What Do We Know When We Know How to Go on?

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  • 50 H A S T I N G S C E N T E R R E P O R T July-August 2001

    Reviewing is a tricky business. Abig part of the job involves se-lecting and describing featuresof whats actually there on the page, andthen linking, in some plausible way,those descriptive features to various nor-mative predicatesbeats sliced bread,would make Nietzsche weep, or theever popular, a much-needed additionto the literature.

    Suppose someone knows how to dothis well. What is it that she knows? Hasshe a determinative formula (for exam-ple: the quality of the whole volume isa sum of the weighted average of the in-terest, probity, clarity, and creativity ofeach section)? Might she have mastereda list of traits that always constitutegood-making features of any scholarlywork, with the proviso that all those fea-tures might not be compatible? (Thecollection is astonishingly comprehen-sive, although its scope unfortunatelyrequired sacrificing brevity and some-what diminished its clarity of focus.)Or might the wise reviewer realize thateven a superb essay might diminish thequality of some anthology, by, say,throwing other chapters into an unde-served shade, or that a poor chaptermight actually enhance the goodness ofa certain monograph, perhaps via con-trast? Will she think that brevity in ex-position or argument is sometimes avirtue, sometimes a vice, sometimesquite irrelevant, and that theres no say-ing which before actually coming togrips with the text?

    If youre inclined to think that thegood reviewer has some formula at herbeck and call, you might be called a re-view principlist. If you tend to theview that the reviewer must see how the

    work stacks up to a group of traits thatare always good-making, but not alwayshappy in each others company, youmight be called a review prima facieprinciplist. But if you think that what-ever quality the work may have is sospecific to the actual combination ofjust the elements that make it up, thatno single principle, no matter how nu-anced in formulation, nor even any listof good-making traits, no matter howartfully balanced against each other, candetermine its overall character, then youare a review particularist.

    In a snug nutshell, it is this sort ofdispute about the character of evaluativereasoning that lies at the heart of MoralParticularism. I dont mean to prejudicethe discussion of the books substantivedebates, but I must say straight off thatits twelve chapters, both severally andcollectively, would gladden the heart ofa review principlist. They so consistent-ly achieve an impressive level of clarity,imagination, and theoretical sophistica-tion that neither questions about bal-ancing prima facie values, nor worriesabout whether any of the texts qualitiesmight somehow be too much of a goodthing, ever arise. One and all, these es-says should reward bioethicists in-trigued by questions of theory andmethod; careful attention to their argu-ments could go a good way toward im-proving the fields slightly shopworn de-bates on the proper claims of principlesand metaphors, arguments and narra-tives, justice and judgment.

    The collection contains significantessays on the relationship of theory andpractice (by Martha Nussbaum) and onthe relative moral significance of partial-ity and impartiality (by Lawrence

    Blum). But it doesnt distort mattersmuch to say that the book pivots on athesis about the character of moral rea-sons, associated prominently withJonathan Dancy, perhaps the singlemost discussed author in this text aswell as a contributor. Dancy is conspic-uous for holding that the descriptiveproperties supporting our moral judg-ments do not of themselves naturallycluster together in a way that corre-sponds to the moral role they might beplaying in a given situation; the naturalis morally shapeless absent the caresand concerns of moral agents.

    The moral shapelessness of naturalstates of affairs is precisely the sort ofthing that principlists want to deny.Consider utilitarians. Ignoring lots ofinternecine disputes, they think thatthere is a quite nicely shaped kind ofnatural propertypleasurethat is in-variably linked positively to favorablemoral assessments (that is, to the ideathat something is right). Yet, as Dancyhas observed, finding intense pleasurein treading on worms after rainstormscan make what was relatively innocentmore morally objectionable rather thanless so. What such cases reveal, hethinks, is that, in a given set of circum-stances, pleasure can completely reverseits moral polarity, so to speak.

    Here is the most distinctive, interest-ing, and (for some contributors, notablyBrad Hooker) implausible and alarmingfeature of particularism: the holistic no-tion that any property might turn outto have any kind of evaluative force, de-pending upon the whole constellationof circumstances in which it figures.Here, too, we glimpse a potentially im-portant way in to debates in bioethicaltheory. A canonical, deeply thoughtfulproponent of principlism once ex-pressed in my hearing the thought that,having made a defensible moral judg-ment, we had to keep what we hadlearned; any relevantly similar situationshould now be judged the same way.This view might seem not only plausi-ble, but conciliatory to at least some ofthose skeptical about principles: it leavesopen whether the role of principles is tomerely systematize and extend what weknow on the basis of encountering cer-

    What Do We Know WhenWe Know How to Go On?

    by James Lindemann Nelson


  • H A S T I N G S C E N T E R R E P O R T 51July-August 2001

    tain specific problems. We might exem-plify this principlists point like so: if thecase of Dax Cowart, one of the fieldsfoundation myths, taught us that it wasimmoral to force on him prolonged, ag-onizing treatment for his severe burns, ittaught us something else, toothat itwould be immoral so to coerce anyonesimilarly situated. A moral principle isthen an abstract statement of such rele-vant similarities. Critics commonlycounter that moral relevancies thuscouched will consistently so underdeter-mine situations calling for choice thatthey are of little or no help in responsi-bly resolving pressing problems. This, inturn, gives rise to efforts to specify prin-ciples in ways that make them morepractically pertinent, or that limit, with-out foreclosing, the operation of moraldeliberation somehow otherwise guided.And so it goes.

    The debate over whether moral rea-sons are best understood holistically rais-es the prospect of a new and potentiallymore decisive front to the principlismconflict. Are Dancy and those of likemind right in insisting that the moralrelevance properties may have in a given

    state of affairs does not guarantee theirrelevance in any other setting, thatmoral reasonslike reasons generally, asDancy arguesgain their force from theentire context in which they occur, andthat ethical deliberation is a matterstrictly of discerning whats morallysalient about a particular situation? If so,its not at all clear what were supposedto have learned from Daxs case. Or are,for example, contributors Frank Jack-son, Philip Pettit, and Michael Smithcorrect in arguing, in a piece much dis-cussed within the volume, that our veryability to use moral language in a waythat isnt wildly arbitrary depends uponthe natural having a morally significantshape, and upon our recognition of thepattern shared by all right action? If so,what role is moral judgment to be as-signed?

    The Jackson-Pettit-Smith view seemsto demand of competent moral deci-sionmakers a knowledge of principlesthat, given all the exceptions and evenreversals they must accommodate, mustbe enormously complex. To all appear-ances, this is a knowledge we simplylack, and yet we often muddle on, man-

    aging to avoid arbitrariness. Dancysview seems to make it mysterious howwe can ever learn from our moral experi-ence, could ever craft morally defensiblepolicies, or form moral characters withthe steadiness that integrity requires. Yetthese, too, are all things that we some-times pull off. Essays by the other distin-guished contributors ingeniously try totip the balance of this and related argu-ments one way or another, working toshow how principles can accommodatethe just claims of particulars, or howparticularism allows us to rely on theworlds having a certain moral stability.As the authors do so, they draw upon ar-gumentative resources relatively unfa-miliar to bioethicists. Those resourcesshould not be expected to determine ourdebates, perhapsbut they might wellalter the shape of how we go on.

    MMoorraall PPaarrttiiccuullaarriissmm.. Edited by BradHooker and Margaret Little, Oxford:Clarendon Press; New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 2000, xiv+317 pp.$55 cloth, $19.95 paper.

    The latest edition to the Reflec-tive Bioethics series is a useful,accessible, and sensible bookthat bears out the promise of its brand-ing. It also represents part of a growingtendency to consider more explicitly thechildren who may be the outcomes ofour increasing technological possibilitiesin genetics and assisted conception.

    Daviss theme is straightforward: Weshould use these new technologies to en-sure for our children, and for their chil-dren, not more constricted futures butmore open ones (p. 131). In order todevelop this argument, she first dispens-es with the rather sterile philosophicaldebate over who is harmed by decisionstaken by parents before the birth of their

    childrenthe wrongful-handicap co-nundrum. She rejects the applicationof tort theories of wrongful life, and theresulting philosophisms, in favor ofour common moral intuitions. Butspecifically, she takes her ethical startingpoint from Joel Feinbergs principle thatevery child has a right to an open future.This leads her to foreground the poten-tial clash between parental autonomyand the childs potential autonomy.

    Having established her argument,Davis applies it to a range of seeminglydisparate cases, to illustrate how eachone can be resolved in favor of thechilds open future. The first case is whatshe calls choosing for disability. This isthe anomaly thrown up by the availabil-ity of techniques such as pre-implanta-tion genetic diagnosis, in the case of par-ents who have disabilities which theyvalue and which they might want topass on to their children. The examplesshe gives are inherited forms of deafness,

    by Tom Shakespeare