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Gilbert Harmon: Moral Particularism and Transduction

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Gilbert Harmon considered two theories on the grounding of moral decisions, moral particularism and moral generalism.  Moral generalism holds that moral truths originate from general moral principles, or that reasonable or justified moral decisions are grounded in general moral principles.  Moral particularism rejects the claims that general moral principles exist.

Harmon also considered strong and weak forms of the two theories.  Strong moral generalism states that all morals are based on general moral principles; weak moral generalism states that at least some moral are based on general moral principles.  Strong moral particularism denies that any morals are based on general moral principles; weak moral particularism denies that all morals are based on general principles.  Harmon pointed out that strong moral particularism denies weak moral generalism, and that weak moral particularism denies strong moral generalism.

Harmon’s focus is on the relationship between strong moral generalism and weak moral particularism, calling into question strong moral generalism.  He pointed out two difficult issues to consider: one, what counts as a general principle, and two, what does it mean that a moral decision or belief is based on a general moral principle (45.)

Concerning general principles, he questioned whether there are exceptionless rules or even default principles, or even whether such principles are even expressible in language.  The principles given by most people tend to have exceptions; as examples he cited “It is wrong to break a promise” and “It is wrong to kill another person” (45.)  Furthermore, not only can most people not formulate truly exceptionless principles, they frequently have trouble expressing default principles, or moral maxims.  Interestingly, considering an argument by R.M. Hare, Harmon noted that people may be able to follow complex exceptionless principles that they have learned to do – not enunciate – by a properly developed disposition.

Considering what it might mean to base a moral decision on a general moral principle, with Hare’s argument in mind, Harmon proposed that basing a moral judgment on a general principle might mean that one has a settled disposition to act according to some principle.  However, one’s implicit moral principles are not identified with a settled disposition, as one may have a settled disposition to reconsider one’s position if new situations occur.  In short, mutable dispositions are not themselves exceptionless principles.

As interesting as I found his speculative consideration of transduction in the latter part of the paper, I will focus on the first part of his argument.  I find Harmon’s argument reasonably persuasive that there are good arguments against strong moral generalism.  Though he argued specifically against strong moral generalism, by questioning even the possibility of expressing a general moral principle, or basing one’s actions on it, if successful his argument could undermine the possibility of even a weak moral generalism.

As he noted early in the paper, the differences between moral particularism and moral generalism are “metaphysical to the extent that they concern the source of moral truths, and epistemic (or psychological,) to the extent that they concern the source of reasonable or justified moral decisions and beliefs” (44.)  As one with theistic commitments I do not preclude the metaphysical existence of exceptionless moral principles.  That said, given our epistemic limits, I do not consider it possible for humans to ground their actions in a strong moral generalism.  Rather, I will briefly defend a weak moral generalist position that there are objective, general, moral principles from which people can draw for moral guidance.

One example I propose is the second greatest commandment in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as stated by Jesus in the Christian Gospel (Matthew 22:39,) citing the Jewish Torah (Leviticus 19:18,) to love your neighbor as yourself.  A similar maxim, sometimes known as the Golden Rule, it is to do to others what you would have done to yourself (Matthew 7:12.)  I suggest these are general moral principles that can ground moral decisions.  They are readily expressible in language.  As formal principles, they expresses how one should consider the relationship between one’s actions, oneself, and others, requiring reflection and evaluation in each instance.  I think it possible that there could be several morally acceptable outcomes, based on one’s possibilities of action.

One may acquire a settled disposition that in common instances acts on these maxims; in agreement with Harmon, thought, the maxims do not reduce to one’s settled disposition; new, untested situations may require careful reflection outside one’s disposition on how the maxims should be applied.

Basing one’s actions on these maxims as principles is a matter of reflecting on one’s actions as if one were the recipient of those actions.  In difference with some impartialist moral reasoning, it does not seem to me that the second commandment requires that one acquire the point of view of another to determine how to act; at least initially one need only consider one’s response were one the recipient of one’s proposed actions.  Clearly it does not follow that the ones to whom the action would be done would in fact respond as I consider that I would, but it is a starting point; I would expect an iterative process of action and feedback (or response) that approaches a commonly accepted behavior known to the various parties in the group or society.

Certainly far more could be said about the second commandment and Golden Rule as general moral principles, how one might base one’s actions on them, and how they might compare with other moral theories, such as the Kantian categorical imperative or a form of self/other consequentialism.  Though of interest, my point here is to propose, contra Harmon, that these two maxims are linguistically expressible general moral principles that are exceptionless to the extent that one should never treat another as one would not want to be treated, and furthermore, that they give a way of basing one’s actions on them by considering one’s response were one the recipient of one’s own actions.

If my brief argument is successful, then a weak moral generalism would seem possible.

Harmon, Gilbert. (2005.) “Moral Particularism and Transduction.” Philosophical Issues, 15, Normativity, 2005.

This is adapted from a series of responses I wrote for an independent study in analytic ethics of partiality and consequentialism.

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