"The accident of where one is born is just that, an accident; any human being might have been born in any nation"
Martha Nussbaum, 'Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism' in For Love of Country (Beacon Press, 2002)

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 10th Anniversary Conference

As well as the paper on David Miller that I am writing for the ALSP conference, I am also working on a seperate paper for a conference being held in Amsterdam in March. The conference is in honour of the 10th anniversary of the journal Ethical Theory and Moral Practice.

My paper is entitled 'Universalism and Moral Schizophrenia' and the abstract is below:

Universalist moral theories are often charged with lacking motivational or practical force; they are said to exhibit ‘ethical schizophrenia’ in that they force a split between one’s motives and one’s judgements (Stocker). Particularist critics argue that there is little point in theorising about ethics if all we are doing is a purely intellectual enterprise that has no practical relevance. When looking for principles that tell us how to behave morally we must make sure they have practical force; that they motivate people to act on them. Universalist theories are said to lack this force because they are too general, too abstract, and, worst of all, too demanding. The particularist solution is to take into account people’s commonsense ideas of their own moral obligations and so to reject impartialist abstraction in favour of embeddedness and immersion (Walzer, Miller). The charge is that particularist moral theory therefore possesses more relevance and legitimacy, as well as more practical force, than universalist moral theory ever can. However there is a trade-off here between these virtues and the equally important virtues of objectivity and impartiality. The particularist rejection of abstraction leads to a lack of critical force and a tendency toward conservatism. This paper will argue that given these problems with particularism, we should not simply reject universalism because of its ‘schizophrenic’ tendencies, but instead should find ways to treat this malaise. Many people share universalist intuitions to the effect that our moral duties are stronger and of wider scope than previously thought, but fail to act on these intuitions in any concrete way. This is an example of the gap between people’s moral intuitions and their actions which particularist critics of universalist moral theory point to. This paper will argue that we should be working to explain and understand the reasons for this gap, and looking for ways to close it. I will suggest that use of the concept of empathy to show why universalist intuitions really can have motivational force is a potential course of treatment.

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