Shapelessness and predication supervenience: a limited defense of shapeless moral particularism
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Moral particularism, on some interpretations, is committed to a shapeless thesis: the moral is shapeless with respect to the natural. (Call this version of moral particularism ‘shapeless moral particularism’). In more detail, the shapeless thesis is that the actions a moral concept or predicate can be correctly applied to have no natural commonality (or shape) amongst them. Jackson et al. (Ethical particularism and patterns, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000) argue, however, that the shapeless thesis violates the platitude ‘predication supervenes on nature’—predicates or concepts apply because of how things are, and therefore ought to be rejected. I defend shapeless moral particularism by arguing that Jackson et al’s contention is less compelling than it firstly appears. My defense is limited in the sense that it does not prove shapeless moral particularism to be right and it leaves open the possibility that shapeless moral particularism might attract criticisms different from the ones advanced by Jackson et al. But at the very least, I hope to say enough to undermine Jackson et al’s powerful attack against it. The plan of this paper is as follows. Section 1 glosses the view of moral particularism and why it is taken to be essentially committed to the shapeless thesis. Section 2 examines a Wittgensteinian argument for the shapeless thesis. I shall argue that the Canberrans’ counter-arguments against it on grounds of disjunctive commonality and conceptual competence do not succeed. Section 3 explicates Canberrans’ predication supervenience argument against the shapeless thesis. Section 4 offers my criticisms of the Canberrans’ predication supervenience argument. In view of the above discussions, in Sect. 5, I conclude that there is no compelling argument (from the Canberrans) to believe that the shapeless thesis fails (as I have argued in Sect. 4). In fact, there is some good reason for us to believe it (as I have argued in Sect. 2). If so, I contend that moral particularism, when construed as essentially committed to the shapeless thesis, still remains as a live option.
KeywordsMoral particularism Shapelessness Predication supervenience Jonathan Dancy Frank Jackson Michael Smith Philip Pettit
I thank Ben Blumson, Hsiang-Yun Chen, Linus Huang, Hahn Hsu, Tetsuji Iseda, Kazunobu Narita, Hiroshi Miura, Satoshi Ogihara, Wen-Fang Wang, Bei-Hai Zhou, Hsin-Wen Lee, Martijn Boot, Pei-Hua Huang and especially the reviewer of this journal for their extremely helpful comments on the earlier versions of this paper. I owe special debts of gratitude to Daniel Stoljar, Jeanette Kennett, Daniel Star and Cheng-Hung Lin for numerous thought-provoking discussions about moral particularism during my Ph.D. studies in Australian National University. Research on this paper is partly supported by Taiwan’s National Science Council (NSC 101-2410-H-038-001-MY2).
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