In Moral and Political Philosophy
Susan Mendus, Oxford University
is mostly true...with some stretches, as I said before."
(This feature contains 2,934 words)
NEW YORK -- In Justice as Impartiality
Brian Barry takes the position that there is an ongoing moral
and political philosophy between defenders and critics of impartiality.
Amongst the defenders of moral impartiality he counts Kantians,
utilitarians and himself. Amongst its critics he counts Bernard
Williams and feminist care theorists.
However, and within the page, Barry has
concluded that this battle (the battle between impartialists and
their critics) is ill joined. He writes: `what the opponents are
attacking is not what the supporters are defending. I believe
that the core contentions of the friends and foes of impartiality
(as they conventionally represent themselves) are equally valid.
If this is so, then there can be no contradiction between them.
Barry's conclusion should surprise us,
for if it is true, then at least ten years of moral and political
philosophy have been largely wasted. However, if the conclusion
is surprising, it is far from novel. In a 1999 issue of Ethics
devoted to Impartiality and Ethical Theory a number
of contributors conclude that the debate between partialists and
impartialists is based on a series of confusions and misunderstandings.
Talk of partialism and impartialism does
not help to illuminate our philosophical differences. There is
far less deep disagreement between opponents and proponents of
impartialism than is commonly supposed (see, for example, Becker
For some who disagree, the differences
between impartialists and their critics do seem to run exceedingly
deep. Bernard Williams, for example, tells us that: the point
is that somewhere... one reaches the necessity that such things
as deep attachments to other persons will express themselves in
the world in ways which cannot at the same time embody the impartial
view, and that they also run the risk of offending against it.
They run that risk if they exist at all;
yet unless such things exist there will not be enough substance
or conviction in a man's life to compel his allegiance to life
Life has to have substance if anything
is to have sense, including adherence to the impartial system;
but if it has substance, then it cannot grant supreme importance
to the impartial system and that system's hold on it will be,
at the limit, insecure.
For Williams, and famously, the demands
of an impartial system of morality are ones which can threaten
our ground projects, our deepest commitments to others, and, at
the limit, our motivation for carrying on with life itself.
On the one hand, then, the debate between impartialists and their
opponents is said to represent no more than a series of confusions
and misunderstandings which have very few (if any) interesting
philosophical implications. On the other hand, it is presented
as being of the utmost significance, for it is concerned with
the very terms on which we can find life worth living at all.
My aim in this essay is to show that
partial concerns are indeed the ones which give life substance
and make it worth living, but that those concerns can nonetheless
be reconciled with impartialism. In short, I aim to show that
although the differences between impartialists and their critics
run very deep, reconciliation is possible, and its possibility
lies in a form of impartialism which accords centrality to partial
However, before attempting the reconciliation,
it is important to be clear about what exactly is being reconciled
with what, and it is especially important to be clear about the
different forms impartialism takes in political and moral philosophy
Barry characterizes the battle between
defenders and critics of impartiality as one that runs through
both moral and political philosophy, but if it is a single battle,
it has different ramifications in the two contexts. In political
philosophy, it is closely analogous to the demand I associated
with the requirement to treat everyone equally by, for instance,
according them equal rights or granting them equal consideration
in the distribution of social and political benefits. As such,
impartialist theories stand in opposition to political theories
which would grant special rights to some groups on the basis of,
for instance, ethnicity, birth, gender, or status.
Now of course the requirement to give
everyone equal consideration does not rule out all inequalities
as illegitimate but, as Barry emphasizes, it does rule out unmediated
claims to advantage on those grounds. So impartialist political
theory is to be contrasted with theories which would give special
status to members of some groups simply because they are members
of that group and for no other reason.
As such, it may seem to be no more nor
less than the common sense of modern western democrats. But there's
the rub, for (notoriously) modern western democratic societies
do not consist entirely of modern western democrats. On the contrary,
they are multicultural, multiracial, and multi-religious societies
in which very different people must live together harmoniously.
Moreover, and problematically, not all
those who live within an impartialist political system will themselves
subscribe to the principle of equality which, it is said, underpins
impartialism, and the question which then arises is how (if at
all) can impartialism be commended to those people?
In political philosophy, therefore, the
task for impartialism is to show why those who are not themselves
impartialist might nonetheless accept an impartialist political
order, why they might accept it as genuinely just, and why they
might concede that it's demands take priority over the conflicting
values endorsed by their own comprehensive conception of the good.
I emphasize the demands imposed by two
requirements of impartialist political philosophy: the permanence
of pluralism and the priority of justice. I argue that these demands
require a careful response, for if impartialist political philosophy
is to show the priority of justice to be more than a modus vivendi
then, it must have a moral foundation.
However, if impartialist political philosophy
is to acknowledge the permanence of pluralism, then that moral
foundation cannot be one which implies acceptance of a specific
comprehensive conception of the good.
I take up the question of the moral priority
of impartialism and I note that priority is a vexed issue in political
contexts where not everyone can be assumed to endorse impartiality
as a value. Even where it is endorsed, a problem about priority
I recognize this as the normative problem.
It arises when partial commitments (commitments to particular
people or to projects of one's own) conflict with impartial considerations,
and it is expressed in the agent's self-directed question `why
should I act on the motivation to do what impartial morality dictates
rather than on the motivation to act partially?'
Since this question arises even for those
who accept the importance of impartial demands, it forces us to
consider the origins and extent of impartial Ism's motivational
power. My claim is that that motivational power derives from impartialism's
ability to accommodate the partial concerns we have for particular
Impartialism can command allegiance only
when it is seen as arising from, and therefore consonant with,
the partial concerns we have for things and people we care about
Moreover, if this is true for those who
accept the importance of impartiality, it may also be the best
way of commending impartiality to those who do not antecedently
acknowledge its force. I want to spell out this suggestion in
more detail and to show how our partial concerns for others might
provide a route into impartial morality, or a way of getting it
`off the ground'.
There are good reasons for thinking that
such a form of impartialism may also be commended as congruent
with the good of the agent him or herself. In defending congruence,
I ally myself with the position advanced by John Rawls in A
Theory of Justice. It should conform with what Aristotelians
hoped to attain in the good life, moral rhythms in the larger
universe where human nature belonged.
New-World ethics dispensed with all such
external sources of meaning. Having done so, it left us to work
through the ethical implications of denying all meaning to human
life external to human life itself, and yet to emerge with an
account of how there can be moral reasons for action.
Impartiality is a very significant attempt
to respond to this challenge. Impartialist moral philosophy aims
to show how we can have reason, indeed compelling reason, to be
moral in a world where life has no meaning beyond itself. Impartialist
political philosophy aims to show how we can have reason, indeed
compelling reason, to be just in a world where the very question
of life's meaning is deeply, and permanently, in dispute.
My suggestion is that, in such a world,
we must embrace impartialism in both moral and political philosophy,
but that we must embrace a form of' impartialism which takes seriously
the partial concerns we have for others. This, I believe, is our
best hope of showing why impartial considerations should have
priority, and it is also our best hope of affirming the premanence
of pluralism in good faith.
This is my attempt to explain exactly
how impartialism can command allegiance at the individual level,
and how it can provide a response to the fact of pluralism which
is more than a modus vivendi but less than the assertion
of a specific and contested, comprehensive conception of the good.
It is an argument to the effect that, in a
world where life has no meaning beyond itself, we can find both
meaning and morality in the partial concerns we have for particular
others. My aim is to explain the attractiveness of impartialist
philosophy and to show how its demands can be reconciled with
the partial concerns, anti-commitments, that give life substance.
In order to do that, however, I must
first say something about what impartialism is and what motivates
commitment to it. One powerful and recurrent theme in the literature
is that impartialism reflects a commitment to equality.
The requirement of impartiality can take
various, forms, but it usually involves treating or counting everyone
equally in soma respect--according them the same rights, or counting
their good or their welfare or some aspect of it the same in determining
what would be a desirably result or a permissible course of action.
Similarly, Brian Barry associates impartiality
with equality, arguing that the whole idea of justice as impartiality
rests upon a fundamental commitment to the equality of all human
This kind of equality is what is appealed
to by the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the
Citizen and by the American Declaration of Independence.
Only on this basis can we defend the claim that the interests
and viewpoints of everybody concerned must be accommodated.
John Rawls, too, understands impartiality
as requiring that we judge in accordance with principles without
bias or prejudice...choosing a conception of justice once and
for all in an original position of equality. Impartialist
political philosophy, then, is a way of spelling out, and indeed
living out, our belief in the fundamental equality of all human
However, this widespread agreement about
the centrality of impartiality. and about its grounding in equality,
is coupled with widespread disagreement about the best way of
realizing it. Famously, Rawls rejects the utilitarian suggestion
that impartiality is to be attained by taking each person to account
because, he says, such a procedure undermines the separateness
of persons and reduces impartiality to impersonality.
Crudely, his complaint is that utilitarianism,
so interpreted, can legitimize sacrificing some people in the
name of greater overall benefit. When this happens the losers
do not, in fact,count. One principle of utility asks is that...
we accept the greater advantages of others as sufficient reason
for lower expectations over the whole course of our life.
This is surely an extreme demand. In
fact, when society is conceived as a system of cooperation designed
to advance the good of its members, it seems quite incredible
that some should be expected, on the basis of political principles,
to accept lower prospects of life for the sake of others.
It is for a similar reason that Brian
Barry also rejects the so-called `impartial spectator'
interpretation of impartiality and, following Scanlon, urges instead
an interpretation which emphasizes reasonable agreement: `principles
of justice that satisfy the [reasonable agreement] condition are
impartial' he writes `because they capture a certain kind of equality:
all those affected have to be able to feel that they have done
as well as they could reasonably hope to.
For both Barry and Rawls, the best way
of understanding impartialist commitment to the equality of all
human beings is via the concept of reasonable agreement. Since
the losers in such an agreement recognize that they could not
reasonably have expected to do better under any alternative arrangement,
the principles of justice that are delivered can properly be said
to have taken everyone's interests into account, and thus to have
reflected the commitment to equality that lies at the heart of
Political impartialism, then, is informed
by a concern for and commitment to equality: some (for example,
some utilitarians) think that this commitment is best honoured
by taking each to count for one, and summing the overall benefit.
Others (notably contractarians) think that it is best honoured
by asking what it would be reasonable for people to agree to in
appropriate conditions. But whatever the best way of honouring
it, impartialist political philosophers seem to be agreed that
it is indeed the value of equality which underpins and explains
the attractiveness of impartiality.
Moreover, this same understanding of impartiality
as grounded in equality is also to be found in moral philosophy.
In a 1991 Ethics symposium on `Impartiality and Ethical Theory
' Barbara Herman traces the origins of impartialism in ethical
theory to `the fundamental moral equality of agents', and in his
book, Friendship, Altruism and Morality, Lawrence Blum
writes `the moral point of view involves impartiality regarding
the interests of all, including oneself. It involves abstracting
from one's own interests and one's particular attachments to others.
To be moral is to respect others as having equal value to oneself,
and as having an equal right to pursue their own interests'.
In both moral and political philosophy,
therefore, impartiality reflects a commitment to equality, even
though the way in which that commitment is to be made manifest
is a matter of dispute. But if impartialism generally is a way
of reflecting commitment to the equality of all human beings,
political impartialism is restricted in at least two, and arguably
three, significant ways.
First, it confines itself to questions
of justice, where justice is only one value amongst others (it
is only a part of' morality, not the whole of it). By confining
itself to questions of justice, political impartialism displays
a restriction in subject mutter. Necona, political impartialism
construes justice as being centrally concerned with the distribution
of benefits and burdens by the state. It is not, or not primarily,
concerned with the ways in which individuals behave towards one
another, but rather with the principles on which society as a
whole should operate. Political impartialism is therefore
restricted in scope.
Finally political impartialism focuses
on questions of justification, not on questions of motivation.
It is interested in the legitimacy of the principles adopted by
society, not with the question of what moves individuals to act
justly. So political impartialism is restricted in aim: it is
concerned with justification, not with motivation.
Or is it? It is here that controversy begins,
for although the restriction on aim is widespread in political
impartialism, it is by no means universal: some political philosophers
see their task as being simply to justify the principles which
should regulate the distribution of benefits and burdens in society,
but others believe that it is equally important for impartial
political philosophy to address the motivational question.
This difference is an important one for
my overall project because I want to suggest that questions of
justification cannot be kept separate from questions of motivation,
and I also want to claim that this fact has implications for the
possibility of defending political impartialism outside the context
of a defence of moral impartialism more generally.
Broadly speaking, I will argue that any
attempt to justify political impartialism necessarily raises motivational
questions, and those motivational questions are ones that ultimately
require us to defend political impartialism, within the wider
context of a defence of moral impartialism.
Therefore, I shall now suggest that political
impartialism cannot confine itself to justificatory questions,
but must also engage with questions of motivation.
Barry, B., (1995) 'Justice as Impartiality' ( Oxford, Oxford
Barry, B. (1995A)'John Rawls and the Search for Stability',
Becker, L., (1991) "Impartiality and Ethical Theory", Ethics,
101/104: pp 698-700.
Kant, I., (1964) "The Doctrine of Virtue: Part II of the Metaphysic
of Morals," ed.M. Gregor, (Univ of Penn.).
Scanlon, T.M., (1998) "WhatWe Owe to Each Other" (Cambridge,
Mass. Harvard Univesity Press.)
Twain, Mark, (1950) "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"
Note: This great new book"Impartiality in Moral and Political
Philosophy" is available on the shelf at Fresno State's
Henry Madden Library this week.
Ask for: Call No. JC 578 437 2002.
Tell the Librarian you read this review in the Bulldog Newspaper.]