Generalities without authority

Matjaž Potrč, University of Ljubljana,


There is a common opinion that generalities guide our life and that accordingly they have normative authority. Two presuppositions of this opinion are spelled out: that particularist patterns are impossible, and that only generalities are able to underpin the area of the evaluative. It is argued that both of these claims may be undermined and that they have to be reversed. First, particularistic patterns are possible, and actually they are the only interesting patterns. Second, it is probable that at least some particularist patterns are able to underpin the area of the evaluative. Generalized form of this claim then concedes normative authority of the particular to all interesting cases. Normative authority is thus with particularist patterns. Generalities are not rejected, they just do not have normative authority and they can figure as mere epistemic generalizations.


The opinion that generalities guide our life and that accordingly they have normative authority

Nothing seems more natural and accurate as the claim that our life and actions that we undertake are all the time governed by generalities, and accordingly that these generalities have normative authority over our decisions to act. “Why did you tell the truth?” “Well, I told you the truth because lying is wrong and of course I followed this general pattern.” Why are we talking about patterns here? Well, there is this generality, which is given by expression “Lying is wrong”. This expression captures a huge number of cases where general rule is applied. But it does not just capture these cases as their common denominator. It is able to capture them because it also gives reasons about why the action happened the way it did. So generality has the epistemic summary power over a huge number of cases, and it has this power because it serves as a reason to act in these cases.

I concede to the first point, namely that generality may serve as summary generalization over a number of cases. But I take it that this is all the work that generality is able to do. Generality is a mere epistemic generalization over a number of cases. It cannot serve as the reason for these cases to come about. In other words, generality does not have normative authority.

                  In order to demonstrate this, it is first worth to articulate the mentioned opinion:


                                    (O) Generalities have normative authority.


Considering now that generalities are understood as being opposed to particularities, (O) may be spelled out in the following negative form:


                                    (NP) Particularities cannot have normative authority.


Having normative authority means that whatever has it is relevant. If, according to (O), generalities have normative authority, then they are relevant for several particular cases to come about exactly as they do. It is because of this general principle “Lying is wrong” that you decided to tell the truth. So the mentioned general principle has the normative authority in how your action has turned out, and therefore it is the relevant thing to quote as the action gets explained.

                  The (NP) now claims that there cannot be any similar normative authority ascribed to the particular circumstances. The reasoning may go as follows. Take it that something other than generalities is responsible for your telling the truth. Take it that this was just the consequence of your opinion and of your particular judgment in this particular situation. So you acted by following this particularist judgment of yours in this situation that happened just once in its singularity and that cannot be repeated. Once you bought this explanation, you bought the normative authority of the particular. But such a normative authority of particular just cannot be right. For it is a straight one way ticket to anarchy. In order to have some reason, of some relevance, we need to have generalities. For otherwise we will finish with bunch of arbitrary and utterly diversified reasons. But already because of their diversity, such reasons will not be able to function as reasons, they will not be relevant. How should your particular opinion in a particular situation be right, and how can it support anything at all? Such particularities are just not able to function as reasons and they cannot be relevant. For once we allow for their authority, each particular person will have her right to change reasons, for each slightly different situation. But this will inevitably lead to conflict, when the arbitrary subjective opinions will be promoted as relevant reasons. So particularities are just unable to have normative authority.

                  And here is another take at the same conclusion that particularities just cannot have normative authority. In order to have normative authority, we first need to have some evaluative matters or facts, say “wrong”, such as it figures in “Lying is wrong”, or “right”. Now, these evaluative facts, according to the uncontroversial naturalist opinion, supervene on the descriptive facts, as far as their metaphysical nature is concerned. But now if we take particularist departure, each particular descriptive situation D will be completely different from its peers, so that there will be no pattern leading from D1, D2, …, Dn to E:


D1, D2, …, Dn → E.


In the best case there will be a pattern from D1, D2, …, Dn  to E1, E2, …, En:


D1, D2, …, Dn  → E1, E2, …, En.


Thus there will be a bunch of cases


                  D1 → E1

                  D2 → E2


                  Dn → En


But this just means that each particular descriptive case will give rise to a different evaluative case. And this confirms the insensibility of the particularist depart that will not allow for a unique evaluative value E, which we need in order to be able to get reasons as supports for our actions. So this proves that particularism is wrong and that the (NP) thesis is right. We just cannot live with this arbitrariness of diversified evaluations. They just cannot be guides to our actions; they cannot give reasons for them or be relevant for them in any way.

                  I will argue that all this is wrong, despite that it may appear as a good minded common sense opinion according to the thesis (O). And I will argue for the correctness of the contrary to the thesis (NP): particularities may have normative authority.


The presuppositions of the opinion concerning generalities: A. particularist patterns are impossible, and B. only generalities are able to underpin the area of the evaluative

There are some presuppositions that merit to get spelled out as underlying the opinion (O). These are deep entrenched presuppositions in the discussion concerning the overall value of particularistic approach, as criticized by the generalist thesis (O):


(O) Generalities have normative authority.


The first presupposition of (O) is as follows:


(A)  Particularist patterns are impossible.


The second presupposition of (O) may be stated as:


(B)   Only generalities are able to underpin the area of the evaluative.


Here is some reasoning in support of (A). If there are patterns around, those will be patterns covering several cases. Thus it is just insensible to talk about patterns that cover a singular case. Structure may be just something that discovers a generality as a common trait or feature of several particular cases. Structure is thus necessarily of general nature. But a particular case just cannot have generality built into it, by definition. So, there just cannot exist any particularist pattern.

                  The reasoning in support of (B) may go as follows: Let us suppose that the evaluative supervenes on the descriptive, so that the Evaluative follows from the Descriptive: D → E. But we need one unique E as the result of generalization over several D’s. So E has to be general and it should not fragment itself into a bunch of cases E1, E2, …, En. So something common to several descriptive situations D1, D2, …, Dn  is needed. This common feature may only be of general nature. If there is an evaluation around, or any other kind of normativity, it just cannot be underpinned by anything else as generalities.


Both presuppositions may be undermined and they have to be reversed

I will argue that both presuppositions underlying the opinion (O), namely the presuppositions (A) and (B), may each be undermined. Neither (A) nor (B) remain plausible once we take a closer look at them. They are just whatever underlies an opinion, and as the features supporting opinion they have no immediate claim to truth.

                  But I will not only argue that these presuppositions may be undermined. I will also argue that they may be reversed into their opposites. Just the contraries of these presuppositions turn out to be true, under a close examination. Particularist patterns are possible and the complement of generalities – namely particularities – do underpin the area of evaluative. My argument will be thus in support of normative authority of the particular.


Ad A 1. Particularistic patterns are possible

Contrary to the presupposition (A), I will first claim that particularist patterns are at least possible. The generalist wishes to deny this. In this respect, his reasoning may go as follows. If there are patterns, they should subsume a bunch of cases. If there is just one singular case, there cannot be any pattern. For there will be no structure. Structure just comes from generality. This was the generalist talking.

                  Contrary to this, I would just like to claim as the first thing that particularist patterns are at least possible. This means that there are at least some cases of structure, where this structure will not be repeatable in its quality, but it will still be counted as a pattern. Well, I remember one such pattern: the picture of Mona Lisa. Nobody would deny that there is structure involved into this picture. Indeed, it is a rich and intertwined structure, including figure, background and many other particularities. And I would myself certainly call this structure a pattern. It seems an important pattern to me. There are many more such particularist patterns inherent to each single work of art, including such complex works of art as operas. But I take it that such particularistic patterns also exist as the basis for reasons to act, at least in some cases.

                  It seems to me hard to deny, anyway, that particularistic patterns are at least possible. But there is more. There are many of them around; they surround us.


Ad A 2. Particularistic patterns are the only interesting patterns

This claim is stronger as the previous one. The expression “interesting” that figures in it should be clarified first. What is interesting, it seems to me, is relevant. Relevant reasons for an action are also the interesting reasons for an action.

                  General patterns are the opposite of particularistic patterns. Now, are they interesting? Here is a quick quasi-logical demonstration that they cannot be. It is well known in predicate logic that general statement does not imply existence. “All men are mortal” does not imply the existence of Socrates, or of any other singular man. You have to introduce additional existential presupposition if you wish to derive existence from the general statement. It seems that there is a similarity between this and the general principles, such as “Lying is wrong”. It seems that these principles as general principles just cannot be in force for any singular situation. Well, at least such general principles cannot be in force for any interesting particular situations. The situations where we do moral deliberation are complex by necessity. For if there is no deliberation, there is no moral decision to be taken. And this goes for cases where general principles, such as “Lying is wrong” apply automatically. So, just single complex cases remain as interesting cases. And these are particular cases, and not the cases where general principle applies. So relevance of the general principle as reason for action seems to be ruled out on the basis of logic. Reasons tend to be complex, but generalities do not really harbor any complexity.

                  Once general patterns are ruled out as interesting patterns, and just particularist patterns turn out to be interesting, it will seem that only particularist patterns are able to act as reasons.

                  There are many of them; a huge amount of particularist patterns is all around. The life is interesting.


Ad B 1. It is probable that at least some particularist patterns are able to underpin the area of the evaluative

You probably have to admit the following. At least once in your life, you have acted on the basis of a very particular situation, and your gut feeling was that you were acting right (or wrong, as for that matter). You just know that it was right. There was no general rule or pattern involved into your decision. If you did not have such experience, then at least you will not deny that some other human being had a similar experience at least once throughout history. At least you should not deny that this is possible.

                  This single case will be enough to undermine the claim of the presupposition (B) according to which generalities only may underpin the evaluative. You are convinced now that at least some particularist patterns may underpin the evaluative.


Ad B 2. The area of the evaluative is underpinned with particularist patterns in all interesting cases

But there is more. And it follows from (A2). In (A2) we tried to determine in outline what is “interesting”, namely what can figure as an interesting or relevant pattern. We have argued that as a matter of quasi-logical reasoning, there are no interesting general principles. This means that general principles, when followed, will be followed automatically, kind of mechanically, and thus they will not allow space for moral deliberation. So space for moral deliberation stays with cases of particularist patterns.

                  What about the cases of pluralism, where several general principles are involved? Are they not interesting cases of moral deliberation, all in still being generalities? The answer is here that what makes something interesting in pluralism cannot be generalities and their normative authority, but judgments, and these judgments belong to the particularist incline of pluralism. The only interesting patterns are particularist patterns.


Normative authority is thus with particularist patterns

If the above short reasoning is right, then the reason given in moral deliberation comes from the part of the particular, from the part of particularist patterns. Each situation in which we deliberate is different. Many times we take deliberative decisions in a flash. And we just know that we have reached an evaluative outcome on this basis. We just know that we did something right or that we did not do it right.

                  If particularist patterns are the only interesting ones (A2), and if these particularist patterns underpin the evaluative matters in all of the interesting cases (B 2), then normative authority has to reside within these particularist patterns. There is no place then for normative authority of the general.


Generalities are not rejected, they just do not have normative authority; they can figure as mere epistemic generalizations

After all of this, one may well think that particularist would be inclined to reject generalities. But this does not need to be the case at all. Particularist allows an important place for generalities in epistemic summaries about reasons for someone’s actions. Why is that? The reason seems to be quite simple: it is conceptual economy. In the same manner as we use the expression “dog” in order to subsume all the immense variance of particular dogs, we use the mere symbol “Lying is wrong” for post festum covering of many different cases, that by the way do not have any viable descriptive basis qua generalities. Generalities are handy. Where would we come if we would give the full description of each particular dog instead of using the general name “dog”? Where would we end up if we would give the whole intertwined narrative description for each reason to act? Any time we would sink the donut in our coffee we would have to write a kind of “A la recherche du temps perdu” as the reason giving of this act. Causes are more complex as this is many times taken to be the case: they contain a lot of intertwined background. Reasons are good candidates for being even more complex. So instead of giving all this crap, we just say “dog”, and we just summarize “Lying is wrong” as the reason of our actions. But these are no reasons for our actions. These are just mere symbols that summarize a general one-dimensional view of several cases. They do not do any grounding; they are just epistemic tools.

                  It would be wrong though to confuse these beneficial summary symbols activities with the real grounding, motivating and normative authority that they are supposed to exercise, as does the generalism. Generalities are mere epistemic stuff; they just do not have any normative authority.


Two eventual worries for particularist confronted

As we discussed the transition from the descriptive (D) to the evaluative (E), we have given two schemas that will be now assigned numbers for the ease of exposition:


(1)          D1 → E1

                                    D2 → E2


                                    Dn → En


The worry for particularist with (1) is as follows. Do all singular E1, E2, …, En  as outcomes of different descriptive bases form an evaluation at all? The particularist would still seem to need a generality, an overall E as covering all of these cases.

                  The answer is that evaluations do exist. You know that this deed was appropriate and that that action just wasn’t appropriate, and that several of them were appropriate even if they were based in entirely particularist situations D1, D2, …, Dn.

                  Just an epistemic explanation may cover all this diversity under a single E. This is similar as with the concept dog that for reasons of conceptual economy covers so many different singular dogs: one of these dogs is as small as a rat, and another one is almost as big as a cow, and yet they are covered by the same concept. Many singularities are left out in this epistemic summary deed.


(2)           D1, D2, …, Dn → E


The problem for particularist is that the general evaluation E seems to result so nicely from all these descriptive bases D1, D2, …, Dn. But the particularist has in his support that this nice result just covers whatever is general, without thereby covering motivation or reasons.

                  Evaluations cannot be others as particularly grounded.


The generalist argument against particularism claims that there is no viable Descriptive to Evaluative, D → E transition, for particularism. This argument may be reversed against the generalist: exactly for generalist there cannot be any D → E transition (remember Moore’s non-naturalism). On the other hand, authority comes from the particularist patterns (whose very existence has to be acknowledged first, against the generalist prejudice).



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