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February 20, 2003
Impartiality
In Moral and Political Philosophy
Susan Mendus, Oxford University

"It is mostly true...with some stretches, as I said before."
                                                   Huckleberry Finn

(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 1999).
    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 itself.
     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 concerns.
    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 respectively.
     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 may persist.
    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 others.
     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 or love.
     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 beings.
     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 beings.
    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 impartialism.
    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.

_________________________________________

Further readings:

Barry, B., (1995) 'Justice as Impartiality' ( Oxford, Oxford Univ. Press).
Barry, B. (1995A)'John Rawls and the Search for Stability', Ethics 105/4:874-925
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" (London :Dent)

[Editor's 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.]

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