, Volume 166, Issue 1 Supplement, pp 51-67
Date: 04 Dec 2012

Shapelessness and predication supervenience: a limited defense of shapeless moral particularism

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Abstract

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.