Morality and Partiality
Wolf (Susan)
Source: Philosophical Perspectives 6, 1992, pp. 243-259
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. The great moral theories that have dominated moral philosophy for at least the last forty years have taken impartiality to be a core defining feature of morality. That is, they have identified morality with the idea of acting from a position that acknowledges and appreciates the fact that all persons (or even, on some views, all sentient beings) are in an important sense equal, and that, correspondingly, all are equally entitled to fundamental conditions of well-being and respect. Recently, however, many have called attention to the fact that relationships of friendship and love seem to call for the very opposite of an impartial perspective. Since such relationships unquestionably rank among the greatest goods of life, a conception of morality that is in tension with their maintenance and promotion is unacceptable.
  2. Thus a debate has arisen between, as we may call them, the impartialists and the partialists. In defense of their position, the impartialists note that someone's being your friend or relative does not make her more morally deserving than anyone else, and they point to the grave moral dangers of moving that acknowledgment from the center of moral thought. Rather than allow our personal affections to compromise our commitments to justice and equality, they argue, we must shape our ideals of friendship and love to fit the demands of impartial morality. The partialists reply that this denigrates the value of special relationships to friends and loved ones, at best according them the status of acceptable extracurricular activities and at worst regarding them as a consequence of human nature to be warily tolerated.
  3. For my own part, I am quite sympathetic to the partialists' concerns. But I think that they locate the problem in the wrong theoretical place. The problem is not that impartiality is too closely or centrally identified with morality, but that morality as a whole is being expected to do too much. I shall, then, defend a conception of morality that, in the context of the debate sketched above, might be labelled a moderate impartialism. But at least as important as its location within the impartialist-partialist debate is its self-conscious acknowledgement of the limitations of that debate, and indeed of the limitations of morality itself in settling some of the most important questions of our lives.

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