Generality in Moral Reflection

Dissertation, University of Michigan (1991)
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Demands of generality pervade contemporary moral philosophy. For example, both Samuel Scheffler and Shelly Kagan demand a general justification for certain agent-centered features of morality. I argue, however, that these demands are often unjustified. My aim is to level the playing field between our more specific and our more general moral convictions, allowing neither to win by default. ;I begin by distinguishing generality from universality and consistency, and go on to identify several common motivations for generality in ethics. For each such motivation, I articulate and evaluate the demands to which it gives rise. First, I consider and reject arguments that the origins of our more specific moral convictions taint them beyond credibility and that insufficiently general moral beliefs may be biased in favor of those holding them. Second, I consider more prominent arguments for generality, connected with a concern about justification. I show that some foundationalists are committed to the view that moral justifications must terminate in very general principles, and that some coherentists are committed to a simplicity demand which is, in effect, a demand for generality as well. I argue that these approaches share a common motivation in the view that insufficiently general moral propositions are true, if at all, only for further reasons--a claim I vigorously dispute. Third, I consider various pragmatic justifications for generality. I argue that the pragmatic value of highly general principles is overrated, and that what pragmatic value they do have must often be weighed against our substantive moral concerns. I conclude that generality in ethics, although important, is not as important as it has seemed to be.



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Don Loeb
University of Vermont

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