The Bias of Impartialism
by Diana Mertz Hsieh
Date: 4 Apr 97
Forum: Washington University in St-Louis, Classical Ethical Theories class
Copyright: Diana Mertz Hsieh
In his essay "Utilitarianism," John Stuart Mill emphasizes that the the Greatest Happiness Principle is an impartialist perspective on morality, such that no one person's happiness is more morally significant than the happiness of anyone else. As Mill goes to great lengths to show, the Greatest Happiness principle is not egoistic; the standard of morality according to utilitarianism is not "the agent's own greatest happiness" (Mill 282). Rather, it is the collective happiness which carries moral weight, i.e. "an existence exempt as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality" as "might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind" (Mill 283).
Mill attempts to justify this impartialist moral standard by four distinct methods. First, he appeals to "natural sentiment"; according to Mill, we have "a desire to be in unity with out fellow creatures" (Mill 303). Second, he argues that "society... is manifestly impossible on any other footing than that the interests of all are to be consulted" (Mill 304). Third, he appeals to the natural equality of human beings (Mill 335-7). Finally, he characterizes egoism as one of the primary causes of an unsatisfactory life (Mill 285). However, none of these arguments adequately grounds Mill's view that the moral agent, with respect to his own happiness and the happiness of others, ought to be "as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator" (Mill 288).
In arguing for the utilitarian standard of general happiness, Mill states humans naturally have "social feelings" to be unified with the rest of humankind, "which tend to become stronger... from the influences of advancing civilization" (Mill 303). These social feelings are "so natural, so necessary, and so habitual" that with rare exception, an individual "never conceives of himself as otherwise than as a member of a body" (Mill 304). Although many adult humans may have these sentiments (or at least claim to have them and to act in accordance with them), children are extremely partialist on both a moral and epistemological level. Up to a certain age, children are incapable of seeing a situation from another person's perspective; they are deeply embedded in their own perceptions and outlook. Indeed, even the fact that adults often claim to feel such a moral unity with the rest of humankind proves little; such declarations, particularly on the part of politicians, are often veiled attempts to further the agent's own (probably illegitimate) interests while retaining the sanction of morality. Thus any argument about the utilitarian standard being part of the natural sentiments of human being would require a much more extensive, complex justification than that which Mill provides.
Mill goes directly from this argument about sentiment to the idea that "society, except in the relation of master to slave, is manifestly impossible on any other footing than that the interests of all are to be consulted" (Mill 304). Therefore, "society between equals can only exist on the understanding that the interests of all are to be regarded equally" (Mill 304). However, this position seems to contradict Mill's basic endorsement of market processes in On Liberty. Although in a free-market society, the law (ideally) regards all individuals as equal, the processes of the market itself do not regard the "interests of all" equally. Having a private jet might bring me just as much happiness as it does Bill Gates, but because I do not make as much money as he does, his interest is given much more weight within the marketplace. Given his comment about masters and slaves, however, Mill seems to only be referring to political equality, such that the General Happiness Principle only requires that property rights exist for all humans. As much as such a system may contribute to the general welfare over time, it is not the case that within such a system the moral interests of all individuals are regarded as equal. And, indeed, contra Mill, civilized society is possible (and, in my view desirable) when impartialism is not the governing moral principle, as it is not within markets and personal interactions.
This argument about the necessary conditions for social existence is, in turn, tied to Mill's third argument for impartialism, namely the equal moral worth of all persons. Mill cites Bentham's dictum "everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one" as "explanatory commentary" on the principle of utility (Mill 336). As I indicated in the previous paragraph, however, there is a difference between the legal and the moral equality of persons. Although all individuals might meet the requirements of legal equality (e.g. reason, free will, self-responsibility, etc.), that indicates little about the proper standard of morality. It surely does not prove that the moral perspective requires us to care just as much about our own happiness and the happiness of loved ones just as much as we care for the happiness of strangers.
Finally, Mill's conception of egoism as leading to a solitary and unhappy existence also feeds into his avocation of impartiality, in that this form of egoism seems to be the only alternative to impartiality for Mill. In a discussion of the causes of unhappiness, Mill writes that selfishness, in which the moral agent has "neither public nor private affections," leads to misery, particularly in the later years, "when all selfish interests must be terminated by death" (Mill 285). Although Mill does not not advocate self-sacrifice for it's own sake, he does not seem to serious entertain the idea that morality can be other than completely impartialist or partialist this a very narrow, egotistical sense (Mill 288). As such, impartialism is obviously the preferable alternative.
However, this false alternative which Mill seems to accept (and which is very common among moral philosophers) between impartialism and a brutish form of egoism, ought not be accepted. The facts that individuals experience only their own happiness and pain and that individuals are much better equipped to determine what brings them and the people close to them the greatest happiness provides a prima facie argument for partialism. Such partialism, however, does not require that moral agents regard the lives and interests of others as insignificant or morally worthless. Rather, a recognition of the intrinsic value of individual human life gives rise to both partialism with respect to one's own life and choices and impartialism with respect to the moral universe as a whole.
If human beings are indeed ends-in-themselves, such that they ought not be used, manipulated, or violated for the sake of some "higher" purpose such as the will of God, the power of a petty dictator, or the will of society, then two distinct perspectives on moral life emerge. With respect to a moral agent's own life, she has the moral right to pursue her own life and happiness and to reject claims that she ought to subordinate herself to some greater good. However, such a moral agent would also recognize that all the other individuals around her, in virtue of a basic equality between humans, have the same moral right to pursue their own lives and interests. As such, she ought not violate their autonomy any more than they ought to violate hers. Thus, the individual is justifiably partialist with respect to her own moral choices, while at the same time recognizing that she is not the center of the moral universe.
This partialist perspective on moral choices is meant simply to be an outline of an alternative to Mill's impartialism, using many of the same premises (such as equality and basic harmony of interests between individuals) as he does. As such, it shows that partialism in morality at least ought not be the default -- that there is at least just as much justification for asking for a moral justification of impartialism as there is of partialism.
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