Impartiality in Moral and Political Philosophy

Impartiality in Moral and Political Philosophy

Impartiality in Moral and Political Philosophy

Impartiality in Moral and Political Philosophy


The debate between impartialists and their critics has dominated both moral and political philosophy for over a decade. This important new book by a leading author attempts to show both that the dispute between impartialists and their critics runs very deep, and that it can nonetheless be resolved.


It is mostly a true book; with some stretchers, as I said before.

Huckleberry Finn

In Part III of Justice as Impartiality Brian Barry writes: 'it is a commonplace that anglophone moral and political philosophy has for the past decade been the scene of a running battle between defenders and critics of impartiality.' Amongst the defenders of impartiality he counts Kantians, utilitarians and (of course) himself. Amongst its critics he counts Bernard Williams and feminist care theorists. However, and within the page, Barry has concluded that this battle (the battle between impartialists and their critics) is ill-joined. He writes: 'what the opponents are attacking is not what the supporters are defending. I believe that the core contentions of the friends and foes of impartiality (as they conventionally represent themselves) are equally valid. If this is so, then there can be no contradiction between them' (Barry 1995 : 191).

Barry's conclusion should surprise us, for if it is true, then at least ten years of moral and political philosophy have been largely wasted. However, if the conclusion is surprising, it is far from novel. In a 1991 issue of Ethics devoted to Impartiality and Ethical Theory a number of the contributors conclude that the debate between partialists and impartialists is based on a series of confusions and misunderstandings, that talk of partialism and impartialism does not help to illuminate our philosophical differences, and that there is far less and far less deep disagreement between opponents and proponents of impartialism than is commonly supposed (see, for example, Becker 1991 ; Baron 1991 ; Deigh 1991).

Yet not all concur. For some, the differences between impartialists and their critics do seem to run exceedingly deep. Bernard Williams, for example, tells us that:

the point is 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. They run that risk if they exist at all; yet unless such things exist, there will not be enough substance or conviction in a man's life to compel his . . .

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