Particularism, Analogy, and Moral Cognition

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Minds and Machines





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Analogy, Jonathan Dancy, Machine ethics, Moral cognition, Neural networks, Particularism


‘Particularism’ and ‘generalism’ refer to families of positions in the philosophy of moral reasoning, with the former playing down the importance of principles, rules or standards, and the latter stressing their importance. Part of the debate has taken an empirical turn, and this turn has implications for AI research and the philosophy of cognitive modeling. In this paper, Jonathan Dancy’s approach to particularism (arguably one of the best known and most radical approaches) is questioned both on logical and empirical grounds. Doubts are raised over whether Dancy’s brand of particularism can adequately explain the graded nature of similarity assessments in analogical arguments. Also, simple recurrent neural network models of moral case classification are presented and discussed. This is done to raise concerns about Dancy’s suggestion that neural networks can help us to understand how we could classify situations in a way that is compatible with his particularism. Throughout, the idea of a surveyable standard—one with restricted length and complexity—plays a key role. Analogical arguments are taken to involve multidimensional similarity assessments, and surveyable contributory standards are taken to be attempts to articulate the dimensions of similarity that may exist between cases. This work will be of relevance both to those who have interests in computationally modeling human moral cognition and to those who are interested in how such models may or may not improve our philosophical understanding of such cognition.