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Why You Shouldn’t Be A Person Of Principle
Ramsey McNabb introduces moral particularism.
Usually, when someone is called a ‘person of principle’ it is meant as a compliment. For the most part, we take that phrase as applying to the ethical elite: those who lead highly moral lives, and never, or at least rarely, fail to follow their moral principles. A person of principle means someone who faithfully follows their principle or set of principles rather than abandoning them when convenient. If faced with a seemingly difficult decision in life, he or she will refer to his or her guiding set of principles and then merely deduce the correct action from it. If on rare occasions such principled people do not behave according to their principles, they would consider such actions to be moral mistakes on their part.
A Christian would certainly strive to be a person of principle. Such a person would live his or her life according to the moral guidelines set out in the Bible, especially for instance the Ten Commandments. Suppose Norbert, a Christian, really wants to get his son a wristwatch from the local department store, but cannot afford to pay for it. He is quite certain that he could steal the watch without being caught. To resolve his inner dispute, all he has to do is refer to his set of guiding principles, and he will recall that “Thou shalt not steal” applies. Norbert, being a man of principle, leaves the store disappointed, without the watch, but also without having violated his principle, and therefore without having acted immorally.
A committed utilitarian is also a person of principle. Suppose Amina is walking down the street, on her way to tutor a boy she knows so that he can pass his upcoming biology test. Suddenly she sees two children stumble into a crevasse left by last week’s earthquake. No one else is around, and it would probably take quite some time for her either to save the children herself, or call for help and wait for it to arrive. She is faced with a dilemma. She can go do her tutoring, and ignore the accident she just witnessed; or she can help the children and miss her tutoring commitment. Being a committed utilitarian, and therefore a person of principle, all she needs to do is consult her guiding principle: “Do whatever will bring about the greatest good for the greatest number.” That solves her problem, because saving the two trapped and wounded girls helps the people who are most in need, and it also helps the greater number of people.
A person who lives her life by Kant’s ethical theory would also be a person of principle. Suppose that Terra, a Kantian, finds a fifty-dollar bill on a football field, and she pockets it, because after looking carefully, she does not see anyone else around. Lucky for her, because she could sure use the money to buy her mom that ceramic pit bull terrier for Christmas. However, ten minutes later, Biff, the quarterback of the football team, comes over to the field and seems to be scouring the ground, as if he’s looking for something he lost. Terra quickly concludes that the money is probably his. Being a person of principle she consults Kant’s categorical imperative, which is her highest guiding principle: “Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will to become a universal law.” She figures on that basis that anyone who finds money should be able to keep it if they don’t know to whom it belongs. But the case has changed, and she couldn’t possibly will that everyone should always keep the property of others just because they’ve briefly misplaced it. She returns the money to Biff, who promptly uses it to buy a ceramic football player for his father.
These are people of principle. They have beliefs and they are committed to living their lives according to those principles. They seem to be highly moral people who make excellent ethical choices. But watch where their principles take them…
Norbert the Christian is invited to go flying with his pilot friend Erica. They fly up north for about an hour, but then the engine gives out and Erica crash-lands the plane in a farmer’s field. Erica is trapped in the cockpit and begs for water. Norbert leaves her and runs to the nearby farmhouse. He knocks on the door but there is no answer. He notices a “NO TRESPASSING” sign. He also notices a hose attached to a tap on the side of the house. He could get water for Erica, but that would be stealing, since he has not been given permission by the owner. Norbert, being a person of principle, will not steal, no matter the case, so he fails to provide Erica with her much-needed water.
When our utilitarian, Amina, grows older, she becomes a doctor. A patient, Mr. Wiggles, comes to see her because he has sliced his finger badly. It’s only hanging on by a flap of skin. Mr. Wiggles would like Amina to repair his hand; but she has other ideas. She has four severely ill patients, who all need urgent transplants to survive their illnesses. The first needs a heart transplant; the second needs two new lungs; the third a bone marrow transplant; and the fourth needs a new liver. When she checks his medical files, Amina notices that Mr. Wiggles is a perfect match for all these patients. Amina sedates and slaughters him (against his will), and uses his organs to save the other patients. She manages to keep the entire procedure a secret from the public, and from everyone involved. She has brought about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. She has sacrificed one life, but saved four.
Our Kantian, Terra, sees a young girl run past frantically. The girl scurries underneath a nearby parked Honda Civic and hides. Moments later, a notorious escaped murderer comes onto the scene and inquires into the whereabouts of the girl. Terra thinks about Kant’s categorical imperative, and realizing that she could not universalize the maxim of her action if she were to lie, she decides to tell the truth, and thereafter the young girl is attacked and killed.
There is an exception to every rule, they say, and maybe they’re right, especially in ethics. Maybe being a person of principle isn’t such a good idea after all...
Dealing With The Exception
The exception is perhaps the greatest obstacle for any moral theory to deal with. You adopt a supposedly ideal moral system which should tell you what to do to act morally in any possible case: all you have to do is deduce the proper action from your principle or set of principles, then follow it. No problem. You’ll be doing the right thing, and acting without sin. But then you run into that odd, unexpected situation where following your rulebook doesn’t seem so neat and tidy. This new case is special, unique, and unanticipated by your ethical system. In fact, it just feels wrong to follow the rules here in this instance. Do you go with your rulebook, or your current intuition?
There are many who would step in and try to defend principled (rulebook style) ethics. They have three obvious defenses:
(1) Simply deny that apparent problems create exceptions.
(2) Hold the view that principles can be rewritten so that the apparent exceptions are no longer exceptions.
(3) Argue that each apparent exceptional case is really a case of conflicting principles, where two or more principles both apply, but one is overruled by another of greater priority.
The first defence holds that there are no exceptional cases. This means that when our current intuition clashes with the principle on which we base our moral system, we should follow our principle, no matter how wrong it might feel.
While this response avoids the problem of the exception, it pays a price that is far too high, often leading us to sacrifice the well-being of innocent people in service of a principle. This is highly counterintuitive and difficult to stomach. It also requires that we have one single overarching principle which defines our entire ethical system, since a plurality of principles would lead to situations where the principles conflict. But the notion that everything that matters morally can be summed up into one action-guiding principle is extremely questionable.
The second defence holds that when faced with an exceptional case, we should rewrite our principles so that the apparent exception is no longer an exception. So in Terra’s situation, where she must choose between lying and allowing an innocent person to be attacked, she might adjust her “do not lie” principle so that it becomes “do not lie unless you must do so to protect innocent people.” While this approach sounds perfectly reasonable, it completely undermines the authority of Terra’s moral principles. After all, if she can overrule and amend her principles whenever she sees fit, it is really Terra who is doing the moral work, and not her principles. Furthermore, as soon as Terra admits that her principles are open to adjustment, she has no assured principled method of determining in any new case whether it is time to follow her principle as it was, or whether it is time to rewrite it yet again.
The third approach would rank different principles in such a way that even though each principle matters, some matter more than others. So, for example, lying might always be a moral minus, but allowing an innocent person to be attacked could be a greater moral minus. Hence, lying, though itself wrong, is morally required in Terra’s case.
This might be the most plausible of the three defences of principles, but there are also drawbacks to taking this route. To know which principle wins out in cases where principles conflict, you would either have to rank all the principles on a hierarchy, or else leave it up to an individual to decide priority on a case-by-case basis. Ranking all moral principles would be a troublesome task, to say the least; but leaving it to be decided on a case-by-case basis seems to minimize the moral authority of principles and the guidance that they can provide, leaving a lot to individual judgement. Further, if there is a strict hierarchy, there will be a top deciding principle, which leads to the same problems as with the first defence.
The above three defenses all deserve substantial consideration – certainly more than can be devoted in this article – but in the end I believe that there is a fourth option, and that the fourth one is the best. It’s a theory which is steadily gaining momentum and strength in philosophical circles, even though it flies in the face of much of the history of moral philosophy.
Moral philosophy for the most part has historically been an attempt to find the right principles by which we should live our lives. Whether it is a set of divinely inspired commandments, Mill’s principle of utility, Kant’s categorical imperative, or some other principle(s), determining the proper course of action in any given situation has been thought to require little more than deducing from the right set of universal principles, and moral philosophy has, for the most part, been a search for that perfect set of principles. But I believe that moral judgement is not a matter of applying some overarching universal moral principles. In my view, it is quite the opposite. I propose instead that the moral knowledge we have is founded on particular cases, and that the principles we have are mere generalizations from those cases. Thus, our fourth option when faced with exceptional moral cases is: Allow our particular moral judgements to simply override our principles, thereby invalidating those principles.
This approach lands me among those who propose a theory known as moral particularism. The moral particularist holds that the traditional approach to ethical theory is not the best. Rather than deducing the right action from some principle or set of principles, the particularist holds that moral judgement can get along just fine without any dependence on principles.
Imagine that you see a young girl crash her bicycle. She is knocked unconscious, and lying on a set of railway tracks only a dozen steps or so from you. In the distance, you see a train approaching, although it’s still thirty seconds from reaching the girl. What goes through your mind? Do you do a quick mental survey of your moral principles and attempt to apply them to the situation so that you can deduce what the right thing to do might be? Do you compare your two options – saving her and watching her die – and then apply the categorical imperative or the principle of utility to see which action your principle recommends? Or does it occur to you immediately that you should help her, without any application of principles? The moral particularist thinks that you do not need to apply a moral principle to conclude that you should help her. For the particularist, moral knowledge starts in clear-cut cases like this. If you know anything at all with regard to morality, you certainly know you ought to help the girl. You know you should help her even if you do not know any greater universal principles like the categorical imperative or the principle of utility.
W.H. Gass makes a similar point about clear cases: “When we try to explain why they are instances of good or bad, of right or wrong, we sound comic, as anyone does who gives elaborate reasons for the obvious, especially when these reasons are so shamefaced before reality, so miserably beside the point.” (W.H. Gass, ‘The Case of the Obliging Stranger’, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 66, No.2, 1957, p.196.) If the particularist is pressed to explain why you should help the young girl on the railway tracks, then rather than appealing to some overarching impersonal principle, the particularist will reply with particular reasons, for example: “The girl will die if you do nothing,” or “Because she’s about to get crushed,” or “Her family will be devastated,” or “Wouldn’t you want to be saved if you were in her shoes?”
So the particularist has a different interpretation of the relationship between particular cases and moral principles. Exceptional cases do not trouble particularists, since principles are mere generalizations from cases anyway. For the particularists, principles are, at best, helpful moral crutches. We can fall back on them when we are unable to properly examine the details of a specific case, or when our judgement is impaired or untrustworthy, or when we do not have enough information to fully understand what makes a particular case unique. But it should be made clear that for particularists, moral principles are tools that exist only to serve and help us, and they should be ignored or modified when they don’t. On the contrary, for universalists (believers in universal principles), our moral competence depends on how well we serve universal principles. Yet there is something strange about the notion that morality is ultimately a matter of applying impersonal moral principles to particular cases – morality becomes a matter of calculation rather than care. M.U. Walker makes a similar point: “Even as the theories tell us how to live they defeat or defy motives of attachment to particular people that give us reasons to live or allow us to live well.” (M.U. Walker, Moral Understandings: A Feminist Study in Ethics, Routledge, 1998, pp.30-31.)
If you are not yet convinced, imagine that someone asks you to justify the commonly-accepted principle that murder is wrong. How would you do it? If you are inclined to respond by giving examples of how terrible murders can be, then you are agreeing with the particularists, since you would be using particular cases to justify principles, and thereby treating principles as derivative. Yet justifying moral principles without appealing to specific cases seems almost impossible. As R.W. Krutzen writes, “One could not know ‘the deliberate, intentional killing of innocent persons is wrong’ if one did not know ‘the deliberate, intentional killing of this innocent person is wrong’.” (R.W. Krutzen, ‘In Defence of Common Moral Sense’ Dialogue 38, 1999, p.259.)
Other Arguments For Particularism
Jonathan Dancy, author of Ethics Without Principles, is most likely the leading proponent of moral particularism. He argues for what he calls reasons holism, which holds that a certain factor can constitute a reason in favour of doing an action in one situation, while constituting a reason against doing that same action in another situation. For example, the fact that “a lot of people will be there” is sometimes a good reason to avoid a place; but it is also sometimes a good reason to go to that place. If you want peace and quiet, it will be a reason against, but if you want to be involved in the festivities, it will be a reason for. Dancy claims that this sort of holism is generally accepted outside of the realm of morality, but is not at all popular in the realm of morality, where many philosophers assume that a moral factor must make the same sort of difference wherever it occurs. Dancy challenges that assumption, and argues that there is no clear distinction between moral reasons and other reasons. Reasons holism works just as well in morality, he thinks. For example, the fact that an action will cause inconvenience to someone is usually a reason not to do it. It would be wrong, for example, to trip up an elderly man who is taking his Sunday stroll to the neighbourhood church. However, if a child-molesting kidnapper is running down the street with a child in his arms, the tripping-up action’s status as inconvenience-causing is a reason in favour of doing it! According to Dancy, if reasons do not function the same way in all cases, then universal moral principles cannot be the foundation of moral thought.
Other particularists rely on Wittgenstein to strengthen their position. Following Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblances, they argue that it is possible to acquire a concept through experience even if there is no ‘essence’ to the concept, or any clear definition of the concept. Wittgenstein argues, for example, that there is no essential definition available for the concept of games. Some games involve running, but not all games. Most games involve competition, but not all do, because many games are played individually. Also, there are some things that involve running and competition that are not games. So it is thought by Wittgenstein that games share similarities, as members of families do, but that there is no one key ingredient which defines the essence of games. Nevertheless, we regularly use the concept and language of ‘games’, and we do so with little difficulty. Some moral particularists want to say that moral concepts, like right and wrong, are similar to such concepts, in the sense that they have no single essence, but they can be used and understood anyway.
There is certainly much more to be said about moral particularism, both for it and against it, and this discussion has barely scratched the surface. I don’t expect that every reader will immediately agree that moral principles are unnecessary. That would be unrealistic, since moral philosophy itself is (still) often seen as the search for the right set of universal principles. I do, however, hope I have cast doubt on the universalist position, and have offered particularism as a theoretical competitor. We should at least not just assume that moral thought is a top-down affair, in which proper moral action is deduced from higher moral principles. We should at least acknowledge and consider the possibility that it might be the other way around – that moral thought is a bottom-up affair, in which the building blocks of moral knowledge are the clear particular moral cases, and that moral principles are inductive derivations from those cases. There are many important ongoing battles which characterize what philosophy is all about, for example empiricism vs. rationalism, freedom vs. determinism, and Cartesian dualism vs. eliminative materialism. I suggest that the moral particularism vs. moral universalism debate should take its rightful place as one of philosophy’s greatest battles.
© Ramsey McNabb 2007
Ramsey McNabb recently received his PhD from York University. His dissertation, Induction and Moral Particularism: A Bottom-Up Approach to Moral Thought defends a version of moral particularism, arguing that moral principles are inductive generalizations.