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A defense of a particularist research program

Uri D Leibowitz, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Particularism is one of the most interesting and controversial doctrines in moral philosophy today. Yet despite the considerable attention it has received in recent years, there is still extensive disagreement about its precise content, and whether it is a viable alternative to traditional moral theories. In this dissertation I develop, motivate, and defend a novel formulation of particularism. In Chapter One, I present my formulation of particularism. I claim that particularism is not a single thesis but a research program. Research programs are collections of theories and methodological rules that can be characterized by their "hard core"—the set of commitments that cannot be abandoned without abandoning the research program altogether. The particularism-generalism debate, I suggest, is a debate over which research program we ought to pursue. Generalism is a research program characterized by the core hypothesis that in order to explain morality, and especially the rightness and wrongness of actions, we must appeal to exceptionless moral principles. Particularism is an alternative research program characterized by the core hypothesis that morality—including the rightness and wrongness of actions—can be explained without appealing to exceptionless principles. I go on to show that my formulation is not vulnerable to the most common objections to particularism. Chapter Two argues that particularist accounts of morality have a certain advantage over many of their more conventional competitors. Consider the following moral advice: (RD) Perform action A only if after reflecting on and deliberating about the normative status of A, you do not believe that A is morally wrong. I argue that if (RD) is good moral advice, then we should be able to explain how it is that the features that one considers while reflecting on and deliberating about the normative status of actions reliably track the real right-making features of actions. I claim that generalists cannot explain this fact, whereas particularists can. Finally, I submit that there is strong intuitive support for the claim that (RD) is good moral advice, and consequently, that we have reason to favor particularist accounts of morality over generalist accounts. Chapter Three examines the nature of particularist explanations of the rightness (or wrongness) of actions. First, I discuss some reasons for thinking that explanations must be grounded in exceptionless principles, and I claim that a deductive approach to explanation is unmotivated. Next, I argue that we have good reasons for thinking that not all explanations are deductive, and I explore several non-deductive models of explanation, some that are based on the availability of ceteris paribus laws, and others that do not require laws at all. Finally, I argue that when we apply insights about the nature of explanation from the philosophy of science to ethics, we have good reason to believe that explanation in ethics need not be deductive. In Chapter Four, I propose a particularist interpretation of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. First, by focusing on Aristotle's proclaimed goals and methods in the Nicomachean Ethics, I show that we have ample evidence for thinking that Aristotle was not a generalist. Next, I argue that we can read Aristotle as offering an explanation of morality without appealing to exceptionless moral principles. More specifically, I maintain that Aristotle is not trying to help us identify which of the range of actions available to us is morally right; instead his theory is meant to teach us how to explain why those acts that we know are right have the normative status they do. I claim that Aristotle's doctrine of the mean is not intended to serve as a decision procedure, but as an explanatory schema that we should apply in order to explain why right acts are right. Finally, I explain how my proposed interpretation is compatible with Aristotle's claim that the study of ethics should help us to become good.

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Recommended Citation

Leibowitz, Uri D, "A defense of a particularist research program" (2008). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3336984.