A Foolish Impartiality is the Hobgoblin of Morality

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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Philosophy professors like to think that ours is a clarifying business, so some 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 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). [1] [2]

Meanwhile, the current, popular fashion of rejecting people’s personal prerogatives in favor of a ruthlessly policed requirement to “care about and cater to” (as I described it in a recent essay) every stranger’s every need and fancy is simply the common, vulgar application of this idea in the public consciousness: 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! [3]

Now, this is some supremely 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 mores and manners being even worse.

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One might think impartiality 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 more accessible to the weak-willed among us, morality should be “enforced” (whatever that is taken to mean) 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. [4]

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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 effected the outcome. Those who lost out to her in competition surely 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, alas, is never well-explained 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-placed 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 every person in every context.

In Kantian and Kant-inspired ethics, arguments for GI proceed from the 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, and thus deserve to be treated as an end rather than as a means. 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 difficult 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 place in life in which we find ourselves.

In the 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 consequently 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 is no equality in sentiment, the former requires us to prioritize and “center” strangers over one’s intimates in order to balance the proverbial social and cultural scales; to care more about strangers than about our families and friends. And 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, given that public discourse favors invective and threat over persuasion – 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 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.

References and Notes

[1] Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Spring, 1972), pp. 229-243.

[2] Oxford University Press (1996).

[3] https://theelectricagora.com/2021/08/09/caring-and-catering/

[4] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/peter-singer-some-people-are-more-equal-than-others-551696.html

15 comments

  1. Thanks for posting this, Dan. As I recall, Bernard Williams argued that part of having a meaningful life is having our own large-scale projects and concerns, and that our very commitment to these projects entails that we cannot abandon them for purely utilitarian or consequentialist reasons. As your example shows, we are not going to treat other children the same way we treat our own. And we are not going to give strangers on the street the same concern we show our friends. I have always found Williams very persuasive in that regard.

  2. You have argued this previously, but why then should the judge or the public servant exhibit impartiality if there is some advantage for their near and dear? And why should I not harm others if I and my family can profit from it? If you are going along the line that judges, or myself, are fulfilling social roles or social norms, you might end up with a peculiar situation that everyone acts for the good of others, but no-one believes this is the correct way to act. You might believe a la Kant, that adequate contracts can be created to allow devils to run a working society that enriches everyone, but these could never cover all the possible issues. Everyone else just wants virtuous judges who try to practice justice (and who will accept living with a 24 hour guard when prosecuting the Mafia), and virtuous fellows in their society.

    Even in the minimal case, there are some norms of limited benevolence in the sense of noninterference with others, and I for one don’t think there is some natural balance point between hurt and harm.

    As Harsanyi puts it: “any evaluative judgment based on biased, partial and personal criteria will not be a moral value judgment at all, but will be a mere judgment of personal preference.”

    1. I don’t see any argument on behalf of GI here. My thesis was very weak: I simply reject the idea that there is any general impartiality requirement. Impartiality is apt in certain spheres and not others, and this is pretty much what everyone thinks (and does) including GI’s proponents. It’s your burden to demonstrate otherwise.

      If the judge is found to be violating conflicts-of-interest rules he will be removed from the bench. We don’t take his word for it, and he is required to recuse himself where there is such a conflict.

      You seem to think there is some magical force to “should” and “ought.” There is none. Bernard Williams and others have been absolutely right on this front.

      1. Hi Dan.

        The trouble with this is that the spheres are overlapping and interpenetrating, and that any one of us can be in the situation of the judge. In democracies we are the ones who judge politicians, who we hold to these standards, and surely the civic standards we hew to include our vote not being completely selfish in nature, or do you disagree?

        In the supermarket, if we find out that a particular item was made using slave labour, even though we have never met the people involved, do we not still experience a sympathy with their plight and in some cases will act in solidarity and buy something more expensive. Or are you suggesting we should always go for the bargain?

        Singer’s shallow pool is striking in that under common law there is no such requirement of rescue of strangers (there is the famous US case of the swimming champion not bothering to try and rescue a drowning person where there was no significant risk to the rescuer).

        As to the spurious examples of competition in sport or music, Mill seems to think there are higher pleasures to be maximized. I think it is rational to include those of competition where all participating have implicitly agreed that this is necessary to overall excellence or overall enjoyment (I am reminded . It just requires us to make an impartial judgement that this is the case. The communitarians say

        “[J]ustice takes a different shape in different societal spheres. In the sphere of education justice has to do with creating equal opportunities (in primary education) and with rewarding according to merit (in secondary education). In the sphere of money and commodities, justice takes the shape of free exchange. In the sphere of welfare, goods are distributed according to `socially recognized needs’. In the sphere of politics justice is about procedures: democratic elections, the will of the majority, gaining the public’s favour and so on. Each sphere of justice has its own `internal moral logic’.”

        However, I think it very possible that an impartial judge could decide that some flavour of having such multiple spheres would lead to the best global overall outcome.

        1. Well, we obviously profoundly disagree. As you find my examples “spurious” and ignore the actual arguments and points in the piece, I see no point in conversing further. Have a good day.

  3. The curious thing is that although the doctrine of GI has almost no traction amongst the general population governments in the developed world are allowing economic migrants to crash their borders without any serious attempts to check them. The English Channel has turned into a version of the Rio Grande. This of course affects the native (bad word) population negatively in terms of housing, hospital waiting lists, jobs etc. What is daft on a personal level is, when generalised, righteous.

  4. “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 [. . .].”

    This point lies in the neighborhood of one made separately by John Taurek and by Robert Nozick: it is not clear at all what it would even be for suffering to be aggregative and thus what would make the suffering of two people worse than the suffering of one. If P1 suffers, that’s bad, because it’s bad for one to experience suffering. If P2 suffers, that’s bad, because it’s bad for one to experience suffering. Why would it be worse if P1 suffers and P2 suffers? What or who experiences the sum of their suffering?

    As many philosophers have noted — and in resonance, I think, with your reflections — the realist idea of The Universe and the deist idea of God become effectively indistinguishable at certain crucial dialectical stages, and the theological underpinning of “ought (not)”s makes itself felt.

    1. I never believe it’s possible to aggregate suffering, but that’s not the way I understand it.
      I always thought it was more like this:

      W is a world in which P1 and P2 are suffering.
      W’, a world in which only P1 is suffering, is a better world than W.
      W’’, a world in which neither P1 or P2 are suffering, is better than W’ and W.

      No need for aggregation.

      Having said this, I agree with the point Dan is making. GI is not the way morality works in reality.

      And by the way: some ideas of Singer, like the one about the Bengali refugees, are so outrageous that they read like a reductio ad absurdum. I secretly think he secretly agrees with Dan. He took GI etc. to its logical – and absurd – endpoint, and I bet he’s still surprised nobody saw what he was doing, happily riding the wave of fame & fortune it created.

      1. couvent2104,

        This is not the place to argue the ins and outs of Taurek’s and Nozick’s view, so this will be the last thing I say on the matter — though I will read your reply with pleasure, should you submit one.

        I would simply encourage a good-faith exploration of possible answers to the question: what is it about W that (we think) makes it worse than W’ and W”? The point of the exercise would be to note how tempting it is, for almost any answer we articulate, to reach for comparative notions about more and less suffering. And as soon as we’re thinking about more and less — across sufferers, obviously, not within a sufferer— we’re thinking aggregatively, in the sense I outlined in my first comment.

        Taurek and Nozick, in classic Socratic fashion, are inviting us to think through what it is even supposed to be for there to be more or less suffering in the world (or in one world compared to another, if you prefer) and how such a thing can even be morally relevant. And we find, more often than not, that we do not understand what we think we understand or that we are assuming things we did not realize we were assuming.

        How many times, and in how many contexts, do the scolding maximizers invoke the idea that less suffering in the world is better? (That a world with less suffering is better than a world with more?) Whose suffering it is doesn’t even matter; what matters is something like “the amount,” and the total amount of suffering is experienced by . . . the world in which the suffering exists?

        1. Animal S.,

          Not to prolong this discussion, but to clarify a bit why I wrote my reaction. I don’t remember if I’ve read Nozick on these matters, but your mentioning of Taurek made a tiny bell ring in my brain. I’ve read his 1977 paper “Should the numbers count?” a long time ago, and found it today on the internet.

          If you look at the example I offered, it’s based on the choice “alleviate the suffering of one person, or do nothing”. Taurek’s 1977 paper explicitly doesn’t analyze this situation (see the first footnote). Perhaps my reasoning is right, perhaps it’s wrong, but Taurek doesn’t help me much. Perhaps Nozick or Taurek have treated these situations in other papers?

          Note that in my example, a world in which one person is saved, is better than a world in which nobody is saved. Likewise, a world in which five people are saved, is better that a world in which nobody is saved. However, I’m *not* comparing these two worlds or claiming that the second option is morally superior because “numbers count”. Neither do I think that my reasoning translates to a moral obligation – that’s not how morality works in real life.

          Perhaps I was more impressionable when I was younger, but reading Taurek’s paper now, I noticed how artificial it is. Not so long ago, terrorists organized a horrible and deadly attack not far from where I’m living. Reading Taurek, I imagined the emergency services arriving there, flipping coins to decide whom they should rescue. In “real (as opposed to imaginary) ethical life” numbers count sometimes.

  5. I am not a philosopher, and I’ve read none of the cited works, so this comment comes from outside that discipline.

    Dan’s view that obligations of impartiality are context-dependent seems irrefutable to me. Impartiality is required of judges and umpires in their respective contexts because the purposes of both types of contest require the oversight of a disinterested third party, separate from and independent of the competing parties. If the judge/umpire, in effect, joins one of the competing “teams” due to partiality, the essential goals of the respective contests are frustrated and become not only unfair, but pointless. (Query; are “impartiality” and “fairness” the same thing? It does seem possible for an impartial judge to still be unfair.)

    The relationship with one’s family and friends is of a wholly different order. One is unavoidably a member of the “team” of one’s family/friends. The impulses of love, care, protection, and support one instinctually feels in such relationships are so inextricably entwined in the relationship as to make impartiality little more than a theoretical proposition.

    Nor is impartiality so straightforward in application. In law and athletics, professional ethics generally require judges or umpires/referees to disqualify themselves in instances in which such any such relationships exist with one side. As a matter of judicial ethics, the force and subtlety of the effects of such relationships require recusal regardless of the likelihood of actual partiality, since participation would tend to create the appearance of partiality even when there was none in fact, thereby undermining confidence in the integrity of the process generally. In fact, any sort of third-party “referee” with such a relationship with one side might so struggle against partiality as to be unfair to the side with which the relationship exists.

    The idea that some world “process” is invalidated by partiality for family and friends seems impossibly attenuated to me, and the notion that “happiness” is coextensive with wealth and status is at least questionable.

    Accordingly, in the context of relationships of blood and affection, ethical strictures of impartiality seem chimerical: that type of “partiality” arises from the genetic sphere, as a matter of evolutionary biology. This is not to enthrone biological destiny, but the ethical must exist nested within what is possible. And as Dan suggests, if one’s ethical standard is the Bengali refugee, does one have to make one’s family not only impecunious, but refugees as well? In any event, proclaiming one’s kinship with Bengali refugees seems to me little more than yet another variant of the current virus of performative virtue signaling.

  6. I still find it weird that Peter Singer appears here as the epitome of the idea that we should direct some of our efforts to improve the lot of people that we do not know personally, or even dislike, in an impartial fashion. And that the best way to do this is some kind of quantitative approach. It’s how we currently run societies. As Eric Schliesser recently put it “…roughly between Sidgwick and Robbins, there was a split — a cognitive and institutional division of labor within utilitarianism –, in which the economists (and also some psychologists) got the empirical (or [‘positive’] side of the enterprise, and the philosophers obtained the normative side of the project”. But there is plenty of room for argument about what to measure – I spend a certain amount of time reading papers about quality-adjusted and disability-adjusted life years in health economics – which you might know are created by asking people to impartially judge the experienced impact of various life events. And what is real world efficient – some of the criticisms of the Rational Altruists are precisely that they don’t talk so much about the political side.

    I just don’t see anything wrong with wishing that everything will go as well as possible for everybody. Again from Harsanyi (Does Reason Tell Us What Moral Code to Follow and, Indeed, to Follow Any Moral Code at All), in the same vein as Singer’s circles:

    “No doubt, our inclination to move from our selfish primary desires to a universalistic secondary desire is a natural outgrowth of our rationality because reason is an ability to generalize (from desiring good things for oneself to desiring good things for everybody)…it is presumably a contingent fact that our rational nature does seem to operate in this way. We can certainly imagine rational beings who would not move over from their primary desires to any secondary or tertiary desires. In fact, it is quite possible that some very intelligent but mentally disturbed persons never develop secondary and tertiary desires or develop them in a very distorted fashion…In any case, once we admit that our reasons for helping other people, even in the absence of any emotional involvement with them personally, must include some conative attitude (such as a tertiary desire to help them), we obtain a theory of altruism fully consistent with Hume’s theory.”

  7. Hi Dan: I wonder whether Mill would agree with you? The best bit of Mill’s moral philosophy, I think, is Chapter 5 of “Utilitarianism”, though it is often overlooked. In it he sets out an account of justice, rights and duties which is not what we might expect from his theory of general happiness. Here’s a key point about duties:

    “We do not call anything wrong, unless we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it; if not by law, by the opinion of his fellow creatures; if not by opinion, by the reproaches of his own conscience. This seems the real turning point of the distinction between morality and simple expediency. It is part of the notion of Duty in every one of its forms, that a person may rightfully be compelled to fulfill it. Duty is a thing which may be exacted from a person, as one exacts a debt. . . . I think there is no doubt that this distinction lies at the bottom of the notions of right and wrong; that we call any conduct wrong, or employ, instead, some other term of dislike or disparagement, according as we think that the person ought, or ought not, to be punished for it; and we say that it would be right to do so and so, or merely that it would be desirable or laudable, according as we would wish to see the person whom it concerns, compelled, or only persuaded and exhorted, to act in that manner.”

    So when we are exhorted to sacrifice our interests for the interests of someone less well off than ourselves, we can ask (following Mill) whether this is a matter of duty or something over and above duty. If it is not a matter of duty, then a person does no wrong in not self-sacrificing. This means that third parties can’t justifiably compel that person to self-sacrifice or complain if he doesn’t; they can only persuade and exhort him or her by representing the act as desirable or laudable.

    What do you think of this side of Mill?

    Alan

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