A Critique of Jonathan Dancy’s “Moral Reasons” (Against Dancy’s Particularism)

As noted in a previous entry, I recently acquired a copy of Dancy’s Moral Reasons, the most systematic contemporary account of moral particularism on offer, due to a concern that particularism might be being dismissed unfairly. Dancy is a brilliant philosopher, and his work is a joy to read, as he makes compelling and excitingly clever arguments for his position with the linguistic charms of a Brit. While he has convinced me that particularism is not a fool’s errand, some tensions must be straightened out before we can consider particularism superior to pluralism.

There are roughly four sections to the book (though they are not divided by Dancy as such). In section one there is an argument for particularism from moral motivation. Section two discusses the epistemological virtues of particularism, and the epistemological failings of generalism. Section three argues that particularism is better suited to explain moral phenomena, such as regret and supererogation, because it makes room for objective agent-relative reasons. Section four articulates an account of objectivity and agent-relative reasons, and argues that consequentialism/utilitarianism cannot accommodate agent-relative reasons. What we are left with is a cognitivist, empiricist version of moral realism that holds that there are agent-neutral and agent-relative moral reasons which are particular to each situation and which are intrinsically motivating.

As I have already gone into great detail on section one in a prior entry, I will not go into the details of it today. My conclusion there was that Dancy assumes the truth of internalist moral motivation, and as externalism seems a very open possibility for the realist we need more evidence to accept Dancy’s theory of motivation. I think a worthwhile project would be to articulate a version of particularism that posits externalist moral motivation.

Particularism: The Theory
In section two Dancy begins to articulate exactly what particularism entails. The central notion is that the properties of a situation create reasons for the agent to act, but that one cannot isolate one property and resultant reason as always being morally relevant for action because reasons function holistically and cannot be considered in isolation from the other property-reason relations (60). In different situations the properties that are morally salient vary and the salient and non-salient properties of a situation contribute to the “shape” of the situation, the shape determining whether the action is right or wrong (112).

Thus, the sort of consistency and coherence necessary for reasonable moral judgments are very different for the particularist and the generalist. While the generalist looks for consistency about what are said to be relevant moral properties among different cases, the particularist demands a consistent manner of assessment in each case. Coherence is attained by attending to the holistic nature of reasons that the particularist recommends, rather than how well different moral principles fit together as per the theory of the generalist.

Nevertheless, Dancy does not want to completely outlaw the use of moral principles in some form, noting that metaethics attempts to describe reality, and as we commonly appeal to moral principles, the particularist must have an explanation for how that appeal functions. The idea is that moral principles are really just reminders of the sorts of properties that can be morally relevant, not that they must be morally relevant. Moral principles aid us in coming to moral judgments through serving as a checklist of properties that tend to be morally relevant, but they do not dictate that a property is necessarily relevant in all cases, as the generalist contends.

Against Monism and Pluralism
Dancy then launches an assault against generalism through critiques of monism and pluralism. For Dancy the central idea of monism is universalizability, not in the Kantian sense, but in that of the work of Hare. The idea seems to be that a monistic principle is universally relevant to all moral judgments for all persons. Dancy presents two arguments against this view. The first argument is that the universalizability base must be expanded again and again to met the rich nuances of moral experience (other morally relevant factors that the monist cannot explain) until the idea of universalizability becomes meaningless, or as Dancy puts it, “Eventually it will grow to coincide with the supervenience base, i.e. it will cease to exclude any of the natural properties. And the question is whether a stable stopping point can be found short of this trivializing result” (81).

Dancy’s next move is to argue against what he understands as the motivation behind accepting the universalizability thesis, which he posits is a theory of rationality that is itself questionable. The universalizability thesis is motivated by the idea that it is irrational to make one choice today, and the opposite choice tomorrow, such that rationality requires the universalizability thesis in order for there to be logical consistency. But Dancy argues that consistency across choices does nothing to show that individual choices are rational, as he notes that, “it seems odd to feel bound by rationality to make a judgment here that conincides in some way with one made previously, when the previous one can itself lay no claim to rationality. Unless the first judgment was rational, how can it be rational to feel bound by it?” (83). I think that both of Dancy’s arguments against monism are powerful.

Unfortunately for Dancy, his arguments against pluralism are far less powerful. His main argument is that pluralism assumes that some properties are morally relevant, and that the argument for this moral relevance is not satisfactory. Dancy argues that the pluralists’ argument that if a property would decide the matter in isolation then it is prima facie a morally relevant reason in general does not provide a satisfactory answer of what makes a property morally relevant, because other properties of the situation are morally relevant. This is merely to assume that an atomistic understanding of reasons from properties is not satisfactory and so the criticism assumes the truth of the holism central to particularism. Dancy himself notes that his arguments against pluralism are not conclusive and that the matter must be decided by whether particularism can make better sense of moral regret.

Dancy thinks that pluralism fails to meet our experience of regret because it “fails to give a satisfying account of the relations possible between defeated and defeating reasons” (109). The thought is that pluralism does not allow for regret because we subtract the bad from the good and, stipulating that the action is all told still right, then there is nothing to regret. Dancy argues that particularism allows for the negative reasons – reasons against taking the action – to not be subtracted from the situation, but to still be present in the shape of the situation by effecting the way the action is performed. The reasons against the action are not cancelled out by the reasons for the action, as Dancy says pluralism implies, but remain present in the shape of the situation, thus playing a role in the action that is taken, and thus allowing for the possibility of regret for these negative features in hindsight.

Agent-Relative Reasons
Dancy then tends to the problem posed by supererogatory acts, a puzzle which he posits can only be solved by the existence of agent-relative reasons, which, he later argues, cannot be accommodated by consequentialists, and thus, consequentialism should be rejected. The paradox of supererogatory acts is that there seem to be actions that are of great value, but which are not morally required to be performed, though one it not forbidden to perform them – think of acts of self-sacrifice, such as jumping on a grenade. Moral common sense tells us that such an action is noble but not morally required, but if this is so, then it seems that spectrums of value and moral rightness are not parallel. In order to resolve the puzzle it seems we must either deny that there are supererogatory actions because those actions are actually required, or accept that spectrums of value and rightness are independent of each other, which sounds absurd.

Dancy’s way around this paradox is quite clever, and it is that the deontic properties along the rightness spectrum arise from the combination of two types of value along the value spectrum, agent-neutral value and agent-relative value. Agent-neutral value is the value that an action would have were it to be performed by anyone, and agent-relative value is the value that an action would have were it to be performed by the agent attending to that situation, such that agent-relative value includes costs to the specific agent that agent-neutral value does not. In the case of the supererogatory action, “increase in neutral value need not necessarily lead to increased reason to act or make it more wrong to fail to act. For increased neutral value can be counterbalanced by increased cost to the agent, i.e. by a decrease in agent-relative value” (138). We recognize the existence of supererogatory actions because we can comprehend the agent-relative value that an action has for one person, such that we can understand this calculus of agent-neutral and agent-relative value as making it permissible for the agent not to perform the noble action.

Next Dancy considers what models of objectivity could allow for the inclusion of agent-relative reasons in such a way that agent-relative reasons could feature in the particularist version of moral realism. Dancy considers the two versions of objectivity posited by Thomas Nagel, but only one of which works for the inclusion of agent-relative reasons – a Hegelian-style model. The Hegelian model of objectivity proposes a method of stepping back and looking at the subjective viewpoint and the perceived object together as one object, such that the viewpoint allows the inclusion of agent-relative reasons into our picture of objectivity. The alternative model gives less credit to agent-relative reasons, as this “absolutist” picture attempts to remove all subjective observation from the discourse of objectivity.

To my amusement Dancy notes that such a conception of objectivity, which sees “our valuings as responses to values that exist in the world”, seems to imply that values can exist without us recognizing them in such a way that “it is an admission of externalism in the theory of motivation” (155). (I say to my amusement because I lean towards externalism in the theory of motivation for this very reason). Dancy considers the secondary-quality view of realism put forth by McDowell, which holds that moral values are secondary-qualities in the same way that ‘red’ is a secondary-quality. Red does not have existence independent of our experiencing it but has objective existence for us as a phenomenal property in virtue of there being something about the primary existence of the world that has the disposition to make us experience ‘red’, and the same is true for values. In other words, values do not exist at the primary level of reality, but because of the structure of the primary level, we do experience value properties at the secondary/phenomenal level because that primary structure has the disposition to cause us to see those values. For Dancy this secures internalism in moral motivation because “in this way value is intrinsically related to the will, though part of the objective world to which our valuings are responses” (157).

Ultimately, Dancy concludes that while value does follow this dispositional model, color does not, because of the phenomenological evidence that colors are not just dispositions and that there is something of a raw substructure that shines through. So, surprisingly, Dancy argues that the analogy between color experience and value experience breaks down, but the error was with our theory of color, not value. The idea is that the salient features of a situation shape the situation, and it is in virtue of that shape that there is a disposition for the experience of value.

I think the picture has become quite messy. Elsewhere Dancy posited that the salient features of a situation create reasons that together create the shape of the situation, and the shape is whether an action is right or wrong. What then is the relation between the resulting rightness/wrongness and the resulting value/disvalue? It seems possible, and consistent with Dancy’s picture, that the resulting value from the shape of the situation is the combination of agent-neutral and agent-relative reasons that creates the resulting deontic property of rightness/wrongness. If so, then a lot is going on in the experiencing of value, and perhaps this is what is behind Dancy’s comments that, “there is a certain ‘raw’ nature to experienced color, which it strains credulity to see as any sort of disposition, no matter how thin. There doesn’t seem to be such a raw nature to moral experience […] it is plausible in the moral case to see the so-called ‘experience’ more as a form of judgment, which is not at all so tempting in the case of color” (162). All of this is due to taking a secondary-quality approach to value perception, and it might be best to look for a less complex method of moral judgment – something that I don’t think is available to Dancy, given his insistence on internalism for moral motivation.

From there Dancy proceeds to consider how to articulate agent-relative reasons, and whether consequentialists can allow for them. There are two main sorts of non-neutral moral reasons, options and constraints, and so our theory of agent-relative reasons must be able to account for these. Options are reasons not to pursue the greatest value, which we saw in the instance of supererogatory acts. Constraints are reasons that forbid an action though it would promote the most good.

The main challenge to options is that it is difficult to see these as moral reasons and not merely non-moral excuses. Dancy’s response is that that we cannot help being motivated by personal and partial projects suggests that for a fully moral life there should be a balance between impartial agent-neutral valuings and partial agent-relative valuings. So there should be symmetry between neutral and relative reasons, which suggests that as they make two parts to moral life, agent-relative reasons are moral reasons. Obviously this argument is not very convincing. If we grant this point on symmetry it still does not follow that the two symmetrical sides are of the same value – moral value. For all that symmetry agent-relative reasons could still be non-moral reasons.

Having not developed a theory of constraints Dancy lays one out that, like options, is based on costs to the agent, but for constraints the concern is with the moral cost of taking an action. The idea is that there is a constraint against an action that would promote the most good if it imposes a moral cost on the agent performing the action that is too great for the agent to merely dismiss or “discount”, such that it is not morally permissible for him to do the action that would, in consequentialist terms, promote the most good. Dancy doesn’t really specify what he means precisely by “moral cost”, but as long as we aren’t speaking of anything so metaphysically strange as damage to one’s moral character, then I am happy to grant him this theory (though I am more than a little concerned that he is speaking about damage to moral character).

It’s interesting that Dancy wants to allow room for constraints, because while they seem to be a feature of common-sense morality, they are difficult for the particularist to accommodate, as Dancy notices. The objection is that if there is an absolute constraint against an action, such as killing the innocent, then instances of performing that action are always morally wrong, as “this is an exceptionless general truth which links the wrongness of the actions it concerns with an isolable feature with which it is invariably associated” (228). But this is to affirm an atomistic theory of reasons for morality that is opposed to the core idea of particularism. One response is to say that for the most part reasons function holistically, and there are a very select few of morally relevant features that function atomically. This picture would still be particularistic, as it would not admit that in general a reason functions the same way everywhere, as generalism says. Dancy doesn’t think that there is much merit to this response as it allows that generalism is true some of the time, and as our reason for favoring particularism is supposedly that its epistemological structure is superior to generalisms’ incoherent structure, admitting that generalism is coherent forces us to cede ground in perhaps the one area that particularism is better suited than generalism.

Fortunately for Dancy, the second response to this problem is more satisfactory. This line of response is that absolute constraints are not generalized reasons against an act based on one property, but rather, are situations where we already know enough of the salient features of the situation to know its rough shape. Given the absolute constraint against killing the innocent, Dancy admits that this is an absolute constraint, but notes that it poses no threat to the particularist upon reflection, as we are given enough of the structure of the situation in being told the person killed would be innocent. Dancy’s point seems to be that on its own killing is not wrong, but that someone being innocent suggests that there is no justification for them being killed, such that the reasons are functioning holistically here to make that act of killing that person wrong, and thus particularism can accommodate absolute constraints.

However, while the particularist can offer a particularistic explanation of absolute constraints, it seems very hard to deny that absolute constraints serve as a vindication of generalism. After all, there is no reason why the generalist cannot be in the business of positing general moral truths that involve complexes of reasons that interplay in just the way that innocence and killing do above. So it seems that bringing absolute constraints into the picture reveals generalism to not be incoherent, as Dancy has charged.

Dancy concludes the book with a chapter arguing that consequentialism/utilitarianism can in no way accommodate agent-relative reasons. These views have historically been taken to be only concerning agent-neutral value, but Derek Parfit has argued that a world where everyone performed those acts that promoted the most good would in the end not be the world that promoted the most good, due to a serious loss of welfare by lack of consideration for partial whims, art and leisure. Parfit’s suggestion is that a world where people have a set of motives that are not just of agent-neutral reasons but also agent-relative reasons would better maximize the good over all. This entails distinguishing the agent from their action, so that we can say that though the action they performed here wasn’t the action that promoted the most good, the set of motives that the agent acted from does promote more good than any other set of motives they could have, such that the agent is good. Dancy challenges the idea that consequentialism can allow for this distinction and that this distinction can be made at all, finding that we must evaluate the “agent-in-acting”. Since consequentialism cannot successfully make that distinction, it cannot allow for agent-relative reasons, and as agent-relative reasons are surely a part of morality, says Dancy, consequentialism should be rejected.

I must admit that I truly appreciate the rigor of Dancy’s philosophical enterprise; he left no stone unturned, and I learned much from his book. Still, as I hope my comments have made clear, there are too many irresolvable tensions among the parts of his book for me to consider his project successful.

Dancy needs agent-relative reasons in the picture to accommodate common-sense morality on supererogation, and to remove consequentialism as a viable option from the metaethical picture (both worthy goals, in my opinion). But it is hard to square a crucial part of agent-relative reasons, constraints, with his rejection of generalism. At the end of the book Dancy admits this tension and says that if he had to choose he would throw out constraints. This seems to be a slap in the face of common-sense morality. For one, I don’t see how we can reject only one half of the agent-relative distinction because it complicates things and then still hold onto the other half — options. What is more, if we allow common-sense morality as much of a say as Dancy has claimed we should then we should throw out particularism before we throw out constraints. (I must admit that I am amendable to the idea that there are not objective agent-relative reasons at all, and while this would not bring generalism back into the picture, it would still amount to a failure in Dancy’s project, though keep particularism in the running.)

While not necessarily a tension, I think Dancy’s commitment to internalism in the theory of moral motivation becomes particularly burdensome when it forces him to take up the secondary-quality model of moral judgment/perception, which makes the metaphysics of value and reasons unnecessarily complex. As Dancy never provided a convincing reason for internalism, other than an appeal to common-sense morality, there is little reason for the realist to accept this messy metaphysics when anti-realists will surely jump on it.

I do want to note that I see no internal incoherence with particularism, and agent-relative reasons do not disprove particularism so much as they suggest the indispensability of generalism. So nothing I have said here disproves particularism; my conclusion is that Dancy’s particularism is not successful. In fact, I think there is much to be commended in the epistemic virtues of particularism, and while there might be instances where generalizations can be made about complex property/reason clusters, in such a way that allows for generalism to be true in some form, it seems Dancy is right that reasons must function holistically and not atomically. For this reason alone I think it is worthwhile to read Dancy’s Moral Reasons; I think moral realists of all stripes can benefit from embracing a holistic model for moral reasons.


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  1. Notes on Audi’s Moral Knowledge & Ethical Character, pt I: Moral Epistemology | ausomeawestin

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