by Daniel A. Kaufman
There are two conceptions of distance that I am interested in with respect to moral questions:
Emotional distance: the distance from sentiments and feelings that results when one adopts a disinterested stance, in response to morally significant situations.
Theoretical distance: the distance from the particularities of circumstances, people, and relationships that is effected when one addresses moral questions from the standpoint of theory.
The orthodox position in philosophy has been that morality requires distance; that the moral actor is one who maintains a disinterested stance with respect to the moral question at hand and acts (or refrains from acting) on the basis of general principles, derived from a moral theory. (Utilitarianism and Kantianism are the most prominent examples of such a view.) This position is reflected in what I will call our “official understanding” of morality, by which I mean that understanding which governs our public consciousness and discourse on the subject. Our private or personal morality is another matter and may have more in common with the contrary position that I will outline next.
The contrary position also has deep roots in intellectual history, though as part of a philosophical counterculture rather than the mainline, orthodox philosophical tradition. According to this view, it is closeness, not distance that morality requires: First, because the moral actor must care in order to act; and second, because he must know how to act, which cannot be determined under the guidance of general principles, but only by practical wisdom and a kind of “moral perception.” Aristotle, Hume, the Intuitionists, and some of the classic feminist, “care” ethicists are the exemplars of this philosophical tradition. 
The Claims of Moral Distance
In our “official” understanding of morality our image of the moral actor involves a combination of two images: that of the competent, impartial judge; and that of the executor of the judgments of a competent, impartial judge.
This is because our official conception of morality is one that largely reduces questions of morality to questions of justice, and our conception of justice today is formulated more in terms of fairness than desert. The reasons for this official conception of morality are many, including:
(i.) A tendency to conflate moral with legal questions. For example, a good part of the reason why judges are required to be fair and give equal treatment to litigants has nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with practical considerations. People will not voluntarily participate in, cooperate with, or submit to the legal system if they perceive that it engages in unfair or otherwise differential treatment.
(ii.) The individualism and egalitarianism of the Enlightenment, which shunned natural hierarchies and certain kinds of differential treatment;
(iii.) An even more intense egalitarianism that has emerged with the increasing democratization of Western developed nations over the last century, but whose deeper source, I think, is a distinctively bourgeois combination of fear and envy;
(iv.) A distrust of and disdain for feelings and emotions on the part of the mainline philosophical tradition, which is a direct consequence of its rationalism. 
When taken together, these ingredients yield a number of “axioms” that govern the official treatment of morality and of the moral actor, many of which also are reflected in the moral theories produced by the mainline philosophical tradition:
(a) In order to do the right thing and avoid doing the wrong thing, we must be fair;
(b) Being fair means treating everyone equally;
(c) Emotional investment in a situation makes it less likely that a person will treat everyone equally, because, generally speaking, emotions cloud one’s judgment and more specifically, emotions cause one to be biased in favor of a particular person (s) involved in the situation;
(d) Cool, detached, impartial reason must govern the moral actor, not emotions. This and this alone will ensure moral behavior.
Mainline Ethical Philosophy
In the mainline philosophical tradition’s understanding of morality, the primary task of ethics is the construction of moral theories that are charged with determining the nature of Good, Bad, Right, and Wrong. A general principle of morality is subsequently derived from these theories and serves as a recipe as to how one ought and ought not to act in specific situations. (I.e. the moral actor examines the situation in light of the general moral principle and determines what his course of action ought to be.) A moral actor, then, is one who through his conduct obeys a general moral principle derived from a true moral theory.
Consider, for example, Utilitarianism: One first conducts an investigation as to what is of basic value, the conclusion of which is that it is happiness. One then conceives of obligation as promoting or even “maximizing” that which is basically valuable, which yields a general moral principle that states that we ought to do that which creates the most happiness and refrain from doing that which undermines it. When confronted with specific scenarios, the moral actor examines the situation, ascertains which actions satisfy this general moral principle, and pursues them, while avoiding those actions that violate it.
Notice that one’s relationships with and feelings about the people involved are irrelevant to the question of what the moral thing is to do. Indeed, they are worse than irrelevant — they are actively detrimental to one’s ability to execute the utilitarian calculus, which is inherently disinterested. For example, the question of the rightness of my action is not affected whatsoever by whether the person involved in the situation at hand is, say, my daughter, mother, wife, friend, etc. or a complete stranger on the other side of the globe, but only by how much happiness, in total, is created by it. To take such relationships into account would hinder if not entirely inhibit my ability to implement the utilitarian calculus.
Now, the general characteristics of certain relationships may be the source of certain duties — for example, the relationship of debtor to creditor, of parent to child, etc. — but the duties that attach to these relationships have nothing to do with their emotional dimensions or with the fact of their intimacy, but rather because they are seen to fall under more general moral categories. For example, they may involve promises made, contracts undertaken, etc.
That Utilitarianism views the moral actor as one who acts according to the general moral principle derived from it guarantees that one’s actions will remain consistent, regardless of the particularities of the circumstances or of one’s relationships with the other actors involved. This disinterested and consistent application of the utilitarian calculus on the part of the moral actor guarantees that his judgments will be fair, in that it will guarantee that he treats everyone equally.
Difficulties with Emotional Distance
There is a basic problem with the notion that reason alone can motivate action. Hume has argued (in my view convincingly) that reason is only an instrument working on behalf of the feelings and sentiments that make up our passions. These feelings and sentiments are what determine our particular ends, while reason’s role is to determine the best means to accomplish them.
There is a further problem of mainline philosophy’s neglect of the moral dimension of intimate human relationships, particularly marriage, parenthood and other familial relationships, and friendship, which beyond their entanglement with more emotionally distant matters of contracts and promises, involves a loyalty founded in love. (Classic feminist philosophy is one place where some have tried to address this neglect.) Hume’s claim is that our love for and loyalty to people — and consequently, our feelings of duty towards them — naturally increase with their physical and psychical closeness and decrease with their physical and psychical distance.
A major problem for orthodox moral philosophy has always been that it has had difficulty answering the question “Why be moral?” Of all the mainline moral philosophers, Mill comes closest to acknowledging that there must be some sentiment that involves “wanting to do the right thing,” in order for there to be any moral actors at all, but he characterizes this sentiment as a love or concern for “mankind as a whole” and for a “unity with our fellow creatures,” which renders the sentiment general and abstract and therefore, undergirds the principle of utility.
But Hume denies that there is any natural love for mankind as a whole and points out that we care first and foremost about ourselves and those closest to us and that any capacity to care about strangers is due to our ability to hypothesize; to imagine that it is us or one of those close to us, who is involved.
This hierarchy of sentiments entails that it is first to us and to those closest to us that we feel the strongest sense of duty and to strangers last, which represents an inversion of the official morality and of orthodox moral philosophy. I would argue, however, that while “fairness” and “disinterestedness” may govern our official morality, it is this “non-fair” (not the same as unfair), preferential hierarchy that governs our private morality. Rare is the person who feels that they have more of a duty to a complete stranger than to their own child or to their parents or best friends. Rare, and I would also maintain, perverse.
Difficulties with Theoretical Distance
Our discussion of traditional moral philosophy’s inability to recognize the moral dimension of intimate human relationships brings up a related but more general difficulty and that is the matter of the monochromatic, fixed nature of the value systems and conceptions of obligation one finds in orthodox moral theories. The very idea of a moral theory is that there is some single characteristic or small, finite cluster of characteristics that all things of value and all duties have in common, and this is what makes for the generalizing, abstract character of moral theories.
It would seem, however, that there is more than one thing that is of “basic” value and more than one kind of basic duty. The battle between Utilitarianism and Kantianism is a perfect case in point. Surely, both the production of happiness and the exercise of good will are valuable in such a “basic” sense and yet, neither is reducible to or reinterpretable in light of the other. I would argue that human flourishing, in the Aristotelian sense, constitutes yet a third such basic good and there are many more. W.D. Ross catalogues a number of the more common types in The Right and the Good. 
This fact about values and duties is referred to in the literature as “value pluralism” and “value fragmentation,” and the broader that fragmentation, the less useful enterprise moral theory seems to be. For any moral theory to account for the entire range of basic values and duties, it would have to be so disjunctive that its capacity to maintain any kind of determinate theoretical character or shape would be lost.
In addition to basic values and duties being plural in number and/or fragmented, I would maintain further that they are subject to significant fluctuation. That is, what matters and what we ought to do will change from scenario to scenario, case to case, and actor to actor. So, in addition to their being no singularity as to what is of value or what underlies all of our duties, there is no fixity to them either. And if what matters and what one ought to do are tied to the particularities of circumstances and actors, then there can be no moral rules, the existence and character of which require some significant degree of generality.
Finally, there is the question of real instances of moral judgment and decision. In a scenario where there are competing values and obligations at stake and no systematic, fixed ordering or ranking of them, the question as to what one ought to think and do about a morally significant situation has to be decided case by case. Because the particular, as Allan Bloom once remarked, “escapes the grasp of reason, the form of which is the general or universal,” these judgments and decisions will not be the products of deductions or other types of logical reasoning based in theories, but of the sort of accumulated wisdom and keen social awareness and perception born of experience that Aristotle talks about in the Nicomachean Ethics. 
 I wrote about Aristotle’s conception of “moral perception” here:
 I discussed mainline philosophy’s rationalism in some detail, here.
 W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good (1930), p. 21.
 Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), p. 173.