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Moral ParticularismReview - Moral Particularism
by Brad Hooker and Margaret Little (editors)
Oxford University Press, 2000
Review by Neil Levy, Ph.D.
Feb 5th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 6)

Particularism, in moral theory, refers to a family of views united only by suspicion of rules and principles. This collection of articles by distinguished philosophers focuses largely on one variant of the particularist view, that variant elaborated by Jonathan Dancy. Dancy’s particularism, developed in his 1993 book Moral Reasons, centers around the claim that there are no informative and exceptionless moral principles. Many philosophers have argued that moral principles are defeasible, which is to say that the considerations they point to are not always and everywhere decisive. Dancy goes much further than this, holding that they can be completely silenced, or even reversed.

For instance, we might intuitively think that whatever other features a particular action has, it will always count in its favor that engaging in it is fun. But moral particularists point out that some actions are worse for being fun. That the torturer enjoys his work is not a small saving grace of his activity. Seeing this, the moral generalist will look for ways to amend her principle, modifying it to take account of exceptions. Particularists deny that any attempt at amendment will ever succeed in producing a principle that is informative. We will end up, they claim with principles which are trivial, such ‘always do the action that is best in the circumstances’ (or, according to a less radical strain of particularist, principles which contain unanalyzed moral terms, such as ‘always be just’). But these principles, even those yielded by the less radical strain of particularism, are completely uninformative: all the work of determining exactly what is best or just in the circumstances remains to be done.

Dancy believes that the morally sensitive person does not in fact apply principles in deciding what to do. Instead, she sees what matters. She possesses faculties of moral perception that are alert to the morally salient features of particular situations. These faculties are the products of the right kind of moral education, not of theoretical training.

All this seems a kind of recipe for anti-intellectualism; we might expect Dancy and his supporters to trade in philosophy for homespun wisdom. But this is not in fact the case. Moral Reasons is not easy going, and neither is this collection of essays. Unless the reader is fairly well acquainted with recent moral philosophy, or, better, has read Moral Reasons, she can expect to struggle.

In many ways, this is a pity, because the particularist claim is important. It has implications for the way in which education ought to take place, and (though no one has yet considered this) for the very possibility of an approximately just legal system. Of the essays here, only that by Martha Nussbaum is easily accessible to the general reader; significantly, it is one of the few that is concerned with anti-theory in general, rather than Dancy’s views in particular. If the book was intended to serve as an introduction to the debate, then something ought to have been done to contextualize the essays. Let me enter a plea, at this point, for introductions to books that actually serve to introduce their topic and the set of essays to come. This book, like most such collections these days, has an introduction by the editors, which provides potted summaries of the contributions it contains. And, like most such introductions, the summaries are almost incomprehensible until you have the read the essays they summarize – at which point they are redundant. Again, this is a pity, since the editors are both excellent moral philosophers, quite capable of turning out an introduction that would cast light on the topic under discussion.

Perhaps the real problem with this book is that no one is sure just what the topic is. Is it a collection of essays on the work of Jonathan Dancy? If so, it might have been better if it had adopted the traditional Festschrift format – a collection of essays followed by replies by the celebrated thinker. This would have provided greater cohesion to the book, and it might well have proven more illuminating for the reader.

For instance, several essays here are concerned with the extent to which there might be some moral principles that escape particularist criticism. Unfortunately, the many papers that discuss this question do not take account of each other to any significant extent. This is important, because, as we saw, there are two distinct particularist theses. A particularist might hold either that there are no actions described exclusively in nonmoral terms (such as ‘involved the infliction of pain’) that always count in the same way, or that there are no actions, even describable in moral terms, which always count in the same way. The first thesis is defended by Margaret Little, the second seems to be defended by Dancy. But the second view is implausible: how could the fact that an action was just ever count against it? Dancy’s own contribution to this volume is interesting enough, but what I wanted to read was his response to this line of argument, advanced by several contributors, but most compellingly by David McNaughton and Peirs Rawling.

If this is not a Festschrift for Dancy, then is it an overview of moral particularism in general? But there are many moral particularisms, and most go without a mention (ten out of the twelve essays are largely or exclusively concerned with Dancy’s version). This lack of focus translates into an overall lack of cohesion. As a result, the book is more difficult than it need be for the non-specialist, and less useful than it might have been for the specialist.

All that said, however, there is a lot here to like. This might not be a good book – a unified and focused whole – but it is a good set of essays by top-flight philosophers. Anything that contains the work of Jospeh Raz, Frank Jackson, and T.H. Irwin, besides the philosophers already mentioned, cannot fail to be interesting. For those who want to sample something of the range and concerns of moral philosophy today, this collection is well worth the effort. Those who just want a general idea of what moral particularism claims, however, would do better to read the entry on the topic, written by Dancy himself, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

 

© 2002 Neil Levy

 

Dr Neil Levy is a fellow of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University, Australia. He is the author of two mongraphs and over a dozen articles and book chapters on Continental philosophy, ethics and political philosophy. He is currently writing a book on moral relativism.


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