2.12 The Principle of Impartiality

Back to 2.11 The Socio-Personal Principle

2.12.1 I would like to go into more detail on the implications of the Socio-Personal Principle in terms of the individual and his/her moral thinking. While pure Objectivism starts with individuals, and collectivism starts with society, Socio-Person Humanism starts with situations.

2.12.2 All ethical dilemmas should be approached by looking at the situation existentially, from the outside. The ethical person should attempt to discipline their mind so as to be able to look at situations from a bird’s eye view, without concern for which individual is themselves or which side is theirs. Once this level of impartiality is achieved, the dilemma can be addressed on a hypothetical level. I realize that human nature makes this goal unattainable in perfection. But I am speaking here in extremes, to provide the ideal as a mark to get as close to as possible.

2.12.3 In approaching the ethical dilemma hypothetically, the first thing to do is to construct a mental model of the situation and all of the people involved or affected. One should ensure that the model is as accurate as possible, meaning that every person’s point of view should be considered as best as able and with as little bias as possible. Asking nonjudgmental questions is necessary during this information gathering period.

2.12.4 To begin with, needs should be assessed for each individual and the maximum should be done to assure that everyone’s needs, relevant to the particular situation, are met. In doing this, it may be necessary to prioritize needs. This prioritization should be on the assumption that all individuals are inherently equal and deserving of the same considerations, given their actions and place in the situation. By needs I mean, people would die or undergo severe trauma or injury without them (exceptions to certain needs can sometimes be made in cases where the person him/herself has excluded themselves from the "ethical network" through evil behavior and is unwilling to change).

2.12.5 The next step should be to assess everyone’s rights and responsibilities in the situation and, if their are any contradictory rights, which rights should generally trump which. What does each person have a right to know, have, or do? What do they not have a particular right to? What are their moral obligations? Everything that can be done should be done to ensure that everyone’s rights and responsibilities in the situation are respected. In general I place needs above rights. Suppose two people are stranded and only one of them has water, and plenty to keep them alive until rescued. This water he has bought with his own hard earned money and has a right to it. Nevertheless, he is morally obligated to share. So much so, that not sharing while the other person died would be an act of murder. Of course, exceptions surely exist and this is why I only prioritize needs ahead of rights in general.

2.12.6 After rights come wants or desires. Rights, responsibilities, and needs inherently have a communal dimension. This means that they are shaped by our interactions with one another. There is give and take based on what will work for the overall health of everyone involved and there are prioritizations. "My right to swing my fist stops at your nose" is an example of such prioritizations with respect to rights. With respect to needs, we have a moral obligation to make sure that no one in society is left to die in the street without the minimum resources for survival. However, unlike these, desires do not and should not have a communal dimension in our prioritization. To be more clear, no person’s desires should ever trump another person’s desires or be considered more or less important than another’s. However, desires come last on the list of priorities in a moral dilemma, under needs and under rights and responsibilities. Only once the higher priorities have been taken care of can desires be addressed. Keep in mind that all of this is very general and a great deal of flexibility is needed in order to make the ethical decision in each and every case. My goal here is only to illustrate the general "flavor" of Socio-Personal thinking.

2.12.7 A conflict of desires usually turns out to actually be a conflict of rights. If not, then conflicting desires can only be resolved through compromise, since none of them ever trump another. Questions that might be asked would include: "Is it possible for one person to have their desire any time while the other can only have it at one particular time?", "Has one person gotten his/her way an inordinate amount of times?", "Can a deal be worked out, or some system devised for determining who gets to do what and when?" etc.

2.12.8 By confronting the problem using the steps and priorities outlined from 2.12.2 to 2.12.7, the goal should be to come up with a plan of action for all individuals involved. Once this is done, the person can then "come back into his/her body" so to speak, and take note of two things: 1) proposing the plan to all involved, and 2) doing his/her part in it if approved. In proposing solutions, it is important to stay open and flexible with the plan, listening to what everyone has to say about it. It is possible you may discover things about their positions or the situation that you did not take into account and the plan may need to be modified or reformulated from scratch. The more you can involve everyone in finding a solution, the more workable it will be in the end.

2.12.9 The overall methodology for working out solutions to personal ethical dilemmas within Socio-Personal Humanism requires that we "disembody" ourselves, see everyone in the situation as hypothetical and equal entities, formulate a plan without regard as to which one is ourselves, and then re-enter our bodies and work with all involved to make the plan (or some better version of it) a reality. This is the principle of impartiality. Such an approach is not collectivist in that it does not personify the group and ask, what will make the group function more effectively. Instead it asks, "How can each individual’s rights, responsibilities, needs, and desires be addressed as fully as possible." It is also not purely Objectivist in that one does not begin with the self as a starting point. Instead, all individuals are treated as such.

2.12.10 Here is an extreme example, which may illustrate my point. For the sake of simplicity, let us suppose that we somehow have knowledge of all of the facts involved. Let us suppose that there is one individual named John, who has just figured out a single cure to AIDS, all forms of cancer, old age, and Multiple Sclerosis. Let us also suppose that we know for a fact that no one will come up with anything close to this for at least 200 years. Furthermore, we also know that John needs only to write out his formulas, which will take about a week to do. Unfortunately, John is now trapped inside a burning building. With him is a woman named Amy, who has a history of getting in trouble with the law, and other irresponsible and inconsiderate behavior. Let us suppose that we know for a fact, that Amy will never change. Standing outside is Greg - Amy’s loved one. We also know for certain that Greg has time to only save one of them before the house collapses, killing the other.

2.12.11 Now, if we knew all of these facts for certain, what should Greg do? Although Amy does not lead an exemplary life, Greg loves her very much and greatly needs her love in return. Here we have a moral agent (Greg) and two alternatives, each of which will result in one death – either John or Amy must die, and the actions of Greg will determine the outcome. At this point it doesn’t matter that all human beings are equal, because one of them will die regardless. It also doesn’t matter if Greg has the "right" to make such a decision. Whether he does or does not, his actions or inaction will be a choice he has been stuck with by circumstance. At this point, there is really a balancing of lives. But, given John’s cure, to save John is to save many more lives, millions if not billions. Furthermore, John is almost certainly loved by someone else not present just as strongly as Greg loves Amy. The only ethical choice is for Greg to save John. For Greg to save Amy, would be for him to allow millions to die so that he may enjoy the love that millions of others would not. This would be a nearly unimaginable degree of selfishness.

2.12.12 What is interesting about this example is that I never said which person is you. If you were Greg for example, your job would be to look at the situation form the point of view as we all have just now. Let’s suppose that once you decide that Greg must save John, you "come back down" into your body and see that you are Greg. Now you must act accordingly and save John. If, however, you are Amy, the ethical course would be for us to yell out to Greg and tell him to save John and leave us behind. Interestingly, if you were John, the ethical course would be to yell out to Greg and tell him to save you and leave Amy, despite how hideous this behavior seems.

2.12.13 Of course, in the real world things get a lot more complex. For one, I am not saying that I myself would necessarily have the strength to do the right thing if I were Greg. I am simply saying that the "right" thing for Greg to do is clear and, if I did not do that and instead saved Amy, I would have simply given in to my emotions and done evil for my own self gain. Secondly, in real life our facts are not usually that clear. If this were an actual situation, we would have no way of knowing if Johns cure will work for certain, if someone else might come up with the same thing in a short time, if Amy might change her ways, or if your actions lead to the birth of someone a hundred years from now that destroys the world. And thirdly, not all decisions between who to help are as clear as the guy with a cure vs. the career criminal. Most people will not be so easily weighed and our facts about them and their future actions are also not as clear. In a more common situation where the people are not as different, then choosing the loved one may be perfectly acceptable.

2.12.14 The only answer to this is: we can only do what we can do. By this I mean that, we must get the facts as clear as we humanly can within the time we have to make a moral decision, and then act on our best estimate. I present a factually clear and simplistic example however to illustrate the essence of the ethic and the principle of thinking of your ethical dilemmas existentially. It is our responsibility to live by that ethic, as best as possible given our incomplete information. This will not always lead to the right answer, but it is the best we are capable of as human beings.

Continue to 2.13 The Means/Ends Principle