–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

A Foolish Impartiality is the Hobgoblin of Moral Philosophy

by | Jun 13, 2024

Philosophy professors like to think that ours is a clarifying business, so some of you may be surprised to discover that we can be confused about things that most ordinary people are not. One of these things is partiality and impartiality and how they affect ethical questions.

Certainly, the average person thinks impartiality is a condition of ethical and professional conduct, within particular spheres. Judges presiding over courts should be impartial in the judgments they make, for example, as should umpires officiating athletic competitions. 

The average person does not think, however, that impartiality is some kind of general ethical requirement; that not only should a judge or umpire be impartial in their decisions, but that we all should be impartial as a condition of being moral, generally speaking; that when considering where to allocate our personal resources or labors or energies or affections, we should not favor or advantage those to whom we are intimately connected over strangers. 

Hence, the weird spectacle of a Peter Singer suggesting that we (all of us) are obligated to reduce ourselves “to very near the material circumstances of a Bengali refugee,” as he did in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” and of a Peter Unger maintaining that it is immoral to spend money on private schooling for one’s children or to work in a job one loves (because one is not maximizing income and giving the most possible to charity), as he does in Living High and Letting Die (1996).

Meanwhile, the popular fashion of rejecting people’s personal prerogatives in favor of a ruthlessly policed requirement to “care about and cater to” every stranger’s every imagined need and fancy is simply the common, vulgar application of this idea in the public discourse: Don’t treat anyone differently! to minds even less subtle than Singer’s and Unger’s becomes Treat everyone as if he or she was your best friend or closest relative!

Now, this is some silly stuff to be sure, but understanding why is important and reveals how philosophy can go terribly wrong, with the effects of its bad ideas downstream on public manners and mores being even worse.

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One might think impartiality is a general condition of morality, but deny that morality is always overriding or should always be our chief concern. Call this the “Moral Saints” approach (after the Susan Wolf article of the same name). Relatedly, one might accept that regardless of context, impartiality is a condition of moral obligation, but think that in order to render the ethical life accessible to the weak-willed among us, morality should be “enforced” (whatever that means) in a somewhat less rigorous fashion. (Singer suggests something like this, in his discussion of the more “moderate” version of his, “you are obligated to live just slightly better than a- Bengali refugee thesis.”)

I prefer simply to deny that impartiality is any sort of general moral requirement. After all, we can provide straightforward, easy-to-understand reasons why impartiality should be an ethical and professional requirement for judges and referees and umpires and the like, but when philosophers have tried to explain why impartiality should be a general moral requirement, the arguments have been neither plentiful nor credible. One defends against a strong position. One exposes a weak one. No one actually practices this ethos after all – the examples of the Singers of the world demonstrating this in their personal conduct are documented and many – and as it seems a universal human inclination to extend concern according to distance along a number of vectors, as Hume famously observed, it is those who are telling us that we should act like umpires all the time, who have to do the bulk of the work, not those who think we should act like umpires, when we are umpires, and otherwise when we engage with other parts of our lives. 

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There are any number of contexts in which impartiality is apt, and for which the reasons why are easy to see. The point of athletic competition is to see which athlete or team is the best in some sport or other – tennis, basketball, baseball, etc. – and this can only be assessed if the playing field is level, which includes consistency and impartiality in the application of the game’s rules by referees and umpires. Liberal democracies depend on widespread, voluntary compliance with the law, which means that citizens must believe that they will receive a fair shake in the courts, and this depends on the rules – in this case laws – being consistently applied and the judges being appropriately objective. 

But there are any number of other contexts in which impartiality would seem inapt, and for which the reasons, again, are easy to see. Growing up, my daughter became interested in vocal performance, and found herself in various competitive situations as she pursued it: spots in the choir; opportunities to sing in the Vatican, as part of a selective group; statewide competitions; etc. We had the means to invest quite a bit of money into her musical education, hiring private voice teachers, enrolling her in an intense voice camp at NYU, etc. Undoubtedly, this advantaged her relative to her competitors in a way that substantially affected the outcome. Equally undoubtedly, those who lost to her in competition were unhappy about it. So, why did we do it? Because she is our kid, and we care about her more than we do about other people’s kids. 

In philosophy, those banging the General Impartiality (GI) drum the loudest are the utilitarians. The requirement to maximize the general happiness is in itself an expression of GI: it tells us not to maximize our own happiness or the happiness of those we care about the most, but happiness generally. The reason why we should think this is never well-explained, alas, or even explained at all. Mill, famously, in his “proof” of the general happiness principle, simply says this:

[T]he sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it. If the end which the utilitarian doctrine proposes to itself were not, in theory and in practice, acknowledged to be an end, nothing could ever convince any person that it was so. No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness. This, however, being a fact, we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good: that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons. Happiness has made out its title as one of the ends of conduct, and consequently one of the criteria of morality.

It’s a mess for sure. The good, here, is defined subjectively – that someone desires x shows it is possible to desire x and that therefore, x is desirable and consequently, good – but the conclusion is delivered with an air of false objectivity. ‘Desire’ after all, is a two-place predicate – “So and so desires such and such” – so what can it mean to say that “the general happiness is a good to the aggregate of all persons”? If to be good is to be desirable, then to whom is the general happiness desirable? The aggregate of all persons is not itself a person who can desire something, and the very question we are entertaining is why anyone should think as a general matter that people should care as much about the happiness of total strangers as they do about that of their intimates. Simply to declare, “because the general happiness is desirable,” which is what Mill’s “proof” comes down to, obviously begs the question, as the opponent’s view boils down to: No, it isn’t. At least not to everyone in every context.

In Kantian and Kant-inspired ethics, arguments for GI proceed from the strong idea of equality that Kant develops in his theorizing on personhood, expressed most vividly in his treatment of the so-called Kingdom of Ends, in which we are all equally valuable, because we are equally creators of value. But Kantian ethics also sits somewhat uncomfortably with GI, given Kant’s conception of imperfect duties and the flexibility it offers us in choosing the occasions on which to pursue them. It will be hard to derive even a weak GI from Kant and impossible to obtain one as strong as the sort we’ve been conceiving throughout and which is my concern here. The point, after all, is not to criticize those who may feel the pull of obligation more often or more strongly than others, but rather to reject the idea that GI represents some sort of universal principle that sits in authority over our every action, no matter the sphere or place in life in which we find ourselves.

In popular culture, GI is manifested mostly in the vulgar form already identified. One is expected to not only tolerate or treat as on par but to celebrate and even genuflect before strangers’ ideations, self-conceptions, and predilections, regardless of how bizarre or objectionable they may be. The popular version of GI is thus more extreme than the philosophical one, for while the latter tells us, Don’t advantage your intimates over strangers in any meaningful way and thereby demands we impose a crude equality where there normally is no corresponding equality of sentiment, the former requires us to prioritize and “center” strangers over one’s intimates in order to balance some imagined social and cultural scales; to care even more about strangers than about our families and friends. While the philosophically inspired GI focuses mostly on money and our behavior in the economy, the popular version is more concerned with social standing and status. On this view, the special consideration, attention, affection, toleration, support, and care that I might give to my daughter or mother or wife is something I’m supposed to offer generally, in all my dealings with anyone and everyone.  

The reasons given for this version of GI in the popular discourse – when reasons are given at all, which they mostly are not – tend to cluster around barely considered notions of kindness, fairness, and the like. The idea is that we should “be kind” and “be fair” – with these terms being treated as simply co-extensive with the vulgar version of GI – and that’s it. Of course, this provides no argument or positive rationale for anyone not already on board, as rejecting GI just is to reject the idea that we must always be equally generous or caring or kind or fair or attentive or tolerant. And where no reason is given for something beyond the invocation of a buzzword or slogan or mindless repetition of an already rejected proposition, after a polite “no thanks” I have little more to offer than a less polite “fuck off.”

Just as “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” a foolish impartiality or disinterestedness is a hobgoblin of moral philosophers, and is antithetical to real (as opposed to imaginary) ethical life. There are times when we should treat strangers equally to how we treat our intimates, and there are times when it is perfectly appropriate not to. Knowing which is which is the better part of wisdom. Being incapable of or unwilling to is not.

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