The Problem of Partiality in 18th century British Moral Philosophy

Dissertation, Boston University (2019)
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The dissertation traces the development of what I call “the problem of partiality” through the work of certain key figures in the British Moralist tradition: John Locke, Catharine Trotter Cockburn, Anthony Ashley Cooper (the Third Earl of Shaftesbury), Francis Hutcheson, John Gay, David Hume, Joseph Butler, and Adam Smith. On the one hand, we are committed to impartiality as a constitutive norm of moral judgment and conduct. On the other hand, we are committed to the idea that it is permissible, or even obligatory, to expend disproportionate resources promoting the good of our loved ones over the good of strangers. However, these two commitments conflict with one another. This problem challenges us to provide an account of the scope and limits of reasonable partiality that does justice to both commitments. I argue that confronting this tension is a central project of early modern ethics. I offer a rereading of the British Moralist tradition, centered on debates about partiality, and thereby shift discussion of the tradition away from concerns about meta-ethics and moral epistemology, to issues of practical ethics. The topic of partiality remains central in contemporary ethics, as is evident in ongoing debates about the place of empathy in moral judgment, and the role of love in shaping our moral commitments. Though the aim of the dissertation is not to settle questions about the scope and limits of reasonable partiality, the focus here remains fixed on how the concept of partiality was problematized in our ethical thought, and how it informs our discussions in normative ethics and moral psychology. Alongside building a bridge between early modern scholarship and recent work in ethics, the dissertation casts light on two understudied figures in the British Moralist tradition – Cockburn and Gay – who contributed greatly to debates about partiality. By examining their contributions, I reconsider their place in the history of modern ethics and therefore provide a more contextualized account of philosophical thought in the period.

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Getty Lustila
Northeastern University


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