Impartial ethics and personal decisions

by Emile 3 min read8th Mar 201518 comments


Some moral questions I’ve seen discussed here:

  • A trolley is about to run over five people, and the only way to prevent that is to push a fat bystander in front of the trolley to stop it. Should I?
  • Is it better to allow 3^^^3 people to get a dust speck in their eye, or one man to be tortured for 50 years?
  • Who should I save, if I have to pick between one very talented artist, and five random nobodies?
  • Do I identify as an utilitarian? a consequentialist? a deontologist? a virtue ethicist?

Yet I spend time and money on my children and parents, that may be “better” spent elsewhere under many moral systems. And if I cared as much about my parents and children as I do about random strangers, many people would see me as somewhat of a monster.

In other words, “commonsense moral judgements” finds it normal to care differently about different groups; in roughly decreasing order:

  • immediate family
  • friends, pets, distant family
  • neighbors, acquaintances, coworkers
  • fellow citizens
  • foreigners
  • sometimes, animals
  • (possibly, plants...)
… and sometimes, we’re even perceived as having a *duty* to care more about one group than another (if someone saved three strangers instead of two of his children, how would he be seen?).

In consequentialist / utilitarian discussions, a regular discussion is “who counts as agents worthy of moral concern” (humans? sentient beings? intelligent beings? those who feel pain? how about unborn beings?), which covers the later part of the spectrum. However I have seen little discussion of the earlier part of the spectrum (friends and family vs. strangers), and it seems to be the one on which our intuitions agree the most reliably - which is why I think it deserves more of our attention (and having clear ideas about it might help about the rest).

Let’s consider two rough categories of decisions:

  • impersonal decisions: what should government policy be? By what standard should we judge moral systems? On which cause is charity money best spent? Who should I hire?
  • personal decisions: where should I go on holidays this summer? Should I lend money to an unreliable friend? Should I take a part-time job so I can take care of my children and/or parents better? How much of my money should I devote to charity? In which country should I live?

Impartial utilitarianism and consequentialism (like the question at the head of this post) make sense for impersonal decisions (including when an individual is acting in a role that require impartiality - a ruler, a hiring manager, a judge), but clash with our usual intuitions for personal decisions. Is this because under those moral systems we should apply the same impartial standards for our personal decisions, or because those systems are only meant for discussing impersonal decisions, and personal decisions require additional standards ?

I don’t really know, and because of that, I don’t know whether or not I count as a consequentialist (not that I mind much apart from confusion during the yearly survey; not knowing my values would be a problem, but not knowing which label I should stick on them? eh, who cares).

I also have similar ambivalence about Effective Altruism:

  • If it means that I should care as much about poor people in third world countries than I do about my family and friends, then it’s a bit hard to swallow.
  • However, if it means that assuming one is going to spend money to help people, one should better make sure that money helps them in the most effective way possible.

Scott’s “give ten percent” seems like a good compromise on the first point.

So what do you think? How does "caring for your friend’s and family" fit in a consequentialist/utilitarian framework ?

Other places this has been discussed:

  • This was a big debate in ancient China, between the Confucians who considered it normal to have “care with distinctions” (愛有差等), whereas Mozi preached “universal love” (兼愛) in opposition to that, claiming that care with distinctions was a source of conflict and injustice.
  • Impartiality” is a big debate in philosophy - the question of whether partiality is acceptable or even required.
  • The philosophical debate between “egoism and altruism” seems like it should cover this, but it feels a bit like a false dichotomy to me (it’s not even clear whether “care only for one’s friends and family” counts as altruism or egoism)
  • Special obligations” (towards Friends and family, those one made a promise to) is a common objection to impartial, impersonal moral theories
  • The Ethics of Care seem to cover some of what I’m talking about.
  • A middle part of the spectrum - fellow citizens versus foreigners - is discussed under Cosmopolitanism.
  • Peter Singer’s “expanding circle of concern” presents moral progress as caring for a wider and wider group of people (counterpoint: Gwern's Narrowing Circle) (I haven't read it, so can't say much)

Other related points:

  • The use of “care” here hides an important distinction between “how one feels” (My dog dying makes me feel worse than hearing about a schoolbus in China falling off a cliff) and “how one is motivated to act” (I would sacrifice my dog to save a schoolbus in China from falling off a cliff). Yet I think we have the gradations on both criteria.
  • Hanson’s “far mode vs. near mode” seems pretty relevant here.