Is Morality Subjective? – A Reply to Critics

2. Acting Morally Sometimes Requires
Acting Preferentially


Critics expressing this objection proffer counterexamples showing cases in which basic moral principles do not always align with the requirements for acting impartially. I will repeat here the two most common counterexamples offered. The first counterexample focuses on filial affection; the preference we have as parents for the well-being of our own children. If two children were drowning, the objection states, no-one would seriously consider it immoral for a parent to try and save their own child first, even if the chances of saving the other child were slightly higher. Some critics make the more general point that it is morally acceptable, even morally obligatory, for a parent to care for their own child more than for some unknown and randomly selected child of another parent.

The second counterexample draws on our preference for national and local loyalties. Many countries, the objection runs, have developed social welfare systems to provide a cushion for their citizens in times of sickness, unemployment and other such times of stress. However, these welfare systems are not tasked with aiding the citizens of other countries who are in need of similar assistance. The citizens of each country have a preference for aiding their own citizens, and we readily accept this bias as morally benign.


I will begin by making the important point that the requirement for impartiality in ethical reasoning is a very general and necessarily imprecise requirement. My argument for objectivity in ethics is a meta-ethical argument. Normative theories fill in the detail about how impartiality is cashed out in practical terms.

That being said, some normative systems do require the abolition of filial preference. Shared child-rearing, for example, was practiced in some communes in the United States in the 1960s and '70s. These child-rearing practices turned out to be failures and, perhaps, mostly for the reason that filial bonds are so deeply ingrained in us genetically. So, on normative grounds, I agree with the critics that filial preference, at least to a large extent, needs to be accommodated and even encouraged within our social norms.

Book cover: The Expanding Circle by Peter Singer

The lesson here is that to be effective, our social norms need to take account of our genetic makeup and our inbuilt dispositions. Filial preference serves a highly useful social function in that if parents are largely held responsible for the welfare and upbringing of their own children, this leaves enough shared resources for use in other high-impact communal institutions that serve social utility. Such social norms can even leverage off the already strong feelings parents have for their own children.

Normative systems that rely the most heavily on the notion of impartiality build in this moral preference for aiding our own children. Peter Singer [2011] does so with his preference utilitarianism using the kind of evolutionary argument I referred to above: kin altruism is ingrained in our genes, and so for social norms to push against this tide of heredity would create more social harm than benefit. R. M. Hare [1972] allows for filial affection in that saving one's own children is what people would make as a universal rule that applies impartially to all parents. For J. Rawls [1972], the special responsibilities of family members towards each other are an essential part of the institution of the family; a bedrock institution required for any stable society.

What these three examples from leading moral thinkers show is that social norms and moral rules are not particularized to each individual. Saving one's own child from drowning in preference to saving another's child is morally permissible as our moral rules allow filial preference at the level of these wider social norms and laws. We tolerate a parent who saves their child while allowing another to drown not because he is John and has a daughter called Mary. We accept this choice because having a social norm and laws that allow parents to preferentially save their children has greater social utility than having norms and laws that prohibit it. It's how the requirement for impartiality is applied at the wider social level that counts.

Consider the inverse situation. Imagine if parent, John, were to argue that it's morally right for him to save his daughter, Mary, while allowing another child to drown because, and only because, Mary is his daughter. Singer's, Hare's and Rawls' application of the requirement of impartiality would bar John's reason as a morally relevant reason. Singer, Hare and Rawls frame impartiality differently, but they all do it in a way that excludes preferential treatment just because you are so-and-so or belong to so-and-so group. This parallels closely my notion that impartiality in ethics is the antithesis of selfishness and parochialism.

Let me state in more formal language how John saving his child, Mary, from drowning at the expense of allowing another person's child to drown satisfies the requirement for impartiality in the above kinds of normative systems.

Firstly, consider a prudential or expedient defence of John's action:

  1. It is permissible for John to save his child, Mary, from drowning at the expense of another person's child in situations where it is not possible for John to save both because John is the father of Mary.

Consider next a moral defence of John's action:

  1. For every parent, it is permissible for that parent to save their child from drowning at the expense of another person's child in situations where it is not possible to save both because instituting this rule creates less suffering than instituting the opposite rule.[1]

Note how the second defence makes no mention of John or Mary or any other person in particular and so satisfies the weak requirement of impartiality. Accordingly, this defence is counted as a moral defence of his action (although not necessarily the best one).

Book cover: The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs

I'll now address the second counterexample to the requirement for impartiality. This counterexample cites the fact that the social welfare systems of many nations are not mandated with aiding citizens of other countries. Firstly, I do not accept the premise of the argument; that citizens only look after their own. Most, if not all, developed nations devote a part of their GDP to foreign aid for developing countries. Also, there are a number of major international initiatives funded through the United Nations that specifically help underdeveloped regions. WHO, UNICEF, UNRWA and UNHCR are perhaps the major ones. The international community have just completed the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals for 2015 with great success and have now, moving forward, committed to a new set of goals; the Sustainable Development Goals. Even poor countries chip in when a developed nation experiences a major disaster. In addition, there are the many private international charities to which citizens contribute as individuals that I have not mentioned.

That said, it is true that each country focuses predominantly on the welfare of its own citizens—although the level of parochialism has reduced significantly since the end of the Second World War. However, as with filial preference discussed above, this national preferentialism is accommodated, and even encouraged, by normative theories based on impartiality. Modern nation states are accorded by international covenants sovereignty over its citizens and special responsibility for their welfare, just as parents are granted rights over and responsibilities for their own children.

If each nation state was held equally responsible for the welfare of the citizens of all other nation states, important resources would be diverted away from national institutions that more efficiently satisfy local needs. Covenants that focus nations on the welfare of their own citizens first and foremost also tap into the natural sense of belongingness and loyalty citizens have for their own state. As with filial preference, authors of normative systems based on impartiality (e.g. Singer, Hare and Rawls) account naturally for this preferential treatment for a nation state's own citizens.

I think these two cases of preference for one's children and for one's fellow citizens illustrate an important point about the impartiality thesis. And that is that the requirement for impartiality in moral reasoning is not necessarily about treating everyone equally in all respects. How the requirement for impartiality cashes out in practical moral deliberation is a normative question. In fact, on the normative theories referred to above, the application of the principle of impartiality requires the opposite of treating everyone the same in some circumstances. I will have more to say on this later.


  1. [1] Depending on the normative ethic defended, the term 'suffering' can be replaced with the term 'preference dissatisfaction', 'unhappiness', 'personal constraints', or some other type of disvalue.

Copyright © 2016, 2020

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