Particularism and Supervenience

In Russ Shafer-Landau (ed.), Oxford Studies in Metaethics. Oxford University Press (2008)
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Abstract
One of our most fundamental notions of morality is that in so far as objects have moral properties, they have non-moral properties that make them have moral properties. Similarly, objects have moral properties in virtue of or because of having non-moral properties, and moral properties depend on non-moral properties. In ethics it has generally been assumed that this relation can be accounted for by the supervenience of moral properties on non-moral properties. However, this assumption is put into doubt by an influential view in contemporary ethics: particularism. Thus, one of particularism’s most important implications is thought to be that supervenience is incapable of accounting for the notion that non-moral properties make objects havemoral properties. At least, this iswhat Jonathan Dancy, the leading proponent of particularism, argues in his recent book Ethics Without Principles, and elsewhere. In the present paper, I defend supervenience against this challenge. That is, I argue that particularism does not threaten the ability of supervenience to account for the notion that non-moral properties make objects have moral properties. While doing so, I hope to contribute to our understanding of what is involved in this notion. In the next section, I consider a general argument put forward by Dancy against supervenience and criticize his alternative, resultance. In Section 3, I develop a version of supervenience that I call Specific Moral Supervenience, SMS, and which I think avoids Dancy’s argument. There are basically two conceptions of particularism: what is known as ‘holism’ and the contention that there are no true moral principles. In Section 4, I argue that the view that SMS provides a basis for an account of the notion that non-moral properties make objects have moral properties is compatible with the pertinent version of holism. However, in Section 5 we see that SMS is incompatible with the view that there are no true moral principles. Particularists find support for this view in the distinction between non-moral properties that make objects have moral properties and so-called enablers. On Dancy’s conception of this distinction, it follows that SMS does not refer to non-moral properties that make objects have moral properties and that there are no true moral principles of the relevant kind. In Sections 6 and 7, I defend SMS against these two consequences. In doing so, I distinguish two uses of ‘make’ and provide a pragmatic account of the distinction between non-moral properties that make objects have moral properties and enablers.
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