Formal Ethics 4 - Impartiality

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These questions are about Chapter 4 of Harry J. Gensler's book on FORMAL ETHICS (Routledge: 1996). These materials are copyrighted (c) 1998 by Harry J. Gensler; but they may be distributed freely.


Universalizability axiom U says that the morality of an act depends on the act's universal properties. So if act A ought to be done, then any act relevantly or exactly similar to act A in its universal properties also ought to be done. Equivalently, if act A ought to be done, then act A has some set of universal properties such that any act with that set of properties also ought to be done.

Impartiality requires that we make similar evaluations about similar cases, regardless of the individuals involved. Impartiality is based on universalizability; impartiality theorems tell us not to have belief combinations violating universalizability.

Reversed situations

To test our impartiality, it's often useful to see how we react to a hypothetical case in which we imagine ourselves in the exact place of the other person on the receiving end of the action. This appeals to two important corollaries of universalizability:
    U1 If it would be all right for you to do A to X, then in an exactly reversed situation it would be all right for X to do A to you.

    U2 If it would be all right for you to do A to X, then in an exactly similar situation it would be all right for A to be done to you.

Is universalizability useful?

While almost everyone accepts U, many think the idea useless, since:
    (1) In the actual world, no two acts are exactly similar in all their universal properties.

    (2) U lets us appeal to trivial differences between cases. ("It's all right for me to steal from you, but wrong for you to steal from me -- because I have six toes and you don't.")

    (3) U lets any universal properties be morally relevant. ("Everyone with black skin ought to be treated poorly.")

These points are correct, but they don't detract from the principle. The book and these exercises try to show this.

Why be impartial?

We might be impartial because this promotes our desire to be fair -- or because it promotes our well-being and self-respect and earns us social approval. Or we might appeal to the social good, or to the inherent badness of violating impartiality. Or we might talk about social conventions, ideal observers, or God's will. Or we might see universalizability or the impartiality norm as self-evident, as coherent with our moral intuitions, or as required by ideal ethical thinking. Or we might just have positive feelings in favor of it.

Some think that universalizability is built into our moral terms, thus making it logically necessary. Then impartiality would fall under the logical consistency norm.

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