In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Particularism in Ethics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Monographs
  • Particularism and Moral Principles
  • Particularism and Shapelessness
  • Particularism and Uncodifiability
  • Particularism and Virtue
  • Particularism and Defaults
  • Particularism and Moral Education
  • Particularism and Supervenience
  • Particularism and Universalizability
  • Particularism and Moral Reasoning
  • Particularism, Moral Explanation, and Moral Justification
  • Particularism and Moral Knowledge
  • Particularism and Moral Perception
  • Particularism and Moral Thinking
  • Particularism and Metaethics
  • Particularism and Ethics of Care

Philosophy Particularism in Ethics
Peter Shiu-Hwa Tsu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0367


Particularism has certainly cut much ice with the development of analytical ethics since the late 20th century. Its proto-idea goes back at least to Aristotle, who maintains that the major function of practical wisdom is to discern the moral truth via a close examination of the situational particulars. Particularism’s contemporary prominence, on the other hand, is largely due to Jonathan Dancy, who endows the doctrine with much of its flesh and bones. Yet, in spite of this, no consensus has been reached on what exactly particularism amounts to. There are many versions of it. Roughly, they all take the basic line that moral principles of one sort or another play no essential role in the key areas of ethics. As a view about moral metaphysics, particularists maintain that the distinction between rightness and wrongness does not depend upon the existence of universal moral principles; instead, what is right or wrong is determined by the morally relevant particulars of the case before us. As a view about action guidance, particularists argue that the moral principles are, at best, nothing more than rules of thumb and, at worst, may lead us seriously astray. The key to making sound moral judgments lies in the exercise of moral sensitivity rather than in rule following. As a view about moral explanations and justifications, particularists contend that their ultimate sources lie in the particulars of the situations rather than in any universal moral principles. As a view about moral education, particularists oppose the idea that it consists essentially in the teaching of moral principles; rather, what really matters is the cultivation of moral vision. As a view about moral reason, particularists subscribe to ‘reason holism,’ the view that what is a reason for in one context may not be so in another, or may even turn out to be a reason against. Particularists reject the contrary doctrine of ‘reason atomism,’ the idea that each reason behaves in the same principled way on any occasion. In each of these key areas in ethics, there can be a version of particularism in support of the view that moral principles do not play an essential role. And there can be a version of ‘principlism,’ or what is sometimes called ‘generalism,’ that denies it. This article provides a survey of the major issues involved in the debate between the particularists and the so-called generalists or principlists.

General Overviews

There are a number of useful overviews on the topic of particularism. Jonathan Dancy, being the contemporary founding father of particularism, provides the most influential, if not the most definitive, statement of the doctrine in Dancy 2009. Väyrynen 2011 offers a balanced analysis of the pros and the cons of particularism, whereas Crisp 1998 takes a somewhat disparaging view about it. Little and Lance 2005 usefully distinguishes between several functional features of moral principles the particularists take issue with. In a similar vein, McKeever and Ridge 2008 distinguishes two functional roles of moral principles—standards of rightness and action guides. Recently, Ridge and McKeever 2016 proffers a most clear and helpful survey of the debate between moral particularists and moral generalists.

  • Crisp, Roger. “Moral Particularism.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward Craig, 702. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

    Presents a very concise yet clear account of moral particularism. Also outlines some worries about the doctrine.

  • Dancy, Jonathan. “Moral Particularism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2009.

    Portrays and advocates moral particularism as the view that the rationality of moral thought and judgment does not depend on a suitable supply of moral principles. Suitable for students of all levels.

  • Kirchin, Simon. “Moral Particularism: An Introduction.” Journal of Moral Philosophy 4.1 (2007): 8–15.

    DOI: 10.1177/1740468106072778

    Construes particularism as a theory about the structure of moral reasoning. A clear introduction to the issue of whether moral reasons behave in a particularist or principled fashion.

  • Little, Margaret, and Mark Lance. “Particularism and Antitheory.” In The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory. Edited by David Copp, 567–595. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1093/0195147790.003.0021

    Clarifies the sort of moral principles moral particularists are concerned with and argues that explanatory generalizations, when properly understood, can be reconciled with particularism.

  • McKeever, Sean, and Michael Ridge. “Preempting Principles: Recent Debates in Moral Particularism.” Philosophy Compass 3.6 (2008): 1177–1192.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2008.00181.x

    Offers a clear survey of the arguments for and against particularism. It contributes to the clarification of the muddy debate between particularists and generalists by usefully distinguishing moral principles as standards from moral principles as guides.

  • Ridge, Michael, and Sean McKeever. “Moral Particularism and Moral Generalism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2016.

    Provides a clear and useful review of the debate between moral particularism and moral generalism.

  • Väyrynen, Pekka. “Moral Particularism.” In The Continuum Companion to Ethics. Edited by Christian B. Miller, 478–483. New York: Continuum, 2011.

    Presents a very clear and balanced introduction to particularism.

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