The Ethics of Partiality

Philosophy Compass 1 (8):1-15 (2022)
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Partiality is the special concern that we display for ourselves and other people with whom we stand in some special personal relationship. It is a central theme in moral philosophy, both ancient and modern. Questions about the justification of partiality arise in the context of enquiry into several moral topics, including the good life and the role in it of our personal commitments; the demands of impartial morality, equality, and other moral ideals; and commonsense ideas about supererogation. This paper provides an overview of the debate on the ethics of partiality through the lens of the domains of permissible and required partiality. After outlining the conceptual space, I first discuss agent-centred moral options that concern permissions not to do what would be impartially optimal. I then focus on required partiality, which concerns associative duties that go beyond our general duties to others and require us to give special priority to people who are close to us. I discuss some notable features of associative duties and the two main objections that have been raised against them: the Voluntarist and the Distributive objections. I then turn to the justification of partiality, focusing on underivative approaches and reasons-based frameworks. I discuss the reductionism and non-reductionism debate: the question whether partiality is derivative or fundamental. I survey arguments for ‘the big three’, according to which partiality is justified by appeal to the special value of either projects, personal relationships, or individuals. I conclude by discussing four newly emerging areas in the debate: normative transitions of various personal relationships, relationships with AI, epistemic partiality, and negative partiality, which concerns the negative analogue of our positive personal relationships.

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Benjamin Lange
Ludwig Maximilians Universität, München


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