Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Something I've been wondering about for a while is whether we have non-instrumental reasons to favour our "nearest and dearest", or whether an ideal (morally fitting) agent would instead be perfectly impartial.

For impartiality: I think there's a lot to like about impartiality: it's clearly very principled, idealistic, etc. (And if there's anything we ought to be idealistic about, our moral ideals are surely it!)  By striving to adopt "the point of view of the universe", we transcend our limited individual perspectives.  There's something appealing about the way that this promises to resolve conflicts, insofar as it mandates that all moral agents share the same goals (i.e., maximizing net value).  And of course it's theoretically simple -- e.g., no tricky questions about precisely how much extra weight we can give to so-and-so.  Impartiality would thus seem to yield a maximally coherent and unified desire set.

Those are some nice formal features.  Impartiality can also be substantively appealing, insofar as there's something clearly right about the idea that other people matter just as much as we do (and that the morally fitting agent is oriented towards what objectively matters).  Indeed, "equal concern" and other considerations I previously gave in favour of consequentialism are more specifically reasons to favour impartial consequentialism.

Dubious objections to impartiality: One might imagine an impartial agent as cold and emotionless, which doesn't sound very appealing.  But of course, rather than subtracting away the special concern that we have for our loved ones, the utilitarian "moral saint" would be one who extends their deepest concern to everyone (i.e., caring as deeply about strangers as most people care about themselves and their loved ones). Think Jesus, not Spock.  Insofar as we fall short of this ideal, it is because we care too little about strangers, not because we care too much about our friends and family.

More reasonably, one might worry that it's humanly impossible to muster such universal love.  That seems plausible, but it's not clear why being out of our reach would make the utilitarian ideal any less of an ideal.  Such a creature would be morally better than we can ever hope to be -- so what?  If one is worried about "ought implies can", then one will not say that we "ought" to exemplify this ideal; perhaps we ought just to do the best that we can.  That's fine.  It doesn't mean that we're morally better for being inevitably partial in this way.  And it doesn't cast doubt on the idea that we should choose to promote the impartial good when we're able to do so.

A stronger objection argues that impartiality is, as a matter of principle, incompatible with genuine friendship and other relationships of value.  I'm not sure why this must be -- don't Christians claim that Jesus is friends with everyone?  (One might doubt the veracity of their belief, but it doesn't seem outright incoherent.)  But I should probably address such arguments in a separate post.

For partiality: Probably the main reason to favour (a degree of) partiality is that it yields more intuitive verdicts in many cases.  Surely, we think, a parent may -- indeed, should -- save their own child's life over the lives of two young strangers.  Surely it's right and proper to save money for your child's college fund, rather than donating every spare cent to GiveWell.

One might even attempt to give these practical intuitions a more theoretical gloss by appeal to Frankena's maxim that "morality is made for man, not man for morality".  To be truly normative for us, Williams-style "reasons internalists" might insist, morality must be more firmly rooted in our actual concerns.  And that means giving pride of place to our individual projects, relationships, and concerns.

I'm dubious about reasons internalism: surely there could be a thoroughly misguided agent, moved only by sadistic and misanthropic concerns, to whom pro-social moral norms still apply, however little regard he may have for them.  But the case-based intuitions offer tougher bullets to bite, I admit that much.

Have I missed any important considerations?  Which way do you incline, and why?


  1. Hi Richard,

    You write: "Rather than subtracting away the special concern that we have for our loved ones, the utilitarian "moral saint" would be one who extends their deepest concern to everyone (i.e., caring as deeply about strangers as most people care about themselves and their loved ones)."

    It seems to me that the most serious objection to impartiality is that it overlooks the agent-relative reasons that people have for having a deeper concern for those to whom they have close ties. Take me and compare the reasons that I have to care about my wife's welfare to the reasons that I have to care about your welfare. The fact that you are a valuable being as well as the fact that enhancements in your welfare are valuable are reasons for me to care about your welfare. But in addition to these reasons, it seems to me that the fact that I have shared many intimate experiences with my wife, have given life to child that we continue to raise together, have been there for each other through good times and bad times, and have promised to care for each other are all further reasons for me to be concerned with my wife's welfare. And these are reasons that I don't have for being concerned with your welfare. And if these are indeed reasons that I have to care for my wife's welfare that I don't have to care for your welfare, then the demand that I extend as much concern for your welfare as my wife's welfare despite having additional reasons to care for my wife's welfare just seems to be a demand for irrationality. Perhaps, Jesus extended his concern in this way, but then again maybe this was not irrational given that Jesus is supposed to have (or so it is claimed) a very special and identical relationship to us all, that of being our savior and all. So it seems that the proponent of impartiality has to deny that the sorts of facts regarding my wife and I that I cite above constitute genuine reasons for me to care more deeply about her welfare. But I can't think of any more plausible candidate for a reason for caring for someone than one of these facts. The fact that someone and his or her welfare are impersonally valuable may be an equally plausible candidate for a reason to care, but I don't think that it is a more plausible candidate.

    And this objection to partiality doesn't rely on any of the dubious objections that you cite. I'm not imagining that the impartial agent is cold and emotionless. I'm not supposing that impartial concern is not humanly possible. I'm not supposing that impartiality is incompatible with certain valuable types of relationships. Rather, I supposing that certain facts about the relations that obtain between those in such relationships provide them with special reasons for being concerned about each others' welfare.

    1. Thanks Doug, that's helpful -- a much better case for partiality than those I originally considered, I agree (and a better way to support our intuitive verdicts than resorting to reasons internalism).

      The tricky question, to my mind, is whether it's true that these special relationships actually generate new reasons, or whether it's just that they make more salient/visible to us the reasons (to care about this valuable person's welfare) that we actually had all along. The latter possibility doesn't seem totally crazy to me.

  2. Like many utilitarian principles, impartiality really gets into trouble when it comes to population ethics. If we are to consider all desires, or all happiness equally, then impartiality suggests that, as soon as we become technologically able to, we should exterminate the human race and replace them with creatures whose preferences are easier to satisfy, or who are easier to make happy. I consider this conclusion to be roughly a trillion times more repugnant than the original Repugnant Conclusion.

    It gets even worse if we extend impartiality to individual desires instead of the people who have them. If all desires are considered equally that suggests that (as per Parfit's classic example) someone who gets you addicted to a drug and then supplies you with it for free has improved your life.

    Fortunately it is fairly easy to salvage impartiality from these traps. We can just stipulate that it applies only to the people/desires/happiness that actually exist, and have partial moral principles in regards as to which people/desires/happiness ought to come into existence in the first place. I see nothing wrong with discriminating against nonexistant people.

    In same-person scenarios, I think that without something like the effort based-satisficing consequentialism Richard introduced back in June, partiality is nearly indefensible. With EBSC one might argue that one has a responsibility to expend X amount of effort on impartial stuff, but may devote the rest of it towards bettering one's family and friends. Without that, it seems like anyone who acts impartially always does more good than one who doesn't, and therefore everyone who isn't evil should be impartial.

    1. "therefore everyone who isn't evil should be impartial"

      That was a little sudden! I guess your implicit premise is something like, "Anyone who isn't evil should always maximize the impartial good", but that's precisely the question at issue. Perhaps there are agent-relative goods (reasons for desire) that we ought to care about in addition.

  3. One minor point: I think there is an important problem with impartiality that is independent of reasons-internalism. You characterize impartiality as a striving to adopt the "point of view of the universe", one which "transcends" individual perspectives, but then tell us that it involves substantive normative committments: a mandate to have the same goals as everyone else, universal love, etc. The big question, so far as I can see, is how one goes from the former sort of thought to the latter sort of thought. Why should "the universe" care about anything at all, and why should a person who is no-one have any goals whatsoever? In short, this agent will be as "cold and emotionless" as the universe he is striving to emulate.

    The problem is important because a skeptic will draw upon it in order to argue that the substantive normative committments supposedly definitive of impartiality are actually just expressions of one person's particular perspective on the world. They will insist that the impartiality theorist drop the murky metaphor of transcendence and admit that he is giving voice to a particular moral point of view. You may still cite the advantages of this point of view, but the question of how to ground it will remain as pressing for you as for a more partial moral theorist.

    1. Hmm, it's true that the "point of view of the universe" metaphor shouldn't be taken too literally. But I don't think it's entirely meaningless, either. There seems a fairly clear sense in which impartiality involves taking all more particular points of view equally into account. (Compare my old 'plutonium rule': do as you would in the knowledge that you will sequentially live through the lives of all affected. Verdicts reached from such a process of "universalization" seem to have a distinctively principled moral grounding.)

    2. I agree. But I don't think these particular thoughts can be combined with the (explicit) appeal to transcendence in your original post. When one is impartial, one is not abandoning one's own standpoint. One is deploying a distinct (perhaps admirable) moral point of view. The problem with talk of transcendence and the metaphor of the universe is that it implies a kind of objective authority, where one's "mere" subjective preferences are abandoned. The reality is that both perspectives are perfectly "subjective", they just deploy different standards.

  4. I tend to be strongly sympathetic to moral theories that allow for partiality, but I often seem to reach a point where I can't justify it.

    For what it's worth, there seem to be at least two main types of justification of partiality accommodating fundamental impartial requirements, but I'd be happy to consider additional strategies.

    - One is the classical "derivation" strategy, whereby it is argued that being partial to one's near and dear either actually or expectably leads to impartially better results. Accounts that appear to make such a case include e.g., Railton on alienation, Jackson on decision-theoretic consequentialism, Hare's intuitive/critical level distinction, or Hooker's ideal code rule-consequentialism. But note that none of these accounts actually argue that partiality is morally fitting per se. Rather, you might think these are only instrumental reasons to be partial.

    - Another might proceed as follows. First, assume that some forms of partiality are among the intrinsically valuable aspects of life, and then show that impartiality requires one to assign equal weight to everyone's intrinsically valuable interests, that is, to entitle every person to specially value, cherish, or care for given relata that are such that the relationship she bears to them (i.e. the greater weight she assigns to them) instantiates an intrinsically valuable aspect of life. So everyone would be entitled to partiality on grounds of some sort of higher-order impartiality. (Does that make sense?) To some extent, Scheffler's defense of partiality might be read in this way. Granted, here partiality is also derived but it still is non-instrumental.

    I wonder what view is more plausible to you, and whether you think the second strategy is likely to assuage the worry that the impartialist's objection cannot account for the "facts" Doug mentioned in his comment.

  5. In case you are interested: I discuss the (im)partiality problem in my PhD research in moral philosophy. See the ethics of the moral hand, in particular the ring finger principle of tolerated partiality
    For a longer version:
    And a chapter in my upcoming PhD thesis:

  6. I say that in principle perfect impartiality is correct, but there are impartial reasons for doing things that may appear to express partiality. Someone that is inside your social sphere (such as a relative, especially a nuclear one) is probably someone that you have a high degree of influence over. Your attempts to foster Virtue in another spirit are far more likely to succeed if the target is close to you. Thus, by preserving the people you have power over, you are likely to raise your ability to positively influence other souls. Impartially, this is better for society.


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