No doubt, many of us, when asked where we stand on moral, political, or racial issues, claim “impartiality.” In our minds, that may mean “I don’t take sides, I accept all as equally justified in their claims and efforts.” But are we really impartial? We can begin with the dictionary definition: “Treating or affecting all equally. The inclination to weigh both views or opinions equally.” It defines someone who is not directly involved in a particular situation and is, therefore, able to give a fair opinion or decision about it. Sounds easy, doesn’t it. But it’s not.

Here is what psychologists have to say, it is all too easy to assume that the word impartiality must denote a positive, unitary concept – presumably a concept closely linked with, if not identical to, morality. This, however, is simply not the case. Rather, there are various sorts of behavior that may be described as ‘impartial,’ and some of these obviously have little or nothing to do with morality. A person who chooses to vote for a candidate for the local school board based on her friends’ recommendations may be entirely impartial between the various other candidates with respect to their gender, age, or where they went to school. The reason she voted for the one she did is because of her friends.

Yet, if her choice is motivated solely by rational self-interested considerations, then it is clear that the impartiality, she manifests is in no way a form of moral impartiality. To take a more extreme case, consider an arsonist who chooses his victims on the basis of the neighborhood they live in. The arsonist may be impartial with respect to his victims’ occupations, religious beliefs, and so forth, but it would be absurd to regard this as a form of moral impartiality.

It is also worth noting that some types of impartiality may in themselves be immoral or morally questionable. Suppose that you decide to pass along a treasured family heirloom to one of your two sons, Bill and Phil. Flipping a coin would constitute one type of impartial procedure for choosing between the two. But suppose that you have already promised the heirloom to Phil on several occasions. In this case, it would be quite wrong to allow a coin toss to determine whether he gets it. Deciding by means of a coin toss would be an impartial procedure, but it would be the wrong sort of impartiality here, for it would ignore the moral obligation created by my previous promises.

The word ‘impartiality,’ then, picks out a broad concept that need not have anything to do with morality. In this broad sense, impartiality is probably best characterized in a negative rather than positive manner: an impartial choice is simply one in which a certain sort of consideration (i.e. some property of the individuals being chosen between) has no influence.

An analysis along these lines has been proposed by Bernard Gert, who holds that Alfred is impartial with respect to Ralph’s participation in an environmental group. However, Alfred’s impartiality with respect to Ralph must not be influenced at all by what member(s) of how the environmental group may benefit or harm others by their actions. (Gert 1995, p.104). Thus, for Professor Gert, impartiality with Ralph is a proper set of decisions made without including feelings toward a particular group. Once any bias or support for the group is included, the impartiality is gone.

The principle of impartiality is central to practical ethical theories. It calls for an impartial appraisal of a situation, followed by the morally appropriate response.  These impartial moral theories require an individual to set aside personal interests and considerations, that is, they require us to make decisions based on an objective criterion, rather than personal bias. An impartial decision, in short, is one in which certain considerations (particularly personal ones) have no influence on the deliberation involved in the decision.

The impartial value is represented in practical theories in their insistence that outcomes or states of affairs are the solely relevant considerations in determining the appropriate moral action.  Noticeably absent from this view is a place for the personal considerations of an individual.  Thus, the practical agent is not permitted to favor himself or herself, or his or her family, friends, and loved ones when deliberating over a decision.  Rather, the agent is morally required to act to bring about the best outcomes regardless of the beneficiaries of those actions.

To illustrate the principle of impartiality, consider the following case.  A member of the ET squad is faced with a dilemma: they can either answer the call for help from the police for a DUI suspect involved in a vehicle accident, or the call from the police for help to rescue a family member involved in the same accident, but they cannot handle both at the same time.  According to practical thinking, the fact that one is the ET’s cousin is not a consideration that overrides the practical duty to bring about the best outcome, which they will achieve by rescuing the DUI driver. It will be a hard choice, but being impartial is the main object. That means not only doing what is right, but what is best for the other person involved.

The Bible is not silent on this subject of impartiality. We find that God shows no partiality.[1] And He instructed Moses to write, “Be fair in how you judge. Do not show favor to the poor or to the great. Be fair in how you judge your neighbor.”[2] And the Psalmist says that when the LORD comes (speaking of the Messiah), He will be right in what He decides about the world. And He will be fair to the people.[3]

That’s why the Apostle Peter stated that “I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism. In every nation, He accepts those who reverence Him and do what is right.[4] The Apostle Paul said that those who become part of the family of God does not see them as Jews or as Greeks. (To this we can add, Black, Brown, or White). He does not look at them as a servant or as a person free to work. He does not notice them as a man or as a woman. They are all equal in Christ.[5] Also, the Apostle James says it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures:[6] “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[7]

However, being impartial does not mean turning a blind eye to what is evil and destructive. First of all, we must determine the intentions of the individual or individuals involved. If we see a neighbor beating his wife on the back and arms and legs, we might conclude that he is abusing her. But when we find out she stepped into a fire ant nest; we can understand his motive was to get rid of the stinging ants. If we see a mother in a Mall food court grab an item from her son’s plate to keep him from eating it, we might change our minds about what we thought she was doing when we find out that her son has a severe allergic reaction to that type of food.

So, before we judge whether someone is being biased or impartial, first find out their intention in performing the act that made you wonder. After all, God did not call us to be judges, He called us to be peacemakers.[8] That doesn’t mean we excuse those who commit harmful, senseless, acts of violence and destruction, but you remain impartial until all the facts are in. Nor should we try to be impartial as a result of some guilt complex over the sins of past generations. Furthermore, you are not being impartial if you try to ingratiate yourself to someone just to appease the individual into thinking you’re really on their side. Remember, there is only one Judge, and that is God. – Dr. Robert R Seyda

[1] Romans 2:11

[2] Leviticus 19:15

[3] Psalm 98:9

[4] Acts of the Apostle 10:34-35

[5] Galatians 3:28

[6] Leviticus 19:18

[7] James 2:8

[8] Matthew 5:9

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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