Four steps for toning down partiality

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by Dominic Roser


Peter Singer, a leading effective altruist, supported his mother when she suffered from Alzheimer’s. Critics were quick to ask whether he behaved consistently with his professed belief in impartiality. Couldn’t he have done more good by spending his time and money not on his mother, but on more effective causes with anonymous beneficiaries?

Impartiality presents a challenge to all of us. We are torn between wanting to avoid favouritism while also wanting to prioritise those who are near and dear to us – in particular,  special relationships such as our spouses.

However, even if we grant that there are legitimate cases of partiality, I want to suggest that these cases are fewer than we assume. Given this, I present four steps for ‘toning down’ partiality. This offers a ‘middle way’ for those who approve of partiality towards the near and dear but who also worry that this might come at the expense of supporting those far away.

1. Financially Light Partiality

Money is a very efficient means for helping people far away, but relationships with our near and dear can be financially costly, whether it’s birthday presents or children’s inheritance. This is particularly so in our time. In earlier periods of history everyone was poor and supporting the near and dear therefore didn’t imply foregoing tremendous amounts of support for strangers. Today, it does. 

Step 1 is therefore about identifying ways of developing those relationships through non-financial means. For instance, when meeting a friend I can picnic in a park instead of going out for lunch, or when celebrating a birthday I can make a card instead of shopping for expensive gifts on Amazon. 

This works best if our families and friends are on board too. Ideally we can be like the Apostle Peter, and tell our close ones: “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you.” 

There may be additional benefits to de-materializing our relationships. Love of wealth is a big temptation and therefore spiritual danger, to the extent that even secular billionaires question whether bequeathing their material belongings benefits their children. Christians should prioritise moving away from using money to signify relational depth.

2. Gentler Partiality 

If we are to be partial, let’s be lightly partial. This means expressing partiality gently: small, rather than extravagant, acts of partiality still act as good signals for our preferences towards those who are near and dear. 

What’s more, weak partiality can sometimes even send a more appropriate message than strong partiality. For example, our children shouldn’t get the impression that our loyalty belongs exclusively to them, rather than also to our sisters and brothers globally. 

Sometimes partiality is justified on the grounds of an effective division of labour: if everybody needs to be cared for, it makes sense for people to be cared for by those close to them. It makes sense for parents to each look out for their own children, for instance, rather than attempt to all look after everyone’s children. 

This makes sense, but this reasoning potentially applies less in today’s globalised world. Globalisation makes it easier to care for those who are distant. In fact, when it comes to donating money, evidence suggests that it is far more efficient to give to those further away.

So how much partiality is too much? It is difficult to say but note that the status quo is probably too much. This is so not least because self-interest – we can expect reciprocal favours from the near and dear – also pushes towards too much partiality. Jesus incisively noted that even sinners do good to those who do good to them.

3. Partiality for Fewer Relationships

Partiality is sometimes justified on the grounds that relationships are an essential part of a flourishing life (as Christians are particularly keen to emphasize), and that we couldn’t really have relationships without allowing for some partiality. 

However, this argument only supports partiality within certain relationships: relationships which are deeply valuable and which cannot thrive without partiality. This might lead us to affirm partiality towards close family, close friends, and our local church. In contrast, it is less clear why prioritising compatriots, the geographically proximate, or the global body of Christ would be acceptable.

Thus, while partiality towards the near and dear is important, partiality towards the somewhat near and dear is much less so. A good test for any instance of partiality is whether it is necessary to make the kind of relationships possible that truly matter. 

4. Fewer Relationships

This section is only addressed towards a small minority of readers: those who – through their personality, social circumstances, or calling – have more than enough friends. Christianity emphasises the tremendous importance of relationships, but this is not the only important thing on the Christian worldview. If all one’s weekends are filled with having coffee with random old friends from elementary school, this can drain one’s energy and time, which could be used for caring for anonymous individuals who are in greater need. 

One could of course argue – in line with the previous section – for selective partiality: rather than reducing the amount of relationships, we should keep partiality out of certain relationships. However, it is not clear that we actually can be partial on a case-by-case basis. If we want to cultivate healthy and stable relationships we might need to internalise a general habit of giving special attention to our near and dear. 

If relational commitments thus can’t be divorced from partiality and if partiality must be reduced for the sake of helping those who are more distant, we might sometimes need to reduce our relational commitments. Paul, for example, highlighted how refraining from a marriage relationship frees up resources for undivided devotion to God. A less extreme case would be a church member who has a time-consuming but extremely valuable job and who therefore deliberately let’s other church members invite newcomers for lunch.

Conclusion

Every human is equally valuable and equally loved by God. Some argue that we should therefore give no special attention to those close to us at all. This might be correct. However, this blogpost suggests that even if it is right to prioritise the near and dear, there are four steps we can take to mitigate our exaggerated partiality. These steps help us to cultivate deep relationships while supporting strangers in need. If we’re partial then let’s at most be partially partial.

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