Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Politics. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 01 October 2022

Impartiality in Moral and Political Philosophylocked

Impartiality in Moral and Political Philosophylocked

  • Charlotte NeweyCharlotte NeweyUniversity of Reading


The concept of impartiality is frequently invoked in moral and political debates. In moral theories, impartiality features prominently in both Act and Rule Consequentialism, Kantian ethics, the Humean general point of view, and Ideal Observer theory. In political theory, impartiality is frequently connected with justice and a commitment to equality. The connection of impartiality with moral and political theories is clear. In the personal realm, impartiality directs an agent not to act selfishly or unfairly toward others. In the political realm, impartiality requires that the structure of society and its institutions should not be rigged, for morally irrelevant reasons, to favor some groups over others by giving them benefits and opportunities that are not open to all.

However, there is prolonged disagreement both in moral and political theory between impartialists, who accord significant weight to the value of impartiality, and partialists, who emphasize the value and importance of close personal relationships, meaningful life projects, autonomy, allegiance to one’s country and conationals, and duties of a state toward its citizens. Yet others see the quest for impartiality as a distraction from other more pressing concerns, such as the abuse of power, and domination. For all, this disagreement concerns the nature and extent to which impartiality should influence moral and political thought and actions.

The debate may remain intractable because, in many situations, morality itself seems to demand partiality. Is the impartialist notion that everyone matters equally from the moral point of view compatible with widely held intuitions that agents are morally permitted to devote more of their time, energy, and other resources to people and projects whose value depends on their relationship to the agent? If not, so much the worse for impartial moral theory, because most people think parents are not merely permitted, but likely required—depending on the size of the harms and benefits involved—to attend to their own children’s needs ahead of helping the child of a stranger, or that a person who never placed their friend ahead of others when allocating their time, concern, and resources has not grasped the meaning of the term “friendship.” People tend to agree that a life devoid of meaningful projects is impoverished.

Similar tensions arise in the political realm. Should political theories treat the good of all people everywhere as equally important, or should they make space for a state’s special duty to its own citizens and to allow compatriots to favor each other? What if we cannot agree on what constitutes “the good” of the people? The debate between impartialists and partialists looks set to continue unless progress is made in elucidating a concept of impartiality that can accommodate the concerns of both. Several authors agree that the concept of impartiality is underexplored, with the result that each side ends up talking past the other. To make progress, a deeper understanding of impartiality and the role it can play in moral and political thought is needed.


  • Political Philosophy

You do not currently have access to this article


Please login to access the full content.


Access to the full content requires a subscription