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Lawrence Becker: Impartiality and Ethical Theory

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Lawrence Becker briefly considered three distinct problem areas in a modern moral philosophy that argues for an impersonal perspective detached from “self-interest, privileged personal relationships, the demands of the moment, and a … first person point of view” (698.)

The first is that finding a common morality in the face of endemic self-interest seems to require independent, impartial moral principles that counter the pull of each one acting in his or her own direction.  Becker points out that the combination of a Godwinian impartial consequentialism with a Kantian universalizability leads to the “evident foolishness” that would require one to give “every spare nickel, lung or ounce of bread” to those who have a greater need for it (699.)  There is also tension between this line of argument and a liberal moral view that assumes persons have resources they are free to use as they wish.

The second is the difficulty of attaining a detached moral view, whether by considering each one’s point of view and trying to find a balanced moral perspective across all, or by trying to attain a detached, impersonal view of a spectator outside all parties.  Either method requires that we assume a moral view that is “decidedly not our own,” leading to a “troubling form of depersonalized, even alienated, consciousness” (699.)

The third is the difficulty of reconciling a detached, impersonal morality with human flourishing and virtues that bond people in intimate relationships.  As Becker notes, if the demands of impartial morality lead to this sort of rigid, disciplined life “it will have few followers” (699.)

It seems to me there is a view that could bridge both an impartial morality with a virtue ethic.  It seems reasonable that people can find independent moral principles: care for your children, remain loyal to your friends, and so forth.  In my view, it makes no difference for my argument whether these are Kantian a priori moral norms or emergent, empirical principles.  Yet, in applying these principles, it seems to me that one can greatly enhance one’s relationships, not by responding not in dry, impartial judgment, but by responding with a balanced virtue ethic that can balance rigid moral principles with mercy, gentleness and compassion.  A eudaimonistic flourishing can only develop where moral principles are observed by each one.  Within such a society impersonal moral principles per se do not seem the problem, as ultimately they are one part of what holds the society together.  The problem seems to me to lie in how such principles are lived, whether we counter immoral egoistic tendencies by coldly demanding conformance to moral principles or by developing them through the virtues.

Becker, Lawrence C. (1991.)  “Impartiality and Ethical Theory.”  Ethics, Vol 101, No. 4 (Jul., 1991,) pp. 698-700.

This is adapted from a series of responses I wrote for an independent study in analytic ethics of partiality and consequentialism.

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