Universalism in ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L108-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 13, 2024, from

3. Universalism and particularism: principles and judgment

Since universal ethical principles are always to some extent abstract or indeterminate they must be supplemented by judgment in selecting among possible implementations. This point is recognized, indeed stressed, by advocates of universal principles. Kant (1781/1787), for example, insisted that there cannot be complete rules for judgment, and that principles cannot entail their determinate applications, which require judgment (see Kant, I. §12).

The serious disagreement lies not between those who think that ethics needs only principles and those who think it needs only judgment of particular cases, but between those who think principles and judgment are both needed and those who believe that judgment alone will be enough. The deepest opposition to any sort of ethical universalism comes from ethical particularists who hold that unmediated apprehension of particular cases can guide ethical life. Ethical particularists seek to anchor ethical judgment in perception of and responsiveness to the particular, in attentiveness to the case at hand, in the salience of the personal relationship and its claims (see Friendship; Impartiality §4). They usually hold that ethical life revolves around character and virtue. The most radical cast doubt on the very conception of following a rule or principle; the less radical cite the issues of §2 as evidence that an ethics of rules and duties is inadequate (see Moral particularism).

Both ethical particularists (who appeal only to judgment) and universalists (who argue that judgment is used in combination with principles) have found it difficult to explain how judgment works. Some particularists describe it as analogous to perceiving or attending or to the exercise of a craft skill. Some universalists see judgment as the skill of identifying acts that fall within the constraints set by a plurality of principles (see Moral judgment).

Citing this article:
O'Neill, Onora. Universalism and particularism: principles and judgment. Universalism in ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L108-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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