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Marilyn Friedman on the Impracticality of Impartiality

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In her article “The Impracticality of Impartiality,” Marilyn Friedman challenged those who advocate that for moral evaluation one should “achieve an unbiased, or impartial, standpoint” (645.)  Her view is that there are no independent criteria by which one may know that impartiality has in fact been achieved.  Furthermore, she argued that the proposed methods for attaining impartiality require “psychological and epistemic feats” (645) that again have no independent methods of confirmation.  She proposed instead that moral theorists should be instead seek to eliminate “concrete notions of specific partialities, that is, biases … [that] can be specifically identified and corrected” (646.)

She briefly discussed the terms “objective,” “impersonal,” and “impartial” (646.)  She rejected “objective” as typically referring to something external to the mind, “notions which are not pertinent to my discussion.”  She also rejected “impersonal” as standing for the point of view of no one in particular, which is not the equivalent of an unbiased standpoint.  To indicate a point of view that is without bias or prejudice, she chose the usual term “impartial.”

Though she did not cast it in these terms, her argument seems to follow along externalist and internalist debate lines.  I have in mind the debate between Martha Nussbaum and Louise Antony.

I have in mind the definitions discussed in these two authors.  Per Antony, “An external account … treats facts about what is essentially human as ‘matters of natural scientific fact, not of ethical value.’  Such facts, it is imagined, can be ascertained ‘from the totally external standpoint of a neutral observer,’ an observer, that is, who has no knowledge of nor any commitment to human practices or values” (14.)  Nussbaum argues instead “that the deepest examination of human history and human cognition from within still reveals a more or less determinate account of the human being, one that divides its essential from its accidental properties” (206.)  She continues, arguing for a “historically grounded empirical essentialism – which, since it takes its stand within human experience, I shall now call ‘internalist’ essentialism” (208.)

As I understand Friedman’s argument, impartialists would typically take some form of externalist stance along the lines of Antony’s definition, that there is a point of view that is independent of historical and cultural influences.  Friedman seems to argue instead from a more internalist view, that there is something common, or important, perhaps “essential,” that we can assess as a society.  Friedman argued that individuals apart cannot attain impartiality: “For good psychological reasons, each person’s unaided thinking cannot be trusted to discern its own biases” (655.)  She argued instead that we can only approach impartiality through the elimination of specific biases, and that “actual dialogue among real persons is a practically necessary forum for this process” (656.)

Personally, I am sympathetic with Nussbaum’s internalist essentialism, that there is something recognizably “essential” about human persons that escapes the more totalizing social construction accounts.  I tend to agree with Friedman’s criticism of the impartialist stance that any given individual is able to extricate herself from her embedded historical view to achieve a view without bias or prejudice.

However, I find missing in Friedman’s argument a recognition that the social dialogue approach she advocates may not in fact achieve the sort of elimination of bias for which she hopes.  One factor is that there will hardly ever be a consensus on just what constitutes bias and how it should be eliminated, though all may agree on some basic principles.  Another factor is that any given society can only approach positively identifying specific biases to eliminate through the grid of its own best understanding at that time.  That is, the evaluation of biases that one should eliminate would vary significantly across cultures both diachronically – say, across the last two centuries – as well as synchronically – say, between Britain and India in the early 20th century.

I do not mean this to be simply that we should just throw up our hands and not try to eliminate biases in our social relations and institutions.  The check that I see on this is along the lines of Nussbaum’s internalist essentialism, that there is something essential that we can come to know about human persons.  With that in mind, I suggest that we approach Friedman’s social discussion with humility about the limits not only of our own unseen biases, but also the unrecognized biases of our societies.

Friedman, Marilyn. (1989.)  “The Impracticality of Partiality.”  The Journal of Philosophy, Vol 86, No.11 (Nov., 1989,) pp. 645-656.

Nussbaum, Martha. “Human Functioning and Social Justice.” http://www.jstor.org/stable/192002.

Antony, Louise. “Natures and Norms.” http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/233417.

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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