist any properties (except the thinnest, 'good' and 'right' etc which are useless as the basis for informative principles) which constantly count in favour of, or constantly count against, an action/situation that manifests them"

Now the kind of moral particularism I would endorse would make the above come out as an empirically falsifiable hypothesis rather than a necessary truth. This is because it could happen that ALL incidences of adultury, say, are morally wrong, and further more, that this is a rule that applies to counterfactual cases. If this was so, it wouldn't mean that moral particularism was false, because it would always be conceptually possible that someone could commit adultery and yet have acted well.
Of course this a tailor made example for the particularist. A more difficult example would be that if an action goes against someone's interests then the fact that it goes against their interests will always count against the action, but this is just too thin to be substantive.

8:47 PM  

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