Partiality: Morality with Humanity

At the core of morality as it is taught, there are two opposing ideas that are often in conflict and rarely in agreement. Those are whether decisions of ethics should be made partially or impartially. Partial moral thinking posits that once we have entered into a relationship, at least most, that relationship entails special duties. Special duties that we have to the person we are in a relationship with that we have to them because of that relationship, not because of an objective characteristic of the person. Impartial moral thinking posits that when making decisions of ethics, we are to treat everyone equally and count them, in an as of yet still absent calculator, as the same value. This is in an attempt to make ethics objective which I will share in this post has the result of making impartial approaches to morality and discussions of ethics cold and lacking of humanity.

I believe the rise of impartiality in morality was an attempt to make this school of thought appear objective through the use of logic as a foundation of reasoning. This however necessitated the abandonment of our emotional reasoning. We know however that a lot of good decisions, not all, but there are quite a few, that depend on our passions and emotional reasoning above cold logic. Indeed some of life biggest decisions lack logic and impartiality such as marriage, where to live, where to travel, and what your hobbies are through life. Not only do these decisions lack logic and impartiality, but if polled, it would be safe to assume many would not want logic or impartiality to play a role in these decisions. People’s decisions about marriage, where to live, travel, spend free-time, are made in a way that is correct through valid reasoning that is, however, partial at its core.

Special duties are not compelling merely because they fit so well with our intuitive reasoning, they are also universalizable. Often a rule to treat your close family above strangers, or fellow country men and women above those living on the other side of the world, can easily be made. Are there limits though to how much support and assistance we give under our special duties before supporting and coming to the aid of those who we do not share special duties towards? Professor Peter Singer via his Comparable Moral Significance Principle, chalks down the answer to the point where we are not sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, i.e. if nothing of importance is lost. Partialists can see immediately, again, what is of comparable moral significance i.e. scales of importance, is arguable and therefore not factual in some objective sense, and set on stone. From this line of thinking there seems to be at least some wedge in the idea that full radical equality when making decisions about moral correctness must be central.

Along with the value of passions and emotions in ethical decision making, we additionally should recognize finally, that the calculations entrenched in moral thought are subjective. These are not objective in the sense of a science despite this desire from philosophers. The cold calculating logic that was used in an attempt to offer credibility in the past centuries does not hold today as objective in a true sense. A sense akin to a science. It was the push to turn moral reasoning into a science that led to calculations that first questioned whether we should treat strangers equal to family, and those in far off lands, the same as a fellow citizen of Canada, for example.

Impartiality eliminates reasons for decisions that are very valid using an assumption that the value of equality is objectively a basic good. But is equality always the best thing? It does not always hold true that equality is a universal base good that is prima facia true. Let us take an example of four brothers.

There is a family raising four brothers, Dan, Ryan, James, and Matt. Each brother is only a year or two apart and are being raised in as identical a fashion as could reasonable be achieved. The same schools are attended, the same courses taught, and the same teachers used. After graduating from their undergraduate degrees Dan decides to go into finance, Ryan decides to purse a law degree, James becomes a photographer, and Matt becomes a teacher. Their salaries when they start their careers vary greatly. While Dan and Ryan, after graduating from law school, earn over $100,000 annually, James who has been following his passion earns no more than $45,000 from various contracts with clients and a project he is pursuing individually. Matt’s income is about $65,000 annually. Each of them are happy although some colleagues of theirs are not.

From the example just shared, we can expect for many different options in life being presented to each of the four boys. Some of them will have possibilities that money can provide them, that the others do not. Should there be government intervention to equal these options that are available to only some of the brothers and not all? For instance, James cannot afford a house and has to rent. Matt despite earning a good income and enjoying his chosen profession, struggles to pay for child care. Dan’s high pressure job causes him to have a mental breakdown at 45 at which time he will have to go on disability and start a new career. There are many possibilities here from the most equal of “playing fields”. The act of making a choice that necessitates a deviation of equality cannot be prevented. This is true of all decisions. Furthermore, even in a state of full equality, the freedom to decide and be unique implies unequal states of living overtime. Should there be a constant readjustment? Few I think would suggest that. The act of making good choices, or at a minimum the freedom to make choices and enjoy the outcomes, must absolutely be paramount. Those brothers who are “ahead” are so only in the present and not necessarily forever. They are in no way responsible for the others that are “behind”. Why can we not treat people differently based on the decisions they have made in life? Do we not already? Attempts to achieve a utopia of continual equality cannot exist without the components that enable it. Those components are seen by many today as that which would led a hypothetical utopia to be in fact a nightmarish dystopia.

The above thinking, is merely to show that equality is not a base good in some objective prima facia truth. Nothing of what was said implies that we should not eliminate systemic discrimination, barriers to employment, and equality of freedoms and rights. It is to support the idea, that under morality, impartial calculations that treat everyone as equal widgets in some calculation is not as sturdy a foundation of ethics as one might think This is despite many having rested in arguing for it as a base position of morality. What impartialists do not seem to understand is that impartial calculations as a base position for moral thinking, does not include our human nature and our humanity. When used in moral deliberation it can at times be fundamentally seen as boarding on psychopathy and a cold calculating logic that involves human lives in a way that lacks emotion.