particularism and coherence

I?m a moral particularist. I believe that some words and concepts have moral significance, but we can only tell whether they are good, bad, or neutral in particular cases. Abstracted from any specific context, they have indeterminate significance. Examples include love, loyalty, pleasure, courage, and generosity. These words and concepts are indispensable. We cannot replace them with ones that have determinate and predictable significance without oversimplifying morality. Therefore, moral judgment ought to be about whole situations, not about abstract concepts.

I?m also a cultural particularist. I believe that people have large sets of values, experiences, preferences, and opinions that jointly constitute their ?cultures.? Often, many people who live at roughly the same time and place share a lot of ideas, values, etc., and then we say that they belong to the same ?culture.? However, there is usually no single perspective, worldview, premise, or foundation that defines or underlies their culture. Thus there may be no precise boundary to a culture; and we can often classify one person as a member of several cultures at once. Some philosophers have argued that the various cultures of the world are fundamentally incompatible or unable to comprehend one another. But every member of a complex, reasonably free society will have slightly different ideas, experiences, and values, so each person can be described as having his or her own ?culture.? This is a reductio ad absurdum; it suggests that there can be no deep incompatibility among cultures (or else no one could understand anyone else). If everyone in a society does share exactly the same set of values, then we suspect that they are deprived or politically repressed.

These two forms of particularism are independent and separable, but they go together well. The combined position has implications for moral reasoning and the humanities. I?m spelling out the implications in my book on Dante, which is nearly finished.

However, I recently realized that there is a phenomenon that particularists have difficulty explaining: coherence.

[Substantially revised on Jan. 3]: If “morality” is the set of all the right judgments about all the situations in the world, then I don’t actually believe that it is very coherent. We should respond the same way to any two situations that have exactly the same morally significant empirical features. Beyond that, there is not much coherence to morality: there are just incorrect and correct judgments of cases.

However, cultures are different from “morality.” They are plural, because they consist of aesthetic, spiritual, and moral judgments as well as goals, preferences, empirical beliefs, and expectations about certain questions. Why are cultures often internally coherent? Why is the set of values and preferences held by a group often harmonious, not completely random and unpredictable? We could also ask this question about individuals. Why do all the opinions and values of a person tend to cohere, at least to some degree?

I acknowledge the phenomenon of coherence. I suspect it arises for several reasons. First, some people have a preference for coherence itself. They believe that all their separate judgments ought to arise from as few premises as possible. They also believe that everyone should share these premises. If this wish came true, then the whole society would become uniform and consistent. We see a preference for coherence in Calvinists, utilitarians, Marxists, and Freudians, among others?despite their deep disagreement about virtually everything else. This preference is not a good thing, in my view. It doesn?t reflect some deep truth about the universe (i.e., that everything must follow from one or a few assumptions). On the contrary, it causes people to force situations into a Procrustean bed. But I recognize that the preference is widely held, and it has caused people to make their various views cohere.

Second, some people are deeply influenced by a few stories or situations. Whether one is especially moved by the Passion of Christ, the Holocaust and the foundation of Israel, or one?s own rags-to-riches story, it can have a powerful influence on many or all of one?s moral judgments. If a group of people constantly refer to few stories or situations, then they will share a culture that is relatively coherent. As a particularist, I don?t believe that any story ought to provide the foundation of morality. But I acknowledge that a story may provide the basis for all the views of certain people and societies at certain times.

Third, institutions prize coherence?and for good reasons. For example, even though the best moral judgments arise only from careful consideration of particular cases, we worry that real judges and juries may be biased, incompetent, or simply unpredictable. Therefore, we define legal concepts in general terms and ask courts to enforce them almost mechanically. This is beneficial even though there must be an imperfect match between law and morality. Religious denominations and educational institutions also pursue a degree of internal coherence. Furthermore, it is useful for the various institutions of a single society to harmonize with one another. Thus there is social pressure toward coherence, for basically pragmatic reasons.