A Christian effective altruist approach to partiality


by David Lawrence

In everyday life, most people demonstrate what moral philosophers call ‘partiality’ towards particular individuals. This means behaving as though one there are special obligations to those who are near and dear, such as family, friends and immediate neighbours, over others.

Partiality affects many moral decisions: for instance, spending money on a birthday present for one’s spouse rather than giving it to charity; or, when giving, choosing a local homeless shelter over a global health NGO (on the basis of the shelter’s nearby-ness).

How partiality operates

Partiality can operate broadly in two ways. First, as a ‘side constraint’, where there is a defined area of permissibility (or obligation) to prioritise those closer to you. For instance, it might be permissible to save your wife from a burning building, even if this means foregoing saving a greater number of strangers. Side constraints can be absolute, where it is permissible to save your wife over any number of strangers; or limited, such as ‘it is permissible to save your wife over 5 strangers but no more’.

Alternatively, partiality could operate as an independent source of moral value. Rather than trumping obligations to other individuals as a side constraint, partial behaviour intrinsically adds moral value which can be weighed against other sources of value, such as welfare. In the burning building example, the choice to save your wife would add additional moral value in virtue of your relationship with her, which is weighed against the value of saving a stranger. If this value is high enough, it could even trump saving multiple lives. This approach is consistent with a more consequentialist moral framework.

Effective altruism and impartiality

Effective altruism tends to challenge partiality, claiming that we have equal obligations to all individuals regardless of our relationship to them. This is broadly based on two reasons: (1) that individuals are of equal value, an uncontroversial claim; and (2) that we ought to do ‘as much good as possible’ in the world.

(2) implies that our obligations are globally-focused, and our actions should optimise for global goodness rather than particular relationships. This ties in with, but is not restricted to, a consequentialist approach to morality, where our only obligation is to maximise global moral value. Nonetheless an EA approach seems to rule out a strict adherence to the side-constraint model of partiality outlined earlier. I shall therefore focus the rest of the blog on the ‘independent value’ model.

Christianity and partiality

Christianity seems to take relationship and commitment very seriously, which could support partiality. This is evidenced in the Bible and Christian tradition:

  1. Covenant and commitment: God’s commitment to the Israelites in the Old Testament; marriage as a practical ideal as well as an image for the relationship between Christ and the Church.
  2. Relationship: the Trinity is often interpreted as demonstrating the centrality of relationship to God’s identity; ‘it is not good for the man to be alone’ (Genesis); the broader idea that Christianity is fundamentally about reconciliation with God rather than religion/rules.
  3. The Church as ‘Body of Christ’; the concept of agape love, the early church community and Jesus’s disciples.
  4. Particular Bible verses – such as 1 Timothy 5:8 or Galatians 6:9-10, which encourage prioritising family members and other believers respectively. The latter point is explored in another blogpost.

However, some strands of Christian theology challenge the notion of special obligations to our nearest and dearest:

  1. The Good Samaritan: our ‘neighbour’ is not always who we think it is.
  2. The Gospel being ‘for everyone’: Gentiles as well as Jews, slave and free, etc., reaching ‘all ends of the earth’.
  3. Monotheism: there is one God for everyone in the world, such that religion extends beyond one community or nation. This seems related to the notion of one common morality for all too.

A Christian EA approach to partiality

The above examples demonstrate that there are strands of Christian thinking for and against partiality. This in itself seems to imply that strongly partial ethics are not sufficiently justified on a Christian worldview, but equally, Christian effective altruists may conclude that they have more reason than secular EAs for treating relationships as independently important.

This approach would seem to fit well with the second model of partiality outlined earlier – whereby special value is attached to relationships, but this is weighed against other considerations in moral decision-making. The weighing is difficult: many would think it implausible, for instance, that the moral value attached to a relationship outweighs multiple lives (or even one). In the burning building case, this approach may not provide enough to save one’s wife over two strangers. It may be enough to justify buying one’s wife a birthday present, even if this money could be donated to charity.

Limits of a consequentialist approach to partiality

The ‘independent value’ approach to partiality means that one must take into account the independent value generated by relationships that are not one’s own. In the burning building case, I must also consider the marriages of strangers and the impact my decision will have on them. In other words, preferring one’s own relationships is not permitted when other relationships are also affected. This is counterintuitive if the motivation for giving value to relationships is in order to prioritise those who are near and dear to me.

However, there may be structures of partiality’s moral value which make it difficult to generate moral value from relationships other than one’s own. Suppose moral value consisted in ‘choosing your wife’s life over another’s’. In this instance, it is theoretically possible but practically difficult to conceive of a situation where one can create that sort of moral value in a relationship other than one’s own.

Of course, there may be instances where one can create situations where another individual faces the kind of choice where they can choose their own spouse’s life over a stranger’s, but it is impossible to guarantee that they will make the right choice, and the overall moral value of this sort of situation may be undesirable.

It is not implausible that these kinds of decisions have moral value, since they seem to derive from taking certain relationships seriously; indeed the one described above could arguably be derived from taking marriage vows seriously.


A good option for Christian effective altruism is to recognise the independent moral value generated by certain kinds of relationships, while not seeing partiality as side constraints. This means relational value can be weighed against other moral values. However, as explored in the final section, it is important to factor in (a) the impact our actions can have on other individuals’ valuable relationships, and (b) that sometimes there may be high moral value attached to specific decisions that realistically only we can make.

One thought on “A Christian effective altruist approach to partiality

  1. Thanks very much for this whole clarifying and illuminating post.

    One issue I would like to add is that, in practice, a significant reason for partiality might simply be division of labour: I provide lunch for my child and my neighbour for his child, Scotland provides welfare for its citizens and Wales for its citizens, I give presents to those close to me and a South African gives presents to those close to her, etc. According to this rationale, having everyone adopt a general rule of caring for those close to them is simply a a helpful tool for maximizing goodness (where goodness might or might not include relationships as an intrinsic source of goodness).

    I mention this because it doesn’t necessarily fit under either of the two rationales for partiality which are mentionied under “how partiality operates”.

    P.S.: After our recent discussions I did start to find it helpful to use the veil of ignorance as a *rough*, practical tool for making more precise how radical we are in supporting/dismissing partiality. Whenever someone proposes that people follow (or even internalize) partial rules, we can ask: If you were behind the veil of ignorance and didn’t know who you will be born as and if you had to propose the moral rules that people will follow/internalize, would you propose partial rules or not?

    It seems to me that this benchmark is helpful in multiple ways:

    (1) Someone who would support very radical, very genuine forms of partiality would reject this as the wrong question/benchmark to start with: for them, what I ought to do cannot be determined on the basis of such an impartially determined rule.

    (2) Someone who agrees that this is a good question and answers the question by proposing the rules *exclusively* on the basis of which rules would maximize her own expected value (as seen from behind the veil of ignorance), will support partiality only insofar as it is justified on a consequentialist basis.

    (3) Someone who agrees that this is a good question and answers the question by proposing the rules *not* exclusively on the basis of which rules would maximize her own expected value (but rather, in addition, on the basis of things like side constraints she believes in behind the veil of ignorance), will support partiality on the basis of rationales beyond consequentialist rationales.


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