In moral philosophy to be an impartialist means you believe that people should be treated fairly and equally without bias or prejudice. You would be inclined to believe that we should treat people this way in all situations. This is very appealing since it speaks to our desire for justice and fairness. The impartialist understands that his or her own concerns, desires and goals do not matter more than anyone’s, no one is more important. The impartialist recognizes that the only world that is going to work well for any of us would be a just and a fair one. (This is very interesting, thank you)
On the other hand you have partialist. The partialist realizes something else as well. For us to have healthy human relationships we should treat certain individuals in our lives in ways that are special. Your friends, family, romantic partners or people of greater intimacy to you deserve a unique, customized and special treatment, doesn’t seem like these relationships would flourish without this type of treatment. This is what it means to be human. Denying our instinct for partiality undermines our humanity. Therefore, it follows, you cannot treat anyone impartially always, because some relationships will lose their vigor and health; on the other hand, you can’t always be partial as that will undermine social justice and hurt society. These worries are mentioned and assessed by philophers Michael Stocker in his paper Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories and Peter Railton in his paper Consequentialism. And Demand of Morality. They appreciated there was a split between two, a type of conflict that can’t be easily reconciled and on both ends something of value was at stake.
So which is more important than the other, impartiality or partiality? The moment we realize that our concerns, desires and goals are ours and we have a special access to them (in a sense you can taste them and feel them) and we appreciate their importance we can be able to understand impartiality, but without this partiality and self-concern nothing would carry much value from the impartial standpoint. In simple words, if a person fails to see how their life is significant, whether to themselves or the world, they can never appreciate the significance of other people’s lives. If we saw no significance in our existence or life as an individual what would make us think that other people’s lives are significant at all? Therefore, we are partialist before we can be impartialists. Once we realize that we are part of a society it seems the best way to approach the world, in order for our needs and other people’s needs to be met, would be in a way that promotes fairness and actually gives everyone a fair chance; impartiality is the means of nourishing a society that can aid those partial values by providing everyone with a fair chance. In treating fellow human beings impartiality we are honoring and appreciating the fact that we are not only equal and the same species but we each have ends that are dear to us and my duty is to try not to hinder those,to the best of my ability and knowledge, because they matter as much as mine (assuming they are permissible ends). In this view, we expect people to be partial towards themselves as long as it never hinders anyone’s interests, or makes an exception of ourselves, because impartiality matters to everyone, even the partialist. So both impartiality and partiality are important.
Now, imagine that two people are drowning in a lake, your significant other and a stranger. Which one are you morally obliged to save? It seems understandable that you would save your wife. The impartialist would say that is unfair, both the stranger and the wife deserve an equal chance. You shouldn’t just save your wife because she is your wife. That would be as bad as hiring someone because they are related to you instead of someone deserving. So you should save someone more deserving or be just. The partialist will retort by saying, you should save your wife because she is your wife. You don’t need any other reason, whether you save her or not should be a matter of human intimacy nothing more. I’m sure you wouldn’t want your husband saving you because you were deserving, it seems that being his wife is reason enough. Both views make sense, I guess the problem is how can we reconcile the two opposing views. So, when is it appropriate to be partial or impartial and why is that so? Who should you really save?
When we grow intimate with certain people what develops is a web of feelings of attachment, empathy/sympathy and being of a certain form or belonging (team, partners etc.). For some reason our friend’s sorrows are our sorrows, their concerns become our concerns and their happiness becomes our happiness; it is as if you have become one entity made of two parts or more and certain pronouns in the English language carry this sentiment. Relationships can be conceptualized as an expansion of the self, since we have already established that individuals can treat themselves partially (in a special way) then it follows, if relationships are the expansion of the self, that those close to us deserve partial (special) treatment, not doing so will not only break the health of the relationship but will affect how the entity created approaches the world. It makes sense that a person close to you, once you have special access to their concerns, values, goals and desires, that you would catch a glimpse of their unique and individual nature (character) and responding partially is responding to their irreplaceable value and demonstrating that they have a place in you.
So what is the right thing to do when your wife and a stranger drowns? The right thing to do is to save your wife. In this view your wife is part of you, so her drowning is the equivalent of you drowning and you rescuing her is the equivalent of saving yourself. The argument of oneness with another only works when you are genuinely close and connected with someone. In other cases, it wouldn’t work, therefore impartialist would win. The answer of when to be impartial or not is simply, be impartial unless you are at stake, your humanity is at stake.
Sadly, this answer isn’t as neat as it appears, although something about it rings true. It gives rise to what can be called “justified nepotism”. If my worries and concerns are my significant others’, and her worries and concerns are also mine, making her a part of me then whoever she cares about the same is also a part of me and whoever that persons cares about is also a part of me and so on. Although that can go on forever it is not the main worry here. The worry is if I am in a position of power. Say the economy is in recession and I am in a position to get a job for my wife over someone more deserving, I could do that. The reason is she is me and like a drowning man I am rescuing myself, you can’t judge me for not being able to save another person if my only option was me or another person. Well, if my wife is connected to her cousin the same way it follows that her cousin is also as much me as she is and I will have to save her cousin too until I have filled up all vacancies with people who are related to me in some way but aren’t deserving. Obviously this isn’t right, it is not fair or just. So where does this leave us?
Well its either we come up with a criteria of refining the extension of the self idea, we abandon one position for another or simply search for another alternative. I personally will be spending a lot of time trying to figure this out. Maybe, our humanity and the self has to be sacrificed for a perfectly just society, and that would be fine if people didn’t feel being human is what makes a just society worthwhile to begin with. What good is a society that is just but doesn’t let us be human? What good is a society where you can be as human as you would like but there is no justice or fairness? Clearly both of them aren’t very desirable positions. We in our daily lives, try to balance this well and that is why we have laws and legal systems, taxes etc. I hope we find the perfect balance and answer to the impartialist and partialist conflict, one that doesn’t raise as many problems as it tries to solve.
Essay taken from Plug Your Ears or Tape My Mouth.
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It was difficult deciding what to publish this week, I have some exciting new stuff that I was excited to share, I still am excited to share that stuff, but I think I have to mature my thoughts on those matters a little bit, maybe in my next Eccentric Blogger book. Love you all.