Moral Particularism and the Role of Imaginary Cases: A Pragmatist Approach

European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy 8 (1):237-259 (2016)
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I argue that John Dewey’s analysis of imagination enables an account of learning from imaginary cases consistent with Jonathan Dancy’s moral particularism. Moreover, this account provides a more robust account of learning from cases than Dancy’s own. Particularism is the position that there are no, or at most few, true moral principles, and that competent reasoning and judgment do not require them. On a particularist framework, one cannot infer from an imaginary case that because a feature has a particular moral importance there, that it must have that import in an actual case. Instead, for Dancy, cases can yield “reminders,” and a person with a lot of experience (real or imagined) brings a “checklist” of features that can matter to a situation. Using the Nathan-David exchange from 2 Samuel and Martha Nussbaum’s “Steerforth’s Arm” from Love’s Knowledge, I show that this account does not explain all instances of learning from cases. Drawing on recent work on cases, I argue that cases can be educative by serving an exploratory function, probing what one takes to be known and provoking change in the background one uses in evaluating a situation. I then argue that Dewey’s work on imagination in his comments on sympathy and in A Common Faith and Art as Experience enables such a role for cases on a particularist framework. Mark Johnson’s recent work on metaphor further illuminates how Dewey’s account of art can be exploratory. I contend that this account affords an exploratory role for cases consistent with Dancy’s particularism.

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Nate Whelan-Jackson
Capital University


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