Is Morality a Matter of Taste?

6. Impartiality in Moral Philosophy

Book cover: A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume

I want to talk now about this idea of 'impartiality' as it has appeared throughout the history of moral philosophy. This is not a new idea. There is a strong philosophical tradition in incorporating this notion of impartiality as essential to the nature of ethics. Here are five prominent examples:

  1. David Hume's (1711–76) Ideal Observer — For Hume, when we make moral judgments, we are trying to stand in the shoes of a dispassionate observer, without regard for self and our particular social group. Even though our judgments are fundamentally based on sentiment (that is, personal feelings), they are formulated from what he called a 'general' point of view.
    [David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature: book III, part III, §I; Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals: 228f]
    Henry Sidgwick, writing some 100 years later, called this the 'point of view of the universe'.
  2. Immanuel Kant's (1724–1804) Categorical Imperative — Kant tried to capture this idea of universality in his categorical imperative. This was his notion that a moral rule necessarily must be such that it is willed for all; that it be universally applied.
    [Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals]
  3. Richard Hare's (1919–2002) Prescriptivism — Hare built into his theory of universal Prescriptivism the idea that moral judgments are prescriptions that we want to apply to everyone.
    [Richard Hare, The Language of Morals]
  4. Henry Sidgwick's (1838–1900) Utilitarianism — Sidgwick and other prominent Utilitarians, such as and John Stuart Milll (1806–73), encapsulated moral objectivity with their 'principle of impartiality'. This famous principle is translated as the requirement for the equal consideration of all interests.
    [Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics; John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism]
  5. John Rawls' (1921–2002) Social Contract — Refining the work of earlier social constructivists, such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rawls put the requirement for 'impartiality' at the centre of his view of the social contract. For Rawls, our moral norms are rules agreed upon by actors communicating behind a veil of ignorance about one's wealth, gender, nationality, etc. [John Rawls, A Theory of Justice]

The significance and influence of these five giants in moral philosophy should not be underestimated. They demonstrate the pre-eminence of this concept of impartiality in the thinking of the seminal philosophers of the Enlightenment through to the modern era.

Copyright © 2017

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