Let's Get Real about Moral Particularism

in Theoria
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In his book Moral Reasons, Jonathan Dancy describes the problem of accidie as the most serious source of objections to cognitivist approaches to moral motivation. If weakness of will is possible, and Dancy himself finds it difficult to deny that it is, then it seems that the person suffering from weakness of will differs from the motivated person only in respect of his/her failing to share a desire to perform the action which is believed by both to be good. This, of course, entails that the desire to act does not necessarily follow from the fact that one holds the relevant beliefs. A cognitivist internalist is committed to (some version of) the claim that desire must indeed follow belief here and it is therefore commonly taken to be shown false by the phenomenon of accidie. For Dancy, however, accidie is not the problem for cognitivist internalists that it is normally taken to be. He argues that to suppose that it is involves making the unjustified (generalist) assumption that ‘if a state is anywhere sufficient for action, it must be everywhere sufficient’ (Dancy 1993: 22). Dancy wishes to argue that just because a state motivates in one case, it should not be presupposed that it will necessarily motivate in another (e.g. in the case of the person suffering from accidie). Therefore, he suggests, if we ditch the generalist assumption and recast our analysis of moral motivation in terms of new (particularist) notions we can rescue cognitivist internalism in ethics. In this paper I argue that Dancy’s particularist account fails to offer the independent support for cognitivist internalism that he thinks it does.


A Journal of Social and Political Theory

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