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  • Habits and Mental Perspectives:Educating Moral Particularism
  • Nate Jackson

Moral particularism, broadly understood, is the position that morality resists codification into a set of rules or principles.1 Jonathan Dancy, particularism's main contemporary proponent, maintains that there are few, if any, true moral principles, and moral reasoning and judgment do not require them. Instead, acts are justified by the salient features of particular situations, and moral reasoning requires attunement to these elements. In rejecting a rule-bound approach to morality, particularists deny pictures of moral education emphasizing knowledge and application of principles. While Dancy offers a competing view of competence, his explanation of the possibility of moral education is inadequate, leaving a lacuna in the case for particularism. In response, particularism must account for the possibility of developing sensitivity to a situation's salient features without the aid of universal principles.

John Dewey offers a view of judgment familiar to contemporary particularism and confronts a similar educational challenge. Drawing on Dewey's analyses of habit and tradition, I argue that particularists can offer an account of education consistent with their rejection of rules. Habits structure experiences on Dewey's account, affording an explanation of salience in moral perception. Further, Dewey describes traditions in terms of habits, and his ideas enable understanding the development of the sensitivities at the core of Dancy's account of moral competence.

Below, I review Dancy's central commitments and the skepticism surrounding the possibility of particularist education. After situating my argument relative to current pragmatist criticisms of particularism, I outline David Bakhurst's recent proposal regarding particularist education as perspective-formation and initiation in a tradition. Developing this framework, I argue that Dewey's account of habits and his assessment of traditions afford resources to account for [End Page 27] the possibility of particularist moral education. Moreover, Bakhurst denies that Dewey's notion of habit offers a plausible resource for particularism. I respond to Bakhurst's criticism and conclude by offering a Deweyan interpretation of particularist moral learning enabled by one mechanism that Bakhurst identifies: study in the humanities.

Moral Particularism and Reasons-Holism

Dancy's particularism denies that there are true universal moral principles and seeks to minimize the role of generalities in moral reasoning.2 He understands principles as statements affirming that a particular feature has invariant moral import, like "All actions that involve lying are wrong" or "It is wrong to lie" (Dancy, "Moral Particularism"). On a generalist, or principle-bound, view, the wrongness of lying might be outweighed or defeated by other considerations, but that an act involved lying would still make a case against action in every circumstance. Further, particularists argue that we should be suspicious of reliance on moral generalizations. Dancy describes principles as "crutches," unnecessary for morally competent individuals, "and indeed the use of such crutches might even lead us into moral error" ("Moral Particularism").

Particularism is a consequence of a more fundamental view regarding the behavior of reasons. A reason is a feature or features that justify or make a case for action (Dancy, Ethics without Principles 15). For Dancy, ordinary features of a situation—for instance, an act causing pain or someone making a promise—serve as reasons. Underlying particularism's rejection of principles is a commitment to holism, the thesis that "a feature that is a reason in one case may be no reason at all, or an opposite reason, in another" (Dancy, Ethics without Principles 73). Dancy contends that

[t]he leading thought behind particularism is the thought that the behavior of a reason (or of a consideration that serves as a reason) in a new case cannot be predicted from its behavior elsewhere. The way in which the consideration functions here either will or at least may be affected by other considerations here present.

(Dancy, Moral Reasons 60)

Dancy identifies this view as a "holistic view of the behavior of reasons" (Moral Reasons 60). Per holism, whether a feature serves as a reason depends on the other background features of a situation. Thus, one cannot infer that because a feature mattered in one situation, it must matter elsewhere.3

To support holism, particularists envision cases in which the same feature can serve...


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