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Particularim as a Direct Consequence of Holism Essay

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Updated: Apr 25th, 2019


Moral philosophy is full of numerous terms, which have their meanings and reasons in this life. Numerous debates in this sphere prove that people can still face misunderstandings and difficulties while defining this or that term.

The debate between generalism and particularism lies into the fact that the latter maintains the impossibility of moral reasons to become influential to provision of moral principles, and the former proves that moral reasons and judgments have to be dependant on provision of moral principles.

These two views argue the relations, which should happen between reasons and the reasons of these reasons, and these discussion cause another significant debate of holism and atomism. These two theories of reasons argue the possibility of one reason in one situation being the same reason in another situation.

Jonathan Peter Dancy is a famous British philosopher, who deals with the sphere of ethics and epistemology. His works in ethics introduce such claims like moral particularism according to which it turns out to be very difficult to find out defensible moral principles and holism of reasons according to which a reason of action under certain conditions in one particular case cannot be a reason of the same action under the same conditions in another case.

The claim made by Dancy, that particularim is “a direct consequence of holism” (78), while any kind of principled ethics occurs as a direct consequence of atomism is false. His arguments in favor of particularism stem from the foundation that holism leads to particularism, thus this paper serves to undermine this entire argument.

Dancy’s Arguments and the Ideas of Generalism, Particularism, Atomism, and Holism

Essence of generalism and particularism, and atomism and holism as the outcomes of their debate

Jonathan Dancy is one of the fist philosophers, who makes an attempt to define particularism and generalism from one and the same perspective and to prove the correctness of the view that is hardly supported by the vast majority of other moral philosophers.

Dancy defines particularism as the view where “the possibility of moral thought and judgment does not depend on the provision of a suitable supply of moral principles” and admits that generalism is the view according to which “the very possibility of moral though and judgment depends on the provision of a suitable supply of moral principles” (7).

This philosopher also admits that the ideas of particularism should be considered as the only correct ones. It is necessary to mention that there are two major conceptions concerning moral principles. The first idea is considered to be an absolute one, according to which there are some wrong and some right actions.

Another idea contradicts the absolute one and explains that in one situation, an action may be wrong, and in other situation, the same action may be right. The existence of these two conceptions proves that the presence of particularism in this world may spoil the essence of any of these principles:

If holism is true, and (further) if just about any consideration could count as a reason given a suitable context, then particularism must find some way to distinguish those considerations which normally and regularly do provide reasons of a certain valence…from those that normally and regularly do not provide reasons. McKeever 45.

This is why Dancy’s idea of particularism cannot be correct, and it is better to pay more attention to the idea of generalism and its features. “Generalism depends upon finding patterns in morality” (Brown, 461), and particularism in comparison to generalism rejects any form of morality.

Such a burning difference between particularists and generalists has an influence on the other two theories: atomism and holism. These theories touch upon the nature of reasons, depict the connection of one reason to another reason, and reflect how the principles of one reason may affect the principles of another reason.

As Dancy’s point of view about the connection of particularism to holism and becoming its main consequence, it is also crucially important to comprehend the essence of holism, its difference from atomism, and its contribution to philosophy as a separate theory.

According to atomists, the idea of the whole may be divided into meaningful parts and analyzed on the base of relations, which happen between those parts. Holists cannot accept such standpoint and underline the significance of the whole and do support the idea that the nature of the whole depicts the nature of its parts and becomes more significant as a unity but not as a collection of separate parts.

Atomism is all about the division of something in order to grasp its nature, and holism introduces an idea that the parts of the whole mean nothing separately and become influential as a whole.

These explanations may help to comprehend why Dancy’s claim “particularism as a direct consequence of holism” (78) may be call into doubt and to prove that the ideas of Sean McKeever, who claims that “holism provides no positive support for particularism” (26), and the ideas of Jane Singleton, who argues against the form of particularism, offered by Dancy, are effective enough to use and win the debates.

Ethical correctness of generalism and particularism

The idea of ethical correctness should not mistakenly provoke people to think that any moral problem may have one uniquely correct answer (Singleton 156).

It is necessary to realize that any philosophical idea may have moral disagreement that affects a considerable part of this world, and human life is one of the first opportunities to comprehend how analysis, judgments, and researching may influence human nature and human attitude to situations, ideas, and to each other.

For example, personal experience should prove that a place may be rather comfortable, effective, and helpful for one person in one case, and the same place may be rather unpleasant, unfortunate, and inconvenient for another person in the same case.

Because of the same reasons, the ideas of generalism may be ethically correct in one situation and absolutely unacceptable in other case; the same happens to particularism if the division of the whole may lead to success or to total failure of the case.

Is it correct to divide generalism and particularism and try to prove that one of these claims will be always correct in comparison to another one?

Dancy believes in the power of moral particularism, and the core of this standpoint is the idea of variability and evaluation of particularism as the holism of reasons, when one case may have a reason, and another case may have no reason at all, or this reason may be on another side.

The value of the complex whole will be identical with the value of the parts because the value of the parts will be determined in part by the context of this particular whole of which they form a part. Consequently, we do not have a case where the value of the whole is not identical with the value of the sum of its parts.

This is essentially because the values of the parts have changed because of the particular whole in which they are located, and therefore this allegedly second feature of the holism of value or reasons seems to have collapsed into the first point. (Singleton 168-169)

Ethical correctness in the case of generalism and particularism runs as follows: the same reason may influence positively on one case, influence negatively on another case, and have no influence at all on the third case.

In general, this ethical idea proves that generalists and particularists should unite their ideas in order to achieve the desirable correctness and recognize own weaknesses/power at the same time on equal terms.

Such a constant fight between the representatives of generalism and particularism may lead to rather unpleasant outcomes: the desire to prove own correctness and ignoring of life examples and the necessity to demonstrate the power of own positions may lead to the wrong track, considerable mistakes, and confused world outlook.

Dancy against Moore: Morality Should Win

Dancy and Moore are the two sophisticated representatives, who support holism values in different ways: the latter is interested in invariabilities of reasons, and the former supports additivism and unities. Their dispute raises the development of another significant issue like the theory of atomism according to which both points of view have to be rejected in their own ways.

Dancy’s holism is about two types of reasons: practical and theoretical. Theoretical reasons are those reasons, which are used for beliefs, and they may be called holistic because of their abilities to change context because of numerous internal and external factors. The example of Dancy looks like pretty convincing:

It currently seems to me that something before me is red. Normally, one might say, that is a reason…for me to believe that there is something red before me. But in case where I also believe that I have recently taken a drug that makes blue things look red and red things look blue, the appearance of a red-looking thing before me is reason for me to believe that there is a blue, not a red, thing before me.

It is not as if it is some reason for me to believe that there is something red before me, though that reason is overwhelmed by contrary reasons. It is no longer any reason at all to believe that there is something red before me; indeed, it is a reason for believing the opposite. (Dancy 74)

From the theoretical perspective, such an approach to reasons, their nature, essence, and consequences may seem holistic, because even to theory, it is possible to present a couple of reasons, which may provoke the already known reasons (inherent to other people).

In their turn, practical reasons are those reasons, which are used for actions and may be named as holistic as well: when the reason of one action to the same case may be the same in the same case but lead to another action.

However, the presence of such theory as atomism causes considerable changes in Dancy’s ideas and makes him reject a couple of the already offered points like additivism of reasons; and his ideas are hard to name plausible, this is why the ides of Moore should be evaluated as well and prove that invariabilities may be more successful under atomistic conditions.

“The value of a whole must not be assumed to be the same as the sum of the values of its parts” (Brown 456). Moore rejects the idea of holism and underlines the necessity of differentiation of values and reasons.

Brown admits that “values as wholes exhaust all reason-giving values” (463), this is why distinction of values may lead to values, which cannot provide reason-giving ideas, and it certainly contradicts the idea of connection that exists between reasons and values.

The essence of this connection demonstrates the object is characterized by one value as a whole in order to underline invariability of everything: ideas, actions, beliefs, and decisions.

Reasons to Disagree with Dancy

Morality is the only issue that has to win in this case: people can hardly realize how significant the outcomes of their actions and reasons of these actions, and it becomes very difficult to accept Dancy’s point of view, defying particularism as the consequence of holism and rejecting the idea that principled ethics and moral principles may be the consequences of atomism.

The essence of particularism is about the attention to each part, and Dancy’s holism underlines how it is important to evaluate the whole and analyze its parts, basing on the ideas of the whole.

Taking into consideration the above-mentioned facts and the essence of Dancy’s investigations, it is possible to find out several points in his works and get enough reasons to disagree with this philosopher.

First of all, he admits the possibility reasons, which remain to be invariant, and at the same time tells that “invariance is not a matter of the logic of such reasons” (Dancy 78).

Secondly, this philosopher contradicts to himself: he agrees that particularism is the idea according to which actions may be both wrong and right and holism is the theory according to which components of the whole cannot be determined alone, and these two points cannot be connected to each other.

To disagree with the ideas of one philosopher is not a difficult thing, however to prove his absolute failure and describe his mistakes using his ideas and theoretical background only become harder and harder. This is why it is high time to make use of the ideas of other particularists and prove that the objections presented above have sense.

Particularists and Their Standpoints about Dancy’s Words

Roger Crisp

The ideas of Roger Crisp about ethics and inherent to ethics reasons, about connection of holism to particularism, and about generalism as the main opposite to particularism provoke the reader to pay more attention to all those ideas, offered by Dancy, and put everything into a question.

Crisp introduces four reasons not to believe Dancy and continue investigations in the sphere of ethics and its values. “A plausible particularism based on it [holism] will be close to generalism.

Dancy rests his case on common-sense morality, without justifying it. His examples are of non-ultimate reasons. There are certain universal principles it is hard not to see as invariable” (Crisp 40).

First, Dancy’s ideas become weak if generalism and particularism are described from one and the same perspective and compared to the theories of holism and atomism. Crisp defines two possible forms of particularism, weak and strong:

WP: a feature that is a reason in one case may be no reason at all, or an opposite reason, or always the same reason, in another. If there turns out to be no feature that is always the same, then there will be no general or universal principle stating the reason-giving status of any such feature… SP: any feature that is a reason in one case may be no reason at all, or an opposite reason, in another. So, there can be no general or universal principles stating the reason-giving status of any such feature.” (42)

These definitions prove that particularism may be quite radical in its terms; the radical form of the idea promotes the development of the polarity of any case, and the polarity in its turn rejects the existence of invariability of reasons, offered by Dancy.

In general, Crisp presents a weak side of holism and explains the presence of invariability in any reason and case, that very invariability that is so loudly rejected by Dancy. Usually, Dancy’s standpoints are connected to the properly defined plausible reasons. However, only generalism is able to provide clear and true ethical moral that is free of mystery and variability that are inherent to Dancy’s examples.

Luke Robinson

In his article, Luke Robinson states that moral principles play a very significant role moral theory and practice. Such statement of affairs and division of morality into practical and theoretical make his work helpful in analyzing Dancy’s ideas as well.

First, he supports Dancy’s point that invariant moral reasons may exist and provide satisfaction in one case and frustration in another case; however, he does not believe that moral holism has to be regarded as a problem and admits the importance of another reliable concept as moral dispositionalism.

Moral dispositionalism is able to explain why moral principles are so crucial for ethics and why generalism takes leading positions in comparison to particularism from this dispositional perspective.

General moral facts like tendencies and powers have enough opportunities and grounds, which allow to explain the essence of particular moral facts like manifestation of actions, thoughts, and factors (Robinson 357).

Robinson’s dispositionalism demonstrates how such issues like power or capacity are able to explain both, holism and generalism, and define whether these concepts are both true and equal, or both false and incorrect, or some of them is higher or more important than the other one.

Robinson offers one of the most effective ways to prove and define what kind of theory is correct with the help of proof by contradiction. He offers five absolutely different statements, one of them is considered to be an absolute of the others – “there are no moral principles at all” (Robinson 346).

The results of such investigations by means of contradiction were rather successful for Robinson, as a person, who supports generalism and its ideas of the whole, and rather disappointing for those, who cannot accept the failure of Dancy.

Generalism proves its universality and abilities to adapt to any conditions in any case. As a result, Dancy’s view that holism may lead to particularism is proved to be false and to be improved by more reliable examples and attention to explanation of such concepts like moral ethics, invariability, and plausibility.

Sean McKeever

Sean McKeever is one of the first philosophers, who demonstrate his disappointment with Dancy’s views and claims that “holism provides no positive support for particularism” (26). It is possible to comprehend the essence of holism in two possible ways, and none of them is about particularism.

First, holism may be analyzed by means of context sensitivity of reasons, and second, this sensitivity may exceed concrete measures of codification. In spite of the fact that the second opinion is a kind of possible form of particularism, it is mistakenly to think that Dancy’s words about holism’s possibility to appear as a background for particularism may be true and justified.

In case particularism is a true concept, and generalism is false and destructive, moral principles can lose their boundaries and have no place to develop.

“Particularism and holism threaten to flatten the normative landscape” (McKeever 75), and the dispute that takes place between these two concepts involve more and more philosophers, making them suggest other ideas to prove the impossibility to exist together on the equal rights.

Sean McKeever is the only one writer, who makes a powerful attempt to define holism and particularism from several perspectives and explain the impossibility of Dancy’s claim by means of real life examples, people beliefs, and moral principles.


Moral particularism is the concept that rejects any form of codification of morality and support the idea of holism (the theory of reasons) being the major ground of development particularism in society.

Jonathan Dancy introduces one of the most provoking claims in the sphere of philosophy and defines “particularism as a direct consequence of holism” (78). His idea can hardly find as many supporters of this idea as many opponents have already demonstrated their own disappointment and indignation.

The vast majority of particularists are eager to appeal to holism as the theory of reason in order to defend the ideas of particularism and their superiority over generalists.

However, such philosophers like Robinson, McKeever, Singleton, Brown, and Crisp cannot accept such suggestion and conduct numerous investigations in order to prove that any possible connection of particularism and holism should be regarded as a mistake.

Atomism represents an idea that one reason in one case should remain the same reason with the same polarity but in another place and helps to realize that reasons may become variable, and this fact contradicts Dancy’s standpoints considerably.

People try to reject any possible idea of particularism because they face numerous difficulties with defining rationality and finding out necessary motivation.

Dancy’s ideas are great indeed, however, the deeper people try to comprehend their sense of life and their moral principle in regard to norms they live according, the most misunderstandings they face, this is why such a powerful idea that connects holism and particularism cannot be accepted within a short period of time.

Motivation and rationality mean a lot nowadays, this is why great thinkers make use of these points and use them to justify the ideas, which are understood by ordinary people easily and clearly, and reject any other ideas, which may lead to a single doubt.

Works Cited

Brown, Campbell. “Discussions: Two Kinds of Holism about Values.” The Philosophical Quarterly 57.228 (July, 2007): 456-463.

Crisp, Roger. “Ethics without Reasons?” Journal of Moral Philosophy: An International Journal of Moral, Political and Legal Philosophy 4.1 (2007): 40-9. Philosopher’s Index. Web.

Dancy, Jonathan. Ethics without Principles. Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press, 2004.

McKeever, Sean, and Michael Ridge. Principled Ethics – Generalism as a Regulative Ideal. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Robinson, Luke. “Moral Holism, Moral Generalism, and Moral Dispositionalism.” Mind: A Quarterly Review of Philosophy 115.458 (2006): 331-60. Philosopher’s Index. Web.

Singleton, Jane. “Neither Generalism nor Particularism: Ethical Correctness is Located in General Ethical Theories.” Journal of Moral Philosophy: An International Journal of Moral, Political, and Legal Philosophy 1.2 (2004): 155-75. Philosopher’s Index. Web.

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