Thursday, 14 February 2008

Dancy's Particularism (2)

In the last post we saw that moral principles are supposed to pick out features of actions with positive or negative valencies - that is, features which generate (contributory) reasons either for or against Φing. We will begin, here, to see what Dancy thinks is wrong with moral principles.

Those committed to (G) think that if there were no such things as principles like (A) then moral thought and judgement couldn't get off the ground. This seems quite reasonable: all that principles do is tell us which features generate what reasons. If we were incapable of formulating any such principles then we would be incapable of telling what reasons there are; and if this is the case, then moral practice would break down would it not?

This, Dancy wants to claim, is not quite right. Principles such as (A) track features which generate a certain kind of reason, or, rather, track features with a certain kind of valency: an invariable valency. To say that a feature has an invariable valency is to say that if a generates a reason with a certain valency in one context, then in every other context in which it appears it must generate a reason with the same valency. That is, in so far as those committed to (G) take it that there moral thought requires the existence of princples like (A), they are committed to a certain thesis about the nature of reasons which Dancy calls atomism:

Atomism: A feature which generates a reason in one situation must generate a
reason with the same valency in any other situation in which it is present.

Atomism can seem quite intuitive. But Dancy thinks that it is false and as such principles like (A) cannot do what they are supposeded to do: track features with invairable valencies. Notice, however, that (G) could still be true. If it were true then Dancy will have put forward a sceptical argument the conclusion of which would be that moral practice is impossible. But, of course, Dancy isn't as sceptic. We will see in the next post that he actually wants to argue for a thesis opposed to atomism which he thinks we can use in an argument for (P), and, hence, show that (G) is false.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Dancy's Particularism (1)

I am going to give a summary of Dancy's version of moral particularism. In this first post I will go over some preliminaries.

Particularism is a view concerning the status of moral principles. Put simply, the particularist wants to say that moral practice doesn't require them. As we shall see, in Dancy's hands this claim becomes a claim about the nature of reasons.

First of all here's how Dancy models Particularism:

(P) Moral thought and judgement is not dependent on the provision of a suitable
supply of moral principles

Opposed to (P) is Generalism:

(G) Moral thought and judgement is dependent on the provision of a suitable
supply of moral principles

What exactly is a moral principle? Let's take the example

(A) 'Breaking one's promises is wrong'.

(A) specifies a feature of an action and ascribes a moral predicate to it. So (A) is roughly equivalent to 'If Φing constitutes the breaking of a promise then one ought not Φ'. Now, to say that one ought not do something is just to say that there is reason not to do it. So we need to get clearer on the nature of reasons if we are going gain an understanding of (A), (G), and (P).

Reasons are things which favour or disfavour a course of action or the adoption of an attitude. So to say that breaking one's promises is wrong is to say that the breaking of a promise is a feature of an action which disfavours one performing it.

An important distinction we should note is that between a contributory reason and an overall reason. When we are deciding whether or not to Φ the first step we take is to determine the reasons for and the reasons against Φing. After we have made such a determination we then make a decision as to where the reasons ultimately fall: either in favour or against Φing. Sometimes we might decide that there is more reason not to Φ than to Φ, other times not. The reasons which we surmise in our first step are the contributory reasons. In the second step we determine the overall reason.

Contributory reasons are not sufficient reasons - the existence of a contributory reason in favour of Φing is not enough to determine that Φing is what one ought to do; they contribute to our decision but do not determine it. This is because there might be other contributory reasons which disfavour Φing which override or defeat the contributory reasons which favour Φing. So a contributory reason holds only 'as far as it goes' which is just to say that it is not a sufficient reason. The correct specification of a contributory reason, then, is 'In so far as Φing constitutes lying, one shouldn't Φ'. The qualification 'in so far as' signals the fact that lying engenders a contributory reason.

Once we have a list of the contributory reasons for and against a further step must be taken in order to determine what we ought to do. This further step consists of weighing up the reasons for or against in order to determine where they ultimately fall. If they ultimately favour Φing then we have overall reason to Φ. If they ultimately disfavour Φing then we have overall reason not to Φ. Note that on this construal overall reasons are not different kinds of reasons over and above contributory reasons - to have an overall reason to Φ is just to have a set of contributory reasons which defeat those reasons which disfavour Φing.

According to (A) actions with a certain feature - actions which constitute the breaking of a promise - are things which we have reason not to do. For reasons which we don't need to go into the reason generated by this feature and which (A) specifies must be taken to be a contributory reasons - that is, a reason which holds only 'so far as it goes'.

I have been talking of features of actions generating reasons. Some features generate (contributory) reasons which favour, other times reasons which disfavour, and other times fail to generate reasons at all. To introduce some important terminology we might say that a feature which generates a reason which favours has positive valency, one which generates a reason which disfavours a negative valency and one which fails to generate any reason at all has nil valency.

We are now in a position to better understand the nature of a moral principle. A moral principle identifies a feature of an action with positive or negative valency. Of course, principles are supposed to do other things as well - they are supposed to guide our moral decisions, for instance. But Dancy is interested in the role principles play in specifying reasons. We will see that he wants to claim that it is because principles are supposed to specify reasons of a certain sort that they are not fit for purpose. The terminology introduced above will come in handy in the following discussion.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Welcome All

'My proposal is that we should try to reconcile reason and nature, and the point of doing that is to attain... a frame of mind in which we would no longer seem to be faced with problems that call on philosophy to bring subject and object back together' - John McDowell

The reconciliation of reason and nature which McDowell attempts in Mind and World is of fundamental importance. Reasons are things which prescribe or prohibit certain courses of action or the adoption of certain attitudes. To the extent that one fails to heed such prescriptions, all things being equal, one is at fault. There is a tendency to look on this last claim with some suspicion: from where to these prescriptions gain their authority? and how do they gain their authority? McDowell's answer to the first question is 'the world' and his response to the second question is to shrug his shoulders. His answer to the first question, moreover, determines his response to the second: if reasons are given to us by the world then asking how they come to gain their prescriptive force is akin to asking how objects (or events, or facts, or what have you) gain their causal efficacy; it is simply a brute fact which neither admits of nor requires explanation.

If McDowell is right then we shouldn't be suspicious of reasons or rational phenomena at all. This is not to say that we can close the book on the theory of reasons all together of course. It is to say that we can continue theorising about reasons - in relation to epistemology, metaethics, and the philosophy of mind - without having the doubt about their veracity lodged in the back of our minds; stultifying the whole exercise.