moderate “particularism”

Here is an argument for a moderate form of the philosophical position known as “particularism.” A full-blown particularist believes that whole situations are either good or bad; they can be validly judged. However, the separate qualities or aspects of situations can only be assessed in context. A quality is neither good nor bad in all the cases where it arises. The very same quality may make x better and yet make y worse. For instance, the quality of generosity is (normally) good if it makes me donate to the homeless, but it is bad (and makes matters worse) if I give generously to a terrorist organization.

According to particularists, the moral aspects of situations are analogous to splashes of red paint. (This is Simon Blackburn’s analogy.) Adding a red splash might make a painting by de Kooning better, but a Vermeer worse; by itself, the red splash it is neither beautiful nor ugly. The de Kooning (overall) is a good painting and the Vermeer (overall) is a great one. We can make valid judgments, but only about whole works of art, not about small components of them.


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.

In contrast to radical particularists, I think our moral vocabulary is very heterogeneous. It includes:

1. concepts that are tautologically good or bad. For instance, the right thing to do is always right.

2. concepts that are good or bad pro tanto, which is Latin for “as far as that goes.” For instance, one might argue that kindness always makes things better, but an act can be both kind and stupid, and the stupidity is sometimes more important than the kindness. Thus kindness is only pro tanto good.

3. concepts that are good or bad prima facie, “on their face.” For example, we rightly assume that a generous act is good, overall. But sometimes unusual circumstances arise that make generosity bad;

4. concepts that are morally neutral most of the time, although in rare circumstances they take on moral significance (e.g., redness or bigness); and finally

5. concepts that operate as particularists would expect them to: they usually make situations morally better or worse when they apply, yet we cannot tell in advance whether they will help or hurt in each circumstance. We must look at the whole situation.

Radical particularists imply that every important concept fits in category #5. I am a moderate particularist because I believe that the other categories also exist, but #5 is common and unavoidable.

For instance, I would place love in category #5. The Romantics thought that love was always pro tanto good. To say that someone was in love might not be the only thing to say about a situation, but it was always a good thing. I think the Romantics was wrong. If Guinivere is married to Arthur, then Guinivere’s love for Lancelot is not even pro tanto good; it is bad, and she should work to reduce it. (I believe that we have the capacity to control the emotion of love, but that is a psychological claim and it is not important to my overall argument. Even if love is not in our control, adulterous love is still bad.)

An opponent of particularism may say: Love is sometimes good and sometimes bad. This makes it a highly imperfect concept. We would actually be better off with two words, for instance, “good-love” and “bad-love.” The definition of these words would not be morally tautological; we wouldn’t just say that “good-love” is love whenever it is good. Instead, a proper definition would connect “good-love” to more general moral concepts like justice and virtue, which we would also define. For example, good-love might include love between two consenting, unmarried adults, because our general theories of the good and of freedom would tell us to value love when it arises freely between unencumbered adults.

The anti-particularist’s goal is to use only words that are pro tanto or prima facie good and bad. The goal is to excise words that are morally tautologous and words that have unpredictable moral valences. In practice, of course, we’ll always retain our inherited vocabulary. We won’t actually talk about “good-love” (because it’s an ugly coinage), but we will explain what forms of love, in general, are good or bad.

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.

Although I don’t know how to prove that one cannot replace all morally ambiguous concepts with ones that are pro tanto or prima facie good or bad, I strongly doubt that this effort can ever succeed. If, for example, one tried to reason with the concept of “good-love,” and defined it so that it included love between unmarried consenting pairs of adults, there would be many cases in which good-love turned out to be bad. So I think “good-love” would quickly collapse into a tautologously good thing (that is, it would mean “love in all cases where love is good”), or it would turn out to be unpredictably good or bad, depending on the context. But that was the problem with our ordinary concept of love.

In short, there is no escaping particularism about love, although we don’t have to be particularists about everything.

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