Take the Trolley Problem . . . Please! Pragmatism, Moral Particularism, and the Continuum of Normative Inquiry

34 Pages Posted: 27 Jul 2017

See all articles by Frederic R. Kellogg

Frederic R. Kellogg

Universidade Federal de Pernambuco (UFPE); George Washington University

Date Written: July 24, 2017


Departing from hypothetical dilemmas and drawing on examples from law, this paper offers a pragmatist account of normative induction that characterizes moral particularism and generalism as stages of inquiry into ethical problems, rather than rival accounts of moral knowledge and motivation.

Ethical particularism holds that the evaluative cannot be “cashed out” propositionally, that it is descriptively “shapeless.” Real moral problems occur in a continuum, and at first encounter a shapeless particularist context of seemingly unlimited non-moral properties. But normativity is driven by repetition of similar situations toward shared practices and descriptive predication. Rather than a Dancian retention of epistemic status by defeated reasons, this illustrates retirement of relevant properties and accompanying reasons, transformation of the reasons environment, and a pluralist normative ontology.

This paper contends that pragmatism’s response to analytical moral theory lies in understanding the transformative nature of John Dewey’s social continuum of inquiry. The actual continuum is unrecognized in the analysis of hypothetical dilemmas, like the trolley problem, but can clearly be seen in studies of law. Real moral dilemmas represent actual conflicts, the solution of which cannot be addressed through the analysis of cleverly balanced moral puzzles. Repeated over time, real problems drive the consensual formation and revision of social practices and the predication of general moral rules and principles.

Keywords: pragmatism, moral particularism, trolley problem, Jonathan Dancy, John Dewey, social continuum of inquiry

Suggested Citation

Kellogg, Frederic R., Take the Trolley Problem . . . Please! Pragmatism, Moral Particularism, and the Continuum of Normative Inquiry (July 24, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3007714 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3007714

Frederic R. Kellogg (Contact Author)

Universidade Federal de Pernambuco (UFPE)

Cidade Universitária
Cidade Universitária, Pernambuco 50670-901

George Washington University

2121 I Street NW
Washington, DC 20052
United States

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