Partiality, Ethical Theory, and Christmas

                                                                                                                                                                                  Written by Roger Crisp

Over recent decades, a lively debate has arisen in ethical theory over whether so-called ‘impartial’ views, such as utilitarianism, are inconsistent with the view that we have reasons, or even moral obligations, of partiality. Consider someone converted to utilitarianism who decided against a life-saving operation for their own child because the money could do more good if used to help strangers.

The standard utilitarian response has been that relationships involving partiality – relationships of love, friendship, and so on – not only produce a lot of good or well-being for those involved, but also, because of the kind of beings we are, motivate us to help others when otherwise we wouldn’t. This seems a reasonable defence, at least to some extent, though the question remains just how partial we should be.

Consider Christmas. Deloitte estimate that in 2016 US citizens spent $1 trillion during the Christmas period, much of which will have been on gifts and hospitality for family, friends, and colleagues. If we accept Jeffrey Sachs’s  claim that to end extreme world poverty in twenty years would cost around $175 billion p.a. (The End of Poverty: How We Can Make it Happen in our Lifetime (New York: Penguin, 2005)), then it seems that Americans would need to channel less than one fifth of their current spending over Christmas into overseas development to bring to an end the terrible injustice and suffering caused by extreme world poverty. And of course if the rest of us in the developed world did the same, the amount required from each of us would be even smaller.

There is still a difference between utilitarians and those who believe in non-derivative obligations of partiality, of course. Utilitarians think I should look after my children because the world will go better if I do; partialists believe I just should. But, given the current state of the world, relatively little of practical importance hangs on this debate. No plausible version of partialism could allow the huge disparities that exist between the amount spent in the developed world within partial relationships and that spent on alleviating suffering and injustice in the world as a whole. That is something all of us, whether impartialist or partialist, might do well to remember when Christmas comes round again.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit

One Response to Partiality, Ethical Theory, and Christmas

  • Dave Frame says:

    I find this weird. US citizens aren’t a single moral agent with duties to alleviate poverty through Sachs’ recipe. They’re individuals making choices. Americans actually give vast amounts philanthropically (not just at Christmas…), and the comparison you make neglects this. Plus they give to others through their taxes. They give about $50 through USAID, and you can argue with – but you cannot reasonably neglect – the global and regional public goods purchased through their military aid.

    So to pick on, in isolation, the sum of their individual expenditures at Christmas is to present a highly incomplete moral picture. You could say the same things about other countries during their festive seasons, but I bet you won’t!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use the <em>, <strong> and <blockquote> tags. Links have been disabled to combat spam.

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.


Subscribe Via Email