There is a paradox about moral principles like ‘You ought to keep your promises’. They seem to express universal truths that tell us what to do, but exceptional situations arise in which it seems we should not do what they tell us. Generalists like R. M. Hare resolve this paradox by arguing that accurately specified moral principles do not have exceptions, and we can use them to syllogistically derive correct judgments about actions. Particularists like Jonathan Dancy resolve the paradox by arguing that, because there can be exceptions to any moral principle, moral principles actually are false. At best they are “reminders” or “dispensable crutches”.
I argue that although Dancy’s particularism undermines generalism, it fails to capture the true normative status of moral principles. Consequently, there is a lacuna in particularism: it does not provide an adequate understanding of how moral values are related or how moral principles are action-guiding. I trace the failures of particularism, as well as generalism, to an assumption both share about generality—an assumption that tethers them to an unduly narrow conception of moral principles.
After rejecting this assumption, I draw on Iris Murdoch’s notion of vision and its perfection to develop an ideal-based account of generality. According to this account, moral thought includes reflection on substantive ideals, the content of which is partly expressed in ordinary moral principles. I argue there are two forms of generality moral principles can exhibit, which generalists and particularists alike should embrace. The first is characteristic of fundamental principles like those in Murdoch’s and Aristotle’s views. The second is exhibited in principles that help give content to moral ideals. My account (unlike particularism) allows that principles have a normative, action-guiding role, but (unlike generalism) it does not construe principles as bases for syllogistic derivations about what to do. I discuss examples of both moral exemplars and rehabilitated criminal offenders to demonstrate that principled reflection is crucial to perfecting agency. In doing this, I show how the paradox about moral principles can give way to an understanding of moral principles that captures the role they play in ordinary moral reflection.
|School:||University of Pittsburgh|
|Department:||Arts and Sciences|
|School Location:||United States -- Pennsylvania|
|Source:||DAI-A 79/09(E), Dissertation Abstracts International|
|Subjects:||Ethics, Philosophy, Psychology|
|Keywords:||Criminal rehabilitation, Legal reasoning, Moral perception, Moral psychology, Moral reflection, Practical reasoning|
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