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Formalism is the doctrine that morality should be structured by a set of abstract principles of a high degree of generality: that morality should aspire to be a kind of geometry of rights, duties, and goods. Opposition to this view maintains that the primary focus of ethics is the concrete situation, so that ethical judgement is not the application of general rules, but is akin to aesthetic judgement in demanding attention to the details of the individual case, and in delivering verdicts that cannot be ratified by the mechanical application of antecedent rules, nor automatically extended to new cases. An extreme version of formalism is represented by Kant, and contextualism by a number of philosophers including Aristotle (see phronesis), Aquinas, and Hegel (see Sittlichkeit). Contextual judgement is represented as demanding virtues, sympathies, appreciations, and perhaps intuition and tact. Feminism has tended to embrace the contextualist wing of this debate, applauding intuitive, tactful sympathy with individual cases as opposed to the abstraction and rule-worship supposed to characterize male practical reasoning. See also casuistry, situation ethics.

Subjects: Philosophy.

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