Particular Reasons

Ethics 118 (1):109-139 (2007)
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Abstract

Moral particularists argue that because reasons for action are irreducibly context-dependent, the traditional quest in ethics for true and exceptionless moral principles is hopelessly misguided. In making this claim, particularists assume a general framework according to which reasons are the ground floor normative units undergirding all other normative properties and relations. They then argue that there is no cashing out in finite terms either (i) when a given non-normative feature gives rise to a reason for or against action, or (ii) how the reasons that are present in a given context play off each other to determine one’s overall duties. However, the conjunction of these two theses leaves particularists without a coherent notion of a reason for action: posit too much irreducible context-dependence in the behavior of reasons, and the reasons-based framework breaks down. One upshot is that the particularists’ challenge to principle-based approaches to ethics has not, at present, been successfully made out; another upshot is that perhaps the best way to formulate that challenge involves renouncing the reasons-based framework all together.

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Selim Berker
Harvard University

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