Particularism is a philosophical position that, in brief, claims that reasoning can be rational and noncapricious without being structured using principles. (Noncapricious in this context means that we do not decide on a whim that a case is of a certain sort; there has to be consistency between it and other cases.) The opponents of particular-ists, generalists, deny this claim in various ways. Particularism has commonly been applied to reasoning concerned with what people should believe (epistemological reasoning) and how people should act (moral and prudential reasoning). It has attracted much attention, and the debate is carried out at a high level of abstraction. This has led to some splintering of the position; so much so that the definition given in this entry’s opening sentence is a controversial formulation. Jonathan Dancy has been the leading exponent of particularism.
Imagine that any element of a possible course of action—for example, that an action is a stabbing; that it would be performed on a Tuesday—is a feature. Situations are collections of features. The debate raised by particular-ists concerns the nature of the contribution that features make to the value of the situations of which they are a part. Is it true that stabbings are always wrong, as crude generalists argue? According to particularism, sometimes stabbings are permissible, even obligatory, as in the case of self-defense. Even so, is it true that stabbings are always wrong-making, as more sophisticated generalists hold? That is, does the fact that an action is a stabbing always count against performing it, even though sometimes there are enough reasons to justify the action? Particularists deny that this has to be the case. By employing various arguments, distinctions, and examples, they argue that it is possible for the type of reason generated by a feature to change from situation to situation depending on the other features with which it is conjoined. Sometimes stabbings can be right-making. Particularists borrow a term from chemistry and claim that features can change their valency. (Some particularists make this claim about such features as justice, kindness, and the like.) If particularists are right, it means that there are no true moral principles apart from those with vague caveats such as “stabbing is often wrong-making.” (Particularists are trying to understand how such caveats work.) In other words, particular-ists think that reasoning can still be consistent, but this consistency is not captured by principles.
Particularism is not relativism. Particularists claim that the valencies of features can alter, while the reason generated by a feature on any occasion is an absolute, nonrelative matter.
Particularism has important implications beyond abstract philosophy. If the particularist view is true, how does it affect our interpretation of the reasoning practices of judges in legal contexts? And should it alter how ethics are taught to various groups of people, such as those in the medical profession?
SEE ALSO Ethics; Relativism
Dancy, Jonathan. 1993. Moral Reasons. Oxford: Blackwell.
Dancy, Jonathan. 2004. Ethics Without Principles. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hooker, Brad, and Margaret Little, eds. 2000. Moral Particularism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McKeever, Sean, and Michael Ridge. 2006. Principled Ethics: Generalism as a Regulative Ideal. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
par·tic·u·lar·ism / pə(r)ˈtikyələˌrizəm/ • n. exclusive attachment to one's own group, party, or nation. ∎ the principle of leaving each state in an empire or federation free to govern itself and promote its own interests, without reference to those of the whole. ∎ Theol. the doctrine that some but not all people are elected and redeemed. DERIVATIVES: par·tic·u·lar·ist n. & adj. par·tic·u·lar·is·tic / -ˌtikyələˈristik/ adj.