Discussions of impartiality usually center around three questions: first, there is the question of what impartiality is; second, there is the question of what it requires of us; third, there is the question of whether it is either desirable or possible to try to meet those requirements. On the first question, there is widespread, even if the not unanimous, agreement that impartiality reflects a commitment to equality. 

Thus, Thomas Nagel notes: ‘‘the requirement of impartiality can take various forms, but it usually involves treating or counting everyone equally in some respect—according to them all the same rights, or counting their good or their welfare or some aspect of it the same in determining what would be a desirable result or a permissible course of action’’ (Nagel 1987, 215). And in a similar vein, Brian Barry urges that the whole idea of justice as impartiality ‘‘rests upon a fundamental commitment to the equality of all human beings. The kind of equality that is appealed to by the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and by the American Declaration of Independence’’ (Barry 1995, 8).

However, this initial, and apparently easy, agreement about what impartiality is becoming problematic when we turn to the second question: what does it require of us? Here, diVerences arise across two dimensions: first, there are disagreements about the scope of impartiality: Is it required of each of us, as individuals, in our ordinary, everyday actions, or is it rather a requirement of the moral and legal rules of society? Second, there are disagreements about how the commitment to impartiality is to be worked out: Should we, for example, use utilitarian calculation, or should we take what people would agree to as our touchstone?

Clearly, if we take the scope of impartiality to extend across individuals in their ordinary lives, then the requirements of impartiality will be very diVerent from what they would be if we were to take impartiality to be primarily a requirement of moral and legal rules. And similarly, if we work out the commitment to equality via straightforward utilitarian calculation we may arrive at diVerent practical conclusions from the ones which would result were we to appeal to what people can, or could reasonably, agree to.

To give an example, utilitarianism is an impartialist theory: classical utilitarians are committed to treating everyone equally, and they claim that the right way to do that is to count each person as one and no one as more than one. However, utilitarianism, particularly in this straightforward form, may dictate that great sacrifices are being made by some people in order that overall welfare is increased. It may require that a minority live in servitude if that is what is needed to maximize welfare. This, however, seems to some to be the wrong kind of argument against slavery, and it is this thought that prompted John Rawls to propose an alternative interpretation of impartiality, one which rests upon agreement rather than maximization of utility. Rawls writes: ‘‘while there may be some excuse for slavery in special circumstances, it is never an excuse for it that it is sufficiently advantageous to the slaveholder to outweigh the disadvantages to the slave and to society since slavery does

not accord with principles which they [the slaveholder and the slave] could mutually acknowledge, they may each be supposed to agree that it is unjust’’ (Rawls 1958, 190). In short, impartiality as efficiency is diVerent from impartiality as agreement. So, even if the impartialist commitment to equality is clear, the scope and character of that commitment—the contexts in which it applies and the way in which it is to be worked out—are not.

Third, there is considerable disagreement about whether impartiality (however understood) is a good thing or even a possible thing. Thus, Bernard Williams has insisted that ‘‘somewhere one reaches the necessity that such things as deep attachments to other persons will express themselves in the world in ways which cannot at the same time embody the impartial view, and that they also run the risk of offending against it’’ (Williams 1981, 18). He draws attention to the fact that the dictates of impartial morality may conflict with personal ties and actions that matter very much to us, and he notes that, when such a conflict occurs, we may wonder why we should abandon our personal commitments and do the thing that impartial morality would have us do.

Iris Young goes further when she argues that, in politics, the ideal of impartiality is, in fact, an ideology. It purports to treat all equally but, by denying significant diVerences between people, it in fact ‘‘allows the standpoint of the privileged to appear as universal’’ (Young 1990, 116). Her allegation, to which we will return later, is that political impartiality is merely a form of sectarianism—the means whereby the powerful legitimize what is in fact the illegitimate imposition of their own views on others.

Here, then, are three questions about impartiality: What is it? What does it require of us? And is it desirable, or even possible, to act in accordance with its dictates? In what follows these questions will be addressed under three headings: ‘‘Impartiality in Everyday Action;’’ ‘‘Impartiality and Agreement;’’ and ‘‘Higher-level Impartiality.’’ The first aims to show that impartiality is best understood as applying to moral rules and principles, not to everyday actions; the second to show that impartiality is best interpreted as a matter of what people could reasonably agree to; the third to show that, so understood, it can escape the charge of being sectarian or ideological.


As has been noted already, impartiality is widely understood as reflecting a commitment to equality. However, in our ordinary lives we do not always treat others equally, nor do we believe ourselves morally required to do so. On the contrary, we tend to favor our friends and family over strangers, and we often feel that we are morally entitled to do so. Indeed, there are some contexts in which a requirement to treat everyone equally—to show no partiality towards my friends or family—would be positively perverse. 

Thus, Charles Fried notes that ‘‘it would be absurd to insist that if a man could, at no risk or cost to himself, save one of two persons in equal peril, and one of those in peril was, say, his wife, he must treat both equally, perhaps by flipping a coin’’ (Fried 1970, 227). Thoroughgoing impartiality—impartiality of the kind that requires us to give no greater weight to our spouse than to a complete stranger—is, it is said, too demanding and, far from being morally required, is, or can be, morally objectionable.

A number of writers have responded to this criticism by agreeing that, if impartiality required us to set aside our personal attachments, then it would indeed be at best over-demanding and at worst absurd (see, for example, Baron 1991; Barry 1995; Deigh 1991). However, they claim that the commitment to impartiality does not require this. Their defense depends on distinguishing between two levels of impartiality: impartiality at the level of ordinary decision-making (level 1 impartiality) and impartiality at the level of principle selection (level 2 impartiality). And the argument is that, while impartiality is indeed important in moral and legal principles, those principles can (and should) be ones that themselves allow room for personal attachments.

Thus, defending the two-level distinction, Brian Barry concedes that: ‘‘there would be something crazy about a world in which people acted on an injunction to treat everybody with complete impartiality,’’ but he goes on to insist that what the supporters of impartiality are defending is ‘‘impartiality as a test to be applied to the moral and legal rules of a society . . . the critics are talking about first-order impartiality—impartiality as a maxim of behavior in everyday life’’ (Barry 1995, 194). 

Moreover, and crucially, level 2 impartiality does not entail level 1 impartiality, so it is possible to support impartiality as a test of the moral and legal rules of society without being committed to impartiality as a requirement of everyday decisions and actions. Indeed, the defenders of impartiality are insistent that any sensible set of moral principles will allow discretion and some will even enjoin partiality: the commandment ‘‘honor thy father and thy mother’’ apply impartially to all children, but it permits (indeed requires) partial behavior with respect to one’s own parents. It requires that each and every child honor his parents, but not thereby everyone else’s parents.

However, even if we agree that impartiality, properly understood, does not extend to all our everyday decisions and actions, it nonetheless sets limits to the extent to which and the contexts in which, we can favor our friends and family over strangers. As Barry notes: ‘‘there is a natural inclination to make special efforts on one’s own behalf and on behalf of those whom one cares about. It is the role of rules of justice (including norms of strict impartiality) to set bounds to the working of this inclination, by ruling out actions that injure others and prohibiting such violations of impartiality as nepotism’’ (Barry 1995, 205).

And the bounds are partly set by reference to a distinction between two spheres of life: in my ordinary, everyday dealings with people, I am entitled to show more concern for my friends than for strangers. However, where I occupy an official position or have public duties, the requirements of impartiality apply more strictly, and the legitimacy of partiality is restricted—or even denied. Thus, it may be that I am entitled to save my husband rather than a stranger if I am acting simply in a private capacity. If, however, I am duty-captain of the lifeboat, it is much less clear that I can simply, and without explanation, ‘‘opt’’ for my husband.

Considerations of impartiality can also be invoked in the opposite direction, where they serve to remind us that, although our relationships with friends and family are not governed by impartiality, impartial considerations do nonetheless apply, albeit less strictly. Thus, although the relationship between a husband and wife is (we must hope) governed by considerations of love rather than considerations of impartial justice, the requirement to treat one’s spouse as an autonomous individual, deserving of equal respect, still holds.

Impartiality allows that we may treat our friends more favorably than strangers, but it does not license our treating them less favorably than strangers. They may, in some contexts, be more than equal but they should not be less than equal. These reflections serve to clarify the initial claim that impartiality is grounded in a commitment to equality: while it permits favored treatment for some over others, it draws limits to that favoritism, and the limits are set, in part, by a distinction between private life and official duty; in part by the requirement to acknowledge that all are deserving of respect.

These considerations suggest that impartiality is centrally concerned with the moral and legal rules of society, not with everyday actions by individuals. The impartialist claim is that we should, collectively, adopt principles that give equal consideration to all in the distribution of societal benefits and burdens. In order to avoid absurdity and to secure compliance, those principles must be ones that allow discretion and acknowledge people’s natural tendency to favor those who are close to them, but they must also draw limits to the exercise of that natural tendency.

The question now is: How are those limits to be drawn? different writers give diVerent responses to this question. Some urge that a form of utilitarianism provides the best response; while others favor an appeal to what people could reasonably agree to. Yet others argue that any sensible utilitarian response will be extensionally equivalent to an appeal to a reasonable agreement. The next section discusses these diVerent interpretations and traces the differences between a utilitarian account and an account based on the concept of reasonable agreement.


In ‘‘Contractualism and Utilitarianism,’’ T. M. Scanlon argues that the principles to be adopted in a just society are those that could not reasonably be rejected by people who are moved by a desire to find principles that others, similarly motivated, could also accept (Scanlon 1982: 200). Much has been written about whether the concept of reasonableness invoked here can be fully explicated, but I will not discuss that, as I wish to concentrate on Scanlon’s appeal to those who are motivated to agree. 

In criticism of this requirement, some have asked what is to be said about and to those who have no such motivation, and Scanlon, in response, has recently revised his theory so that it is grounded not in desire, but in reason. He now believes that even those who do not, as a matter of fact, desire agreement have reason to seek agreement with others. Whatever the truth on that point, Scanlon’s appeal to the agreement is instructive for an understanding of the justification of impartiality and for the specification of why it matters.

To see this, we should turn from ‘‘Contractualism and Utilitarianism’’ to What We Owe to Each Other, where he claims that there is a positive value in living with others on terms they could not reasonably reject, and he elaborates this claim with the following example:

In the 1950s many Americans believed, naively, that their institutions were uniquely justifiable; that America was free of class barriers, and that it was a society in which benefits were fairly earned. They, therefore, felt that they could enjoy these benefits in the comforting confidence that the institutions through which they had acquired them, though not perfect, were closer than any others to being ones that no one could reasonably object to. 

The combined blows of the civil rights movement and the movement that arose in reaction to the war in Vietnam shattered those illusions beyond repair. Different people reacted to this in diVerent ways, some by protesting against the war and working for civil rights, others by vehemently denying that the charges of injustice at home and criminality abroad had any foundation. What these reactions had in common was a deep sense of shock and loss; both testify, I believe, to the value people set on the belief that their lives and institutions are justifiable to others. (Scanlon 1998, 163)

The specific examples offered suggest not only that we have a general desire to justify to others but that, in political contexts, we have a more specific desire to justify to those who do least well in society. Thus, in the case of the civil rights movement, white people have a desire to justify their institutions to black people, and that desire reflects the commitment to equality that is central to impartiality. We need to assure ourselves that the principles governing our society are such that they can be defended even to those who do least well under them. And if we cannot provide such a justification, as was the case in America in the 1960s, we stand accused, in our own eyes, of betraying the ideal of equality on which impartiality rests.

Two points are worth emphasizing here: the first is that the appeal to the agreement is intended to provide a guarantee that all are considered equally; the second is that, by appealing to an agreement motive, Scanlon raises the important, but often neglected, the question of compliance—of how and why people might be motivated to act on impartial principles, especially when they conflict with more partial concerns. These two features of the agreement account of impartiality make it superior to, but also more demanding than, a utilitarian defense.

To take the first point first, one problem with a utilitarian way of working out the commitment to impartiality is that insofar as utilitarianism is a maximizing doctrine, it threatens to condone arrangements that secure great- est overall benefit but do so at the expense of some individuals. As we have seen, the point applies most starkly to act utilitarianism, but it is not confined to it: to return to the two-level account discussed earlier, even if we suppose that utilitarianism operates at the level of principle selection we must ac- knowledge that the principles chosen will be chosen because and insofar as they tend to maximize overall benefit.

There is, however, no guarantee that those principles will be justifiable to the people who do worst under them, and it is this feature of utilitarianism that prompts John Rawls to reject it because he says, it ‘‘does not take seriously the distinction between persons’’ (Rawls 1971, 187). It may be that the allegation is misplaced and that some suitably sophisticated version of utilitarianism could avoid it. Whatever the truth on that, however, the crucial point here is that impartiality, understood as reflecting a commitment to equality, calls for principles that can be shown to have taken everyone into consideration. 

A form of impartiality that is grounded in utilitarianism risks violating that requirement since it could turn out that the maximally beneficial principles will be ones that condone the suffering of some by appealing to the greater benefit accruing to others. By contrast, an agreement account can be justified even to those who do least well, since it aims to adopt only those principles that it would be reasonable for all, including the losers, to agree to.

What, then, of compliance? Interestingly, it occurs in the chapter of What We Owe To Each Other where Scanlon is defending the priority of impartiality, and this draws our attention to a problem that survives the two-level distinction discussed earlier. The initial problem, to recall, was whether impartiality was too demanding: whether it required that individuals abandon or suppress their natural affection for those close to them. 

And the claim was that properly understood, it does not require this. Impartiality, it was noted, is a requirement on principles, not a requirement of everyday life. Nonetheless, and as was also noted, the selection of impartial principles might restrict, or set limits to, people’s ability to show greater concern for those close to them. But the question that now arises is, ‘‘why should they accept those limits?’’ Given that the requirements of impartiality might come into conflict with personal ties of affection, why might people be moved to act on the impartial principle rather than from personal affection?

Appeal to the agreement motive offers an answer to this question. In noting the lengths to which people will go to justify their behavior to others, Scanlon is suggesting that morality in general, and impartial principles in particular, are not merely a set of constraints on action imposed by the wider society, but also a very common and strong source of motivation in individuals themselves. Where Barry notes that justice as impartiality sets limits to our entitlement to favor friends over strangers, Scanlon argues that this is not merely an external imposition, but something we ourselves endorse internally. He writes:

The contractual ideal of acting in accord with principles that others (similarly motivated) could not reasonably reject is meant to characterize the relation with others the value and appeal of which underlies our reasons to do what morality requires. This relation, much less than personal friendship, might be called a relationship of mutual recognition. Standing in this relation to others is appealing in itself—worth seeking for its own sake. A moral person will refrain from lying to others, cheating, harming, or exploiting them, ‘‘because these things are wrong’’. But for such a person these requirements are not just formal imperatives, they are aspects of the positive value of a way of living with others. (Scanlon 1998, 162)

In this reading, impartiality matters both because it reflects a commitment to the equality of all, and because it supposes that people are motivated, not merely by self-interest, but by impartiality itself. In other words, this understanding of impartiality makes a substantive moral claim (about the value of equality) and a substantive claim about people’s motivation (they are not motivated exclusively by self-interest but have, in addition, a motivation to impartial morality). As Scanlon puts it, we see a positive value in living in unity with others, and this suggests that we are (in some part) motivationally impartialist: we have a felt need to act in ways that are defensible to others.

So far, impartiality has been considered primarily a matter of the moral and legal rules of society and it has been argued that to be impartial, those rules must be ones that take everyone into consideration in the distribution of benefits and burdens. However, in modern societies, especially multicultural societies, two complications rise: the first is that there can be disagreements about what counts as a benefit. Is it beneficial to live in a society where extensive free speech is permitted even when some will use that freedom in order to promulgate racist or sexist views? The second, and most connected, complication is that the commitment to equality that underpins imperialism is not a commitment that all share. 

As Jean Hampton notes: ‘‘outside the West, social hierarchies and restrictions of freedom are commonplace (and Western societies derided for their commitments to liberty and equality); and even within Western democracies, beliefs that would limit liberty (e.g. within certain forms of fundamentalist religions) or challenge equality (such as racist or sexist views) are far more widespread than many would like to admit’’ (Hampton 1993, 304).

The very general form of the problem here is that impartiality presents a particular test for principles governing how we should live together. However, not everyone accepts that this is the correct test and, since impartiality in political contexts invokes the coercive power of the state in its support, the question of what justifies impartiality becomes pressing. Thomas Nagel puts the matter this way:

Not everyone believes that political legitimacy depends on this condition [the impartiality condition], and if we forcibly impose political institutions because they meet it (and block the imposition of institutions that do not), why are we not being just as partial to our own values as someone who imposes a state religion? It has to be explained why this is a form of impartiality at all. (Nagel 1987, 222)

This quotation moves us on, therefore, to the challenge of showing that impartiality is not, as Young claims, an ideology that promises but never delivers, equal consideration for all.


At the beginning of this chapter, it was suggested that impartiality might be best understood as a test for the moral and legal rules governing societies. However, the quotation from Nagel suggests that although this may be true, it is also problematic, for impartialists, while acknowledging that their commitment to impartiality is indeed a moral commitment, also invoke the coercive power of the state in support of it. At the same time, however, they deny that the coercive power of the state can legitimately be invoked in support of other moral values, and indeed it is often on impartialist grounds that they deny this. 

Clearly, there is a danger here that impartial is, as John Rawls has put it, ‘‘just another sectarian creed,’’ except that, whereas others admit to their sectarianism, impartialists are disingenuous about the matter. In order to avoid the charge of disingenuousness, therefore, impartialists must explain why the coercive power of the state can legitimately be invoked in support of their commitment to equality, but not in support of the different and conflicting moral commitments of others. Responding to this challenge, Thomas Nagel has suggested that impartialists need to appeal to a ‘‘higher level’’ of impartiality. He writes:

if liberalism is to be defended as a higher-order theory rather than just another sectarian doctrine, it must be shown to result from an interpretation of impartiality itself, rather than from a particular conception of the good that is to be made impartially available. Of course, any interpretation of impartiality will be morally controversial—it is not a question of rising to a vantage point above all moral disputes—but the controversy will be at a different level.

In other words, the challenge is to show how impartiality can reflect a moral commitment—and a contested one at that—while being something other, and more, than a conception of the good which should properly take its place alongside all other conceptions of the good—an appropriate locus of value for individuals, but not something that can claim the coercive power of the state in its support. In general, of course, impartialists do deny that impartiality is a conception of the good. 

Barry repeatedly emphasizes that it is not a ‘‘guide to the art of living’’ or a ‘‘complete moral vision’’ (Barry 1995, 77, 192). But what is needed is not simply an assertion that this is so, but an argument to justify the claim that it is so. Failing that, impartialists stand accused of disingenuousness when they invoke the coercive power of the state in their own defense but deny that same privilege to others.

Famously (or notoriously) Rawls has argued that impartial principles of justice may be the outcome of an ‘‘overlapping consensus’’ among people with very different comprehensive conceptions of the good. He concedes that this is a ‘‘speculative’’ matter, but then goes on to note that ‘‘the history of religion and philosophy shows that there are many reasonable ways in which the wider realm of values can be understood so as to be either congruent with, or supportive of, or else not in conflict with, the values appropriate to the special domain of the political as specified by a political conception of justice’’ (Rawls 1993, 140). The guiding thought here is that impartiality is not itself a conception of the good, but a way of accommodating different conceptions of the good, and, Rawls tells us optimistically, history suggests that it will command support from people with a wide variety of comprehensive conceptions.

Many have doubted the possibility of a Rawlsian overlapping consensus and, in particular, have wondered what grounds his belief that there may be convergence on impartial principles of justice, despite persistent divergence about the best way to lead one’s life (see, for example, Hurd 1995; ScheZer 1994; Waldron 1999). Moreover, the objection is not merely a matter of setting pessimism against Rawlsian optimism, for the supposition that there might be convergence on principles of justice appears to amount to a denial of the possibility of legitimate political disagreements. 

Here again, the specter of sectarianism stalks, and it is not clear that impartial justice can appropriately be defended simply by assuming away the disagreements that divide people. As Jeremy Waldron has noted: ‘‘pluralism of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines is not the only pluralism with which we have to deal in a modern democratic society. We also have to deal with justice- pluralism and disagreement about rights. Maybe political philosophy should be required to come to terms with that circumstance also’’ (Waldron 1999, 158–9). 

So, if we take impartiality to be, not a conception of the good itself, but a way of attaining convergence between those who have competing conceptions of the good, we are still left with questions about what grounds there are for the faith that impartial principles will emerge from competing conceptions of the good.

Nagel oVers an alternative way of responding to the request for a ‘‘higher-level’’ of impartiality when he appeals, not to consensus, but to ‘‘an independent moral argument that can be offered to those holding widely divergent views’’ (Nagel 1987, 223; emphasis added). However, in a later work, he goes on to acknowledge that the moral argument has limitations. He writes:

‘‘if someone is willing to commit his own life to a particular conception, and convinced that the alternative is catastrophic, then it may be hard to resist imposing his opinion on others who, understandably but erroneously, fail to accept it . . . it may be difficult to subordinate a concern for their good as he sees it to a requirement of Kantian respect if he is really convinced that Kantian respect will allow them to doom themselves’’ (Nagel 1991, 168). In the end, then, and for Nagel, it is the moral idea of Kantian respect for others that provides the ‘‘higher level’’ of impartiality. But, in the end, he must concede that this moral idea may not be sufficient to justify forcing people to do things against their will.

For both Rawls and Nagel the ‘‘higher-level’’ of impartiality is elusive: what is needed is a way of justifying the use of the coercive power of the state in defense of impartial principles of justice, but the justification must be one that shows impartiality to be more than a contested conception of the good. Nagel’s emphasis on impartiality as a moral value makes it vulnerable to charges of closet sectarianism, while Rawls’s appeal to overlapping consensus makes his account vulnerable to charges of political na¨ıvete´. However, the very difficulties inherent in these attempts to discover the higher level of impartiality themselves indicate exactly why impartiality matters. It matters because we must, somehow, find a way of living together despite our conflicting beliefs about the right way to live. It also matters because, in finding that way, we must at least try to go beyond mere modus vivendi.


It is widely, if not universally, agreed that impartiality reflects a commitment to equality. What is less easily agreed upon is what the scope of that commitment is and how it is to be worked out. The previous sections have attempted to argue for an interpretation of impartiality as primarily a requirement on the moral and legal rules of society (not, or not primarily, a requirement on individuals in their everyday actions). Additionally, they have attempted to show that im- partiality is best made manifest through the concept of agreement. If we hope that the moral and legal rules of our society will be impartial in the sense that they will sow equal concern for everyone, then we can best ensure that by asking what the rules are that everyone could agree.

However, in modern society especially, the agreement will often be difficult to obtain. When that is so, we must find ways of explaining why the coercive power of the state is to be invoked in defense of impartial rules, and we must also say why those rules really are impartial, rather than sectarian. The dilemma here is that, insofar as impartiality reflects a commitment to equality, and insofar as equality is itself a moral concept, impartial rules will not be impartial with respect to absolutely everything. In particular, they will not be impartial with respect to those who deny the moral value of equality. This is neither avoidable nor regrettable. No moral position of any interest can be defended to absolutely everyone, and an impartialist position cannot, and should not, apologize for its own impartiality.

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