The Impartialist vs the Partialist

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.



18 thoughts on “The Impartialist vs the Partialist

  1. this is a dilemma which is difficult to solve if we operate only on the level of the mind. The mind will never find an answer because it will have all those pro and against and try to balance between.
    So what if we leave the mind and follow intuition/feeling? What if there is no one rule for every situation but just one particular answer for every particular situation? The mind cannot answer question like “what to do?” because it bases its decision only on the facts known from the past.
    Intuition however is a sort of connection to the wholeness, it “understands” the synchronicity of the situation and can give us an answer which is good in that particular situation.
    So this is my proposal 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What the moral philosopher tries to do is understand that intuition. I think it is an interesting challenge, difficult but interesting. Plus how stable is intuition alone as a basis of our entire moral life?


  2. I think it’s quite impossible to understand intuition because to “understand” it you go again to the level of the mind. It’s like trying to understand why my heart feels this or that. To me it’s another level of existance.
    And as to the moral life – human morality is based on human rules (settled by the minds), what about all those situations people feel that following the rules they do wrong? It happens, often. How many times we do sth because we were told that this is good to do while our heart says sth else?
    If you belive that there is an order beyond the comprehension of the mind and intuition is the key then it is the only stable key we have

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    1. I think reason/mind is very malleable, so much so it can comprehend and be about almost everything. It is the mind that conceptualizes intuition but not intuition itself. For me intuition is one of the senses not a thing in its own right.

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  3. What I wanted to say about the mind is that it cannot give you answers about the future (like what to do). It can comprehend a lot but it always bases its vision on facts known to itself (so quite limited reality). however intuition is not based on facts but on sth not known to the mind🙂 it’s kind of sixth sense. But our discussion is based on our experiences so of course we have different opinions🙂 Or maybe they are not so different, we just use different words

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    1. I am considering to think about this more. If Intuition is an organ on its own like the Mind, how can we speak about it or build a vocabulary strong enough to talk about it, a language of intuition so to speak, clearer. As it is intuition is quite vague and indeterminate to even speak with or about.

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  4. I’m glad you are🙂
    well you see, we, as humans, have a tendency to define things because seeing or understanding something gives us a sort of certainty. But this is because we are taught to believe more in our rational capacities than our feelings. The mind is the king and decides almost everything. We are operating mostly on the mental level.
    But… we are not only mental-physical beings, there is equally strong level of existence called emotional and spiritual (and by spiritual I understand just the fact that we have soul – admitting that we have soul makes us spiritual already)
    So if you assume that you have soul do you have a need to define it? Does it have to be defined? Can it be physical too?
    And what if intuition is the voice of your soul? How can it be defined then?
    We all have intuition, it’s just that it’s often suppressed by thinking.
    Apparently till the age of 6 we all have “paranormal” abilities and then slowly they disappear under the influence of ratio.
    I don’t know if this can help to clarify what I mean by intuition. I just know that usually people ask those questions because they don’t know how to “eat” it/ use it/ feel it and then of course the question “how I can rely on sth that I don’t know what it is?” arrives.
    I tried to explain to some of my clients what is intuition but I didn’t manage yet. Maybe I should go deeper in this topic, it seems that there is a global need for it. 😊
    I’m glad you ask me those questions – my intuition tells me that it’s not random 😃👍

    Liked by 1 person

            1. I see. I’m gong to take some time to think about all you have said here. I’m a bit of a slow digester and I like taking time before I have any leanings. I’m going to look into intuition and its relationship with the mind or consciousness before I respond properly.
              On a personal note, wanted to be therapist once then I saw a therapist and I started thinking I couldn’t be as good, plus I’m a bit unstable.

              Liked by 1 person

  5. I just found an interesting quote of Albert Einstein: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Definitely an intricate opposition. I would be inclined to think that one’s position could change as they grow, learn and become who they will therefore I believe it’s possible to exist as both.


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