Author: Shane Gronholz
Category: Ethics
Word Count: 1000

It’s natural to think that when it comes to morality, we should be impartial. And yet almost everyone thinks it is appropriate to treat certain people, like those who are near and dear to them, in a special sort of way. For example, while having food and clothing is clearly a good, it seems that I have a special obligation to my own children over the children of strangers to make sure that they have food and clothing. So we have two moral claims:

Impartiality: When it comes to morality, we should be impartial.

Partiality: It is appropriate to treat certain people in a special sort of way.

There seems to be some tension between these two thoughts. To avoid it, we must either (1) reject the claim that we must be impartial, or (2) reject the claim that it is OK to be partial to certain people, or (3) come to understand impartiality in a different way.

Dictionary definition of the word 'impartiality.'
Dictionary definition of the word ‘impartiality.’

1. Why We Should Be Impartial

Why think that we must be impartial and treat everybody alike? First, there is something intuitively appealing about the thought that morality requires us to be “as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.”1 One might even say that the moral point of view just is the impartial point of view. After all, isn’t the point of ethics to step back and try to discover moral principles that apply to everyone? To say that someone acted impartially is often meant to imply that she acted rightly.

Another reason to think we must be impartial is that it is arbitrary to act otherwise.2 Ask yourself: What is wrong with racism? Well, racists treat people differently on the basis of a feature that is totally morally irrelevant. White people, for example, are no more morally valuable than black people, so there is no good reason to treat those in one group any differently than those of another group. People who are partial to their friends and family, one might argue, make the same mistake. Why should it matter that Chelsea happens to be my friend? Does that make her more morally valuable than some stranger? Obviously not, so it’s hard to see what reason I have to treat her better than I treat strangers.3

2. Why We Should Be Partial

But there seems to be a problem with the impartiality view. Could it be wrong to have friends or to treat my family members better than I treat strangers? Do I have just as much reason to make sure every child is provided for as I do my own children? A view with these implications would be hard to swallow, so we might do better to go with option 1 and accept that partiality is morally permissible or even obligatory. For example, consider a parent who focuses the vast majority of his efforts providing the most basic requirements like food, water, and clothing for needy children, but not providing anything more than the basic requirements for his own children. This is not a good parent, and, plausibly, this parent behaves wrongly by treating all children the same.

Or consider a person who treats her friends no better than she treats strangers. She sacrifices the interests of her friends whenever she realizes she can do slightly more good by doing so. Developing and maintaining friendships, after all, requires time, energy, and money that could be better spent doing other things. Suppose Annaleigh’s friend Kelly has just gone through a bad breakup and is very upset. The friendly thing for Annaleigh to do might be to go to Kelly’s house, make her dinner, and give her a shoulder to cry on. But now it occurs to Annaleigh that she could help more people by volunteering at the soup kitchen that night, so she does that instead.

Annaleigh isn’t being a good friend, and, plausibly, if she’s willing to neglect her friends at the drop of a hat, she isn’t a friend at all. Some have argued that to be a friend is necessarily to treat one’s friends in a special sort of way.4 If it is morally permissible to have friends, for example, then it must also be permissible to be partial, since friendship requires partiality.5 Considerations like these have led some to argue that contemporary western moral theories, which tend to be abstract and impartial, are inadequate and require significant revision.6

3. Alternative Ways to Understand Impartiality

Finally, let’s consider option 3. So far, I have been assuming that to be impartial is to treat everyone the same, but that isn’t the only way to understand the term impartial.7 One alternative is Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which states that one should only act according to rules that she could will that everyone follow. It can be hard to know what rules those would be, but it’s not unreasonable to think that one could will that everyone follow a rule that says, “In some cases, I should treat my friends better than I treat strangers.” This is an impartial moral rule in the sense that everyone is allowed to follow it and the person who followed such a rule would approve of anyone else following it.

Another solution, which is similar in some ways, is T.M. Scanlon’s contractualism. According to Scanlon, we should treat people “only in ways that would be allowed by principles they could not reasonably reject” (106). Since most of us think that friends and family are extremely important, it’s plausible to think that one could not reasonably reject a principle that entailed that it is OK for me to treat my friends and family better than I treat strangers. A reasonable person might accept that I chose to invest in a college fund for my child, because she is my child, even if I could have used that money to provide some more basic need for his children. But it could be much harder to explain to a very poor person why I chose to go on a tropical vacation with my family when I could have saved his children from disease, starvation, and death.


1 Mill (1863)

2 See Bentham (1781) and Rachels (2012). Strictly speaking, it is not partiality to which Rachels compares racism, but ethical egoism, but the same line of reasoning can be applied to both.

3 See Cottingham (1986) for replies to this style of argument.

4 Jollimore (2002), Stocker (1976)

5 Several philosophers have attempted to reply to these concerns. See Railton (1988). See Jollimore (2002) for responses to Railton’s arguments.

6 See Gilligan (1993), Jagger (2001), Noddings (1984), Stocker (1976), Williams (1982), Wolf (1992).

7 See, for example, Hooker (2010), Jollimore (2014).


Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

Coghlan, Peter. “The Prodigal and his Brother: Impartiality and the Equal Consideration of Interests.” Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 26 no. 3 (2005): 195-206.

Cottingham, John. “Partiality, Favouritism, and Morality.” The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol 36, No. 144 (1986). 357-373.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Hooker, Brad. “When Is Impartiality Morally Appropriate?” in Partiality and Impartiality: Morality, Special Relationships, and the Wider World, edited by Brian Feltham and John Cottingham, 98-130. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Jagger, Alison. “Feminist Ethics,” in Encyclopedia of Ethics, edited by Lawrence C. Becker and Charlotte B. Becker, 528-539. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Jeske, Diane, “Special Obligations”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/special-obligations/>.

Jollimore, Troy. “Friendship Without Partiality?” Ratio 13 no. 1 (2002): 69-82.

Jollimore, Troy, “Impartiality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/impartiality/>.

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. 1861.

Noddings, Nel. Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Rachels, James. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. Seventh ed. by Stuart Rachels. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012.

Railton, Peter. “Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality.” In Consequentialism and its Critics, edited by Samuel Scheffler, 93-133. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Scheffler, Samuel. “Morality and Reasonable Partiality,” in Partiality and Impartiality: Morality, Special Relationships, and the Wider World, edited by Brian Feltham and John Cottingham, 98-130. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Stocker, Michael. “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories,” The Journal of Philosophy 73 no. 14 (1976): 453-466.

Williams, Bernard. “Persons, Character, and Morality” in Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers, 1973-1980. 1-19. Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Wolf, Susan. “Morality and Partiality.” Philosophical Perspectives 6 (1992): 243-259

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About the Author

Shane Gronholz has a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He holds a B.A. from Whitworth University where he double majored in philosophy and religion. Shane is interested in metaethics, ethical theory, practical rationality, and philosophy of religion. He lives in Washington with his wife (Stephanie), son (Maxwell), and dog (Benny). TrivialorFalse.com

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