Moral Particularism and Methods in Ethics, Zurich, 14th June 2013

A workshop on moral particularism at the University of Zurich. Schedule here.

‘Why Practical Wisdom Cannot Be Principled’

Alan Thomas

There are many aspects of intelligent action in finite and limited reasoners such as ourselves that are best explained by appeal to epistemic virtue. Adam Morton (Bounded Thinking, OUP, 2012) has convincingly made the case that part of intelligence is the self-management of our own limitations. Central aspects of this self-management not only are not, but could not, be regulated by principles. Morton’s account of the epistemic virtue of prudent self-management is compared to Julia Annas’s conception of the expression of intelligence in virtue to make the case that a cognitivist account of virtue necessarily involves the rejection of any conception of practical wisdom as principled (Annas, Intelligent Virtue,  OUP, 2011). The paper concludes by examining the generalist response that while the true moral principles require a theory of relevance, that theory need not be principled (so the generalist can accept all of the foregoing with equanimity). Not even that response gets the generalist off the hook: a conception of the principles grounding evaluative standards as limited in number, compact and indeterminate invites a far wider range of errors in implementation than a particularist conception of practical reasoning as the direct application of intelligence to situations.

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