Do we need principles about every ethical decision / dilemma we have? I'm interested in an answer from any of the major ethical standpoint.

And even ones inclusive to Marxism, either Marx's wish to settle questions about bad "revolutionaries" with their lack of principles. or Lenin's complaint about Left Communism. These are the two only points of apparent Marxist overlap I can think of, but if you can add to them, great.

  • Are you asking if we need to be able to decide every problem in a principled manner?
    – Canyon
    Dec 14, 2017 at 21:47
  • i didn't want to add another account. i don't understand what that means, am unsure what idiom etc. you refer to. i suppose i might mean something like universality, that i ought do the same again in any identical situation, but i'm not sure that trivially covers it. i mean to refer specifically to "principles" as it appears in theories of ethical particularism , which i do think i intuitively 'get' @Canyon i hope you can forgive my shoehorning marx in there, all the same
    – user30021
    Dec 14, 2017 at 22:58
  • Hi, welcome to Philosophy SE. Please visit our Help Center to see what questions we answer and how to ask. The position requiring "principles" for every situation is called deontology, the major alternatives are consequentialism and virtue ethics. Marx is closer to consequentialism, so all "principles" are secondary and subordinate to the goal of bringing about communism.
    – Conifold
    Dec 14, 2017 at 23:19
  • are you sure that's all that "deontology" means, and that it is necessary and sufficient for it @Conifold why would the "particularism" sep page not mention this? if so, then sure the question is too easily answerable in a comment, for this site
    – user30021
    Dec 14, 2017 at 23:59
  • Necessary and sufficient for what? You will have to clarify your language about "principles" before your question can be answered, it is currently too ambiguous. I interpreted them as rules, but even then one can have derived rules without deontology. Also, are you the post's author, why are there different user names?
    – Conifold
    Dec 15, 2017 at 0:19

1 Answer 1


Ethical theories typically run on moral principles : Kant's 'Always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, as an end and never merely as a means', say, or classical utilitarianism's 'Promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number'. Marx subscribed to moral principles : the formula for socialist justice is 'to each according to their work' and for communist justice, 'from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs'.

Ethical particularism, associated especially with the work of Jonathan Dancy, denies that moral judgements or moral reasoning need make any reference to moral principles whether these are conceived as (a) exceptionless rules or (b) default principles (considerations that apply, all else equal, or rules of thumb as one might say). It is against moral principles in sense (a) that ethical particularism is distinctively set.

One of the keystones of Dancy's position - taking Dancy as representative - is that we cannot properly subscribe in our moral judgements or moral reasoning to a moral consideration that automatically has force or has the same force in different situations. There is a stress on and recognition of the unique in Dancy's work. Take a consideration such as that one can cause pleasure. In one situation, causing pleasure may be a morally relevant and reason-giving consideration : it is good to give pleasure to A. In another situation, causing pleasure may be a morally relevant but repellent consideration : it is not good to give B pleasure by handing over an animal for B to delight in torturing. In yet another situation, such as that of whether to tell the truth, any pleasure involved may be totally irrelevant.

In sum, moral judgements and moral reasoning do not have to be, and in cannot adequately be, based on moral principles, exceptionless rules such as those defined by Kant or classical utilitarianism, or by Marx, or anyone else.

Very difficult issues are involved here; and Dancy's views have evolved. But I have sketched ethical particularism to illustrate an ethical theory that does not depend on moral principles. Dancy's views can be found in J. Dancy, 'Ethics Without Principles', Oxford, 2004. If you have any problems with this answer, just post a comment and I'll do my best to reply.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.