impartiality

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.

Fellow-Citizens, Foreigners, and Statistical Lives

Like many in the UK, I was gripped last week by the reports from Wales about the search for four trapped miners, and saddened to hear of their deaths. Readers outside the UK perhaps heard nothing, or very little, about this story, thought it dominated the news here. One important reason for that, of course, is that most of us care much more about fellow-citizens than foreigners, and about identifiable people than merely ‘statistical lives’. 

That we care is a mere fact. But since the days of David Hume many philosophers have claimed that we can take moral sentiments of this kind as the foundation for our ethics, and indeed that such sentiments can be the only such foundation. So our attitudes might justify our spending much more on saving the lives of identifiable fellow citizens rather than those of foreigners or unidentified people in the future.

Imagine some group of beings like us, except that these beings cared much more about people born on Tuesdays than those born on other days. (Their so caring is a brute fact, and does not rest on, say, any religious or superstitious assumptions about Tuesdays.) Even sentimentalists about ethics will probably wish to claim that there is something dubious about this differential attitude. But that raises the question whether we should say the same about a preference for identifiable fellow-citizens.

 The property of being an identifiable fellow-citizen is not clearly morally irrelevant in the way that being born on Tuesday is. Indeed, it seems similar in important ways to the property of being one’s child, and most of us think that this is a property of great moral relevance when we are deciding how to spend our scarce resources. But there is of course one big dissimilarity: in most cases, a parent has deep personal relations with a child, and these could be taken to ground a parent’s giving greater weight to the interests of her child over those of others. The fact that such a relationship is lacking in the case of identifiable fellow-citizens suggests that the property of being an identifiable fellow-citizen may well be morally as irrelevant as that of being born on a Tuesday.

 Should we, then, try to avoid our bias towards identifiable fellow-citizens? In the utilitarian tradition, some radical thinkers have occasionally argued that we should seek complete impartiality, not giving priority even to the interests of our own children over the interests of others. It has plausibly been said in response that, though from the utilitarian point of view the priority we do give is almost certainly far too great, trying to be completely impartial – given our psychology, evolutionary history, and so on – would be quite likely to be self-defeating.

 I think a similar argument can be mounted in defence of the special concern we have for  identifiable fellow-citizens. So is everything all right as it is? Far from it. What we must do is build upon that care and concern and, as Peter Singer puts it, ‘extend the circle’ to include foreigners and statistical lives. We do not have to choose (other than in bizarre philosophical examples) between saving people from mines and spending more on helping foreigners or saving statistical lives. We can, and should, do all of these things.

 

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