Moral Malapropism: Particularism on Craig Ferguson

Late night television takes on moral particularism:

via Peter Levine

I’m still trying to get my head around Dancy’s view, so perhaps this post will be more confusing than it ought to be. Here’s the gist from the Stanford Encyclopedia:

Moral Particularism, at its most trenchant, is the claim that there are no defensible moral principles, that moral thought does not consist in the application of moral principles to cases, and that the morally perfect person should not be conceived as the person of principle. There are more cautious versions, however. The strongest defensible version, perhaps, holds that though there may be some moral principles, still the rationality of moral thought and judgement in no way depends on a suitable provision of such things; and the perfectly moral judge would need far more than a grasp on an appropriate range of principles and the ability to apply them. Moral principles are at best crutches that a morally sensitive person would not require, and indeed the use of such crutches might even lead us into moral error. (emphasis mine)

In this, moral particularlism sounds like a defense of casuistry. To be a resolute casuist is to reject meta-ethical concerns and general principles in favor of hands-on pragmatism, working with cases to acclimate our moral senses. Casuistry is sometimes associated with the “hard cases make bad law” school of thought, though a good casuist can as easily derive the correct answer from a hard case as an easy case, and should be able to avoid the danger that such hard cases will make any “law” at all, since that would simply be a “crutch” likely to “lead us into moral error” when we return to easier cases.

Of course, I’m sympathetic to a rejection of a priori moral theorizing that purports to derive and then apply a principle like utility maximization or autonomy, but that’s because I favor a steady movement between principles and cases. In this, I feel like I split the difference between particularism and generalism, but I worry, however, that a moderate position might not be possible here. Dancy’s particularism seems to reject the possibility of reflective equilibrium. The movement to principles would only be “definitional” in his sense, i.e. purely analytic, not inferential.

Put another way: what could cause us to revise a moral judgment? On my view, either additional facts or conflict with a previously-developed principle could force such a revision, but for Dancy only facts can do the job. For this reason, Dancy suggest that philosophers shouldn’t give advice (since they’re not likely to have access to the relevant facts) and Peter Levine (with reservations) agrees:

Why shouldn’t philosophers dispense advice? Because what one needs to advise people well is not only correct general views (which, in any case, many laypeople hold), but also good motivations, reliability and attention, fine interpretative skills, knowledge of the topic, judgment born of experience, and communication ability (meaning not only clarity but also tact). There is no reason to think that members of your local philosophy department are above average on all these dimensions.

Levine suggests that philosophers are likely average in the specific traits associated with good advice, and very good at an irrelevant part of moral theorizing, because:

the best moral philosophy is methodologically innovative and challenging and also addresses real issues. [However, y]ou wouldn’t ask John Rawls to run a governmental program or even to advise on specific policies, but your thinking about policies may be better because you have read Rawls. It so happens that he held some interesting ideas about meta-ethics, but those were merely complementary to his core views, which were substantive.

Thus, philosophers-qua-philosophers shouldn’t give advice, because their job is methodological innovation and challenges that “enrich other people’s moral thinking.” There’s something reminiscent of Jason Stanley’s recent lament that philosophers get ignored at cocktail parties here, a kind of argument from definition for being-boring. If a moral philosopher offers useful advice, she’s no longer doing good moral philosophy, but rather getting bogged down in facts and good judgment? (But then isn’t this an odd No-True-Scotsman?) Why shouldn’t we be able to persuade ourselves of the need to develop the traits he suggests are the real prerequisites for advice?

It helps to look at the original holism from which particularism takes its bearings. Hermeneutic holism tries to square our capacity to deal with, for instance, malapropisms without faltering at the inapplicability of general syntactic and semantic rules of interpretation. Donald Davidson’s “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” is an example of this kind of effort, arguing that conventions can never completely suffice for understanding. One response is to adopt a dialogic account of interpretation that resolves the indeterminacy of translation and meaning through the elimination of private language and the embrace of theory-laden-but-revisable meanings that can only be determined in situ. Thus, there’s a reasonable analogy to be made between semantic holism and moral holism.

By claiming that only a “whole situation” can be judged, the particularist refuses to break moral problems into constituent concepts or parts with which we might calculate. There’s something tempting about that holistic approach, but it also has risks. Here’s Levine again:

As a moderate particularist, I reply: love is an extremely important moral concept. It is morally ambiguous, in the precise sense that it only has a moral valence in context–sometimes it makes things better pro tanto, and sometimes it makes things worse, but it is almost always morally significant. Although it may be good more often than it is bad, it is not prima facie good (because it’s highly unpredictable).

Furthermore, we cannot make live morally without the concept “love,” nor can we split it into two categories. Love is not just the union of two concepts: good-love and bad-love. Part of the definition of “love” is that it can be either good or bad, or can easily change from good to bad (or vice-versa), or can be good and bad at the same time in various complex ways.

Though we’d like there to be a difference between embracing ambiguity or indeterminacy, as Levine does with love, and embracing skepticism, which no particularist actually wants to do, I suspect the entailment between moral holism and moral skepticism may be unavoidable.

The risk here isn’t that we’d simply judge each instance of love as we find it, but that we’d find ourselves in a moral analogue of the “gavagai-means-rabbit” situation, unable to ever determine even for ourselves which of the features of a situation was morally relevant. Since we can imagine a perspective from which even a happy marriage is the instantiation of heteronormative privilege, as when we look at it through the lens of Andrea Dworkin’s complicated concerns describing the background of violence and domination that makes such relationships possible, we can’t know which context is the right context for judgment. (I’m reminded of critical readings of Jane Austen that emphasize the colonial practices that make the novels central bourgeois conflicts possible.) If moral holism is true, then we can never be sure that out judgment of a case has properly incorporated all relevant facts, until we had a “picture of the moral universe” in our heads large enough to avoid all errors and exclusions. Thus, holism seems to entail skepticism. Yet Dancy and others claim that we can properly judge a case.

This is the problem Levine notes in the question of how big a “whole” is:

Note: there is a problem here about what constitutes a “component” or a “whole.” Can one make moral judgments about people, about policies and institutions, about whole societies? Is a law a component of a society, or a whole object in itself? The same problem sometimes arises in aesthetics, because it may be valuable to assess a whole suite of paintings, or a small detail of a picture, rather than a single and complete work.

Is a moral question like love or family ever simply self-contained? I think not: for instance, I’ve recently argued against having children on the basis of non-local costs associated with bringing additional human beings into an overcrowded world. A response would have to take the form of a response to the global objections I raise, not simply claim that I can safely ignore the larger “whole.”

This brings us back to the steady movement between cases and principles. Reflective equilibrium was originally used in set theory to address exactly this kind of whole/part uncertainty, and was only imported into moral philosophy by Goodman and Rawls. So perhaps there is room for moderation like Peter Levine’s. In contrast with his moderate particularism, a “moderate generalist” might be someone who rejects the purported universality of moral principles in favor of a careful accounting of the scope or jurisdiction of a moral judgment, and carefully applied reflective equilibrium to broaden that scope through inquiry.

To the vocabulary of pro tanto and prima facie concepts, we’d add defeasible duties, relevance criteria, and a theory of justification. So we could say that not-procreating is a duty easily defeasible by ignorance or strong desire, or that the colonial slavery that makes a bourgeois life possible simply isn’t relevant to an evaluation of that life. And then we could dispute the justificatory framework that applies such limiting arguments. But if that’s the case, then Dancy’s position would ultimately only be a stepping stone to such an adjudication of cases and principles. It’s a nice reminder not to get lost in principles, but it can’t possibly give us the whole picture.

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