Is Morality Subjective? – A Reply to Critics

3. Impartiality Principle Contradicts
Valuing Feelings


In discussions with some critics, these critics have latched on to my point that our moral laws and legal systems need to take into account our strong genetic predispositions, such as our feelings of affection for our own children and our fellow citizens. They object that I cannot have it both ways; that I cannot regard the notion of impartiality as central to ethics at the same time as elevating the importance of feelings in making moral deliberations. Justifying differential treatment of human beings, they argue, by appealing to human emotions and the minimization of suffering is just an ad hoc manoeuvre to avoid the difficulties of my position.


I think it a mistake to counterpoise the notion that impartiality is central to ethics with the view that ethics is primarily about human feelings. To be clear, I advocate a sophisticated emotivist position in meta-ethics. This position is a version of semi-cognitivism. Semi-cognitivism is a class of theories that hold that the central meaning of moral terms, such as 'good' and 'right', is their emotive meaning of expressing and commending the speaker's attitudes and preferences. In particular, the 'semi-cognitivist' aspect of this position allows for a variable descriptive component to moral terms. (I defend this position in my essay, A Defence of Emotivism [Allan 2015b]).

There is one cognitive component of moral judgements, however, for which I argue is not variable. And that is the requirement that the moral judgement is impartial. So, when a speaker says that 'Killing is wrong', for example, they may be classing killing as an act prohibited by God, as against our fundamental nature, as a cause of suffering, etc. What a particular speaker means descriptively will depend on the identity of the speaker. However, whoever the speaker may be, in making a moral judgement, they are implicitly accepting that the prohibition against killing was arrived at impartially.

Book cover: Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals by David Hume

This marrying of the recognized centrality of impartiality in ethics with the view that ethics is fundamentally about feelings (or, as I prefer to put it, attitudes) has a long tradition in moral philosophy. The synthesis of these two ideas can be traced back at least to one of the principal founders of empiricism, David Hume. This Enlightenment philosopher conjoined the two notions that moral judgements are fundamentally based on sentiment (personal feelings) while at the same time being formulated from a general point of view (objectivity). Hume [1739: book III, part III, §I, 1777: 228f], notably, is one of the principle forerunners of the Ideal Observer Theory in meta-ethics.

An allied objection is that the principle of impartiality clashes with the principle of reducing overall suffering. In fact, there is no contradiction involved in accepting both. Utilitarianism is what you get when you combine a consequentialist theory of obligation with a hedonistic theory of value. Peter Singer and R. M. Hare are two contemporary examples of philosophers who choose both. And they are at the end of a long line of utilitarian thinkers throughout history, including Henry Sidgwick, Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill. How are these two principles married from a utilitarian perspective? For a utilitarian, our obligation is to maximize happiness and minimize suffering impartially. That is, we are obliged to consider the interests of everyone equally, without fear or favour, when deciding how to maximize human welfare.

A conflict between the principle of impartiality and the principle of maximizing human welfare only arises if we accept the highly simplistic notion of impartiality assumed by critics. This naïve notion of impartiality requires us to treat everyone, everywhere, exactly the same. Consider, for a moment, how such a simplistic view of impartiality would work in practice. Applying the principle this way, each of us would encounter debilitating problems from the moment we woke up in the morning. When you give your partner or child your usual morning salutation, this ethic would require you to give a morning salutation to everyone else. Concurrently, it would require everyone else to give whatever salutation they give to everyone else as well. So, on normative grounds, I agree with my critics that applying the principle of impartiality in this form is manifestly overly burdensome and unworkable. Now, it's open to a moral theorist to argue on the basis of this simple, single-level interpretation of the principle. However, nobody I know or have read has seriously advocated that everyone should treat everyone else exactly the same.

Classical and modern utilitarians do not treat the notion of impartiality (and also John Rawls, for that matter) in the way naïve commentators would want. For each of these thinkers, the existence of specific social roles (e.g. parent, citizen), each with their own set of special rights and responsibilities, is a consequence of applying their highest-level principle of impartiality in conjunction with a maximizing principle. The important point here is that the principle of impartiality is applied at multiple levels.

At the highest level, the principle helps define specific social roles and responsibilities. The two principles in conjunction warrant only those roles and responsibilities that provide extensive social utility. (Rawls does it somewhat differently, but the result is almost the same.) At this level, groups of individuals ask what roles and responsibilities should be set up that will provide optimum utility. The requirement for impartiality demands that the defining of each role is made without regard to the identity of specific individuals and interest groups. Examples of these specially defined social roles include that of law court judge and teacher.

At the next level down, the principle of impartiality helps to determine how the rights and obligations of an individual role-bearer are to be exercised. For example, in requiring a judge to act impartially, the body politic requires them to decide sentences without consideration of the specific identity of the accused. Similarly, with teachers, their role requires them to award grades without consideration of the identity of the student. So, the two principles combined warrant roles with specific responsibilities at the social level and warrant particular acts at the level of a specific role-bearer.

Book cover: A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

Roles with a social imprimatur also have a defined scope that limits the proper exercise of power. Part of the scope of a role defines to whom the role-bearer is responsible in the exercise of their duties. So, for example, law court judges are prescribed to only have primary authority over the accused brought before their court. Similarly, the primary responsibility of teachers is limited to children assigned to their class. The scope of a particular role is cast in a way that maximizes the public good from an impartial perspective without causing confusion and diffusion of resources.

With this explanation of how the principle of impartiality works at both the societal level and the level of an individual, I think we can better assess the critics' charge that my appeal to considerations of human welfare is an ad hoc attempt to salvage the principle of impartiality. With this in mind, consider the previous scenario in which a parent is forced to decide between saving their own child from drowning and saving someone else's child. Labouring under the overly simplistic reading of the principle of impartiality, the critic complains that this principle would have us reprimand the parent for wanting to save their own child first.

The foregoing considerations show that this condemnation of the parent is akin to reprimanding a judge, on the one hand, for not trying cases that are assigned to a different judge and a teacher, on the other, for not teaching children enrolled with a different teacher on the grounds that the judge and the teacher did not act impartially. When the judge and the teacher try to justify this differential treatment by appealing to their special responsibilities incumbent to their role, the critic simply dismisses their protestations as feeble ad hoc excuses.

This narrowing of the scope of special social roles for reasons of impartial optimization of value applies not only to parents favouring their own children, but also to citizens assisting their fellow citizens, elected officials looking after their own constituency, lawyers siding with their clients, and so on. The special responsibilities entrusted to these roles are warranted at the level of the social application of the principle of impartiality and the principle of maximizing utility. The complex question of how social roles should be defined, established and maintained is a normative one and is of a different kind to that which I am discussing here. However, in considering the relationship between the principle of impartiality and the principle of maximizing utility, it pays to have a more nuanced view of how the principle of impartiality operates at various levels.

Copyright © 2016, 2020

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