The argument from impartiality

The argument from impartiality

The argument from impartiality states that speciesism is incompatible with fairness. It can be presented against any kind of position that maintains that it’s justified to treat nonhuman animals worse than human beings. According to the argument from impartiality, maintaining such a position is a form of discrimination.1

The argument shows that the following three ideas cannot be defended at the same time:

(1) A decision can only be just if it’s decided in an impartial manner.

(2) If we were discriminated against as nonhuman animals are, we would find it unacceptable.

(3) Discrimination against nonhuman animals is acceptable.

It is very difficult to reject the first position. The consequences would be enormous, as it goes against what most people consider a basic concept of ethics and justice.

The second position is also very hard to deny. There may be those who, with the intention of denying that we should respect nonhuman animals, would defend the claim that we should not be respected if we were in their place. But this is really hard to believe. If we’re being sincere, it’s difficult to reject the idea that we would not want others to behave towards us in the way that humans normally behave towards nonhuman animals (for example, in exploiting them, or in refusing to help them.)

If we accept the first two ideas above, we can’t defend the third position – we can’t say that discrimination against nonhuman animals is acceptable, because it causes a contradiction between what we think fair in some cases and what we think fair in other cases (depending only on whether we are the one suffering that discrimination or not).

However, many people want to hold all three of these positions. To try to avoid the contradiction this entails, some try to claim that there are reasons why they should not be treated the way animals are if they were in the animals’ place. For example, they say they would have to be respected because they belong to the human species, or because they have certain capacities that other animals lack.

However, such a response is not valid. Someone who was truly putting themselves in the place of others would not make such a claim.

Another way to examine this is to imagine a hypothetical situation to help us think about what is just. Imagine that we knew we were about to be born into the world but we didn’t know what place we would occupy. Suppose that we didn’t know what sex or species we would be, what our intellectual capacities would be, etc. And suppose that we were able to decide, in that pre-embodied state, what the moral and political principles of the world would be.2

This imaginary scenario is useful for thinking about this because it deals with the fairness of conditions. And, in a case like this, if we acted according to how we might be affected, we would defend the position that nobody should suffer any type of discrimination. We would oppose anything that might result in discrimination against us because we didn’t have certain capacities. We would also reject the position that some should receive more benefits than others simply because they belong to a particular group.

Membership in a certain group is merely a matter of chance. (And it’s for this reason, as is explained in Begging the question, that defending speciesism on such an arbitrary basis has no justification.) If those who defend speciesism belonged to a different species, they would suffer the same harms that nonhuman animals do now.

Therefore, in the situation described above, if we were truly being impartial, the possibility that we could be born as a nonhuman animal means that we would choose a situation in which the interests of nonhuman animals were adequately protected.3

All of this means, in short, that if we consider it impartially, we would not accept treating nonhuman animals worse than humans. Therefore the position that nonhuman animals should be treated worse than humans is unfair. It is a form of discrimination.

Most of us assume that situations in which others would benefit from our being harmed by unequal treatment would be unacceptable. Impartiality means that, in the inverse case, we could not accept a situation in which we benefited from others being harmed by unequal treatment. This shows that we must make a choice between consistency and discrimination, including speciesism. If we continue discriminating against nonhuman animals then we are no longer maintaining a position that is fair and consistent, and therefore morally acceptable.

Further readings

Baier, K. (1958) The moral point of view: A rational basis of ethics, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Barry, B. (1995) Justice as impartiality, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brandt, R. (1954) “The definition of an ‘ideal observer’ in ethics”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 15, pp. 407-413.

Gert, B. (1995) “Moral impartiality”, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 20, pp. 102-127.

Hare, R. M. (1981) Moral thinking, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harsanyi, J. C. (1977) Rational behavior and bargaining equilibrium in games and social situations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Henberg, M. C. (1978) “Impartiality”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 8, pp. 715-724.

Kekes, J. (1981) “Morality and impartiality”, American Philosophical Quarterly, 18, pp. 295-303.

Nagel, T. (1986) The view from nowhere, New York: Oxford University Press.

Nagel, T. (1991) Equality and partiality, New York: Oxford University Press.

Rawls, J. (2001) Justice as fairness: A Restatement, Cambridge: Belknap.

Sidgwick, H. (1907) The methods of ethics, 7th ed., London: Macmillan [accessed on 15 April 2018].

Singer, P. (1972) “Famine, affluence, and morality”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1, pp. 229-243.

Teitelman, M. (1972) “The limits of individualism”, Journal of Philosophy, 69, pp. 545-556.

Wolf, S. (1992) “Morality and partiality”, Philosophical Perspectives, 6, pp. 243-259.


1 Lippert-Rasmussen, K. (2006) “Private discrimination: A prioritarian, desert-accommodating account”, San Diego Law Review, 43, pp. 817-856. Horta, O. (2010) “Discrimination in terms of moral exclusion”, Theoria: Swedish Journal of Philosophy, 76, pp. 346-364 [accessed on 13 February 2014].

2 The model on which this argument is based has been presented in Harsanyi, J. C. (1982) “Morality and the theory of rational behaviour”, in Sen, A. K. & Williams, B. A. O. (eds.) Utilitarianism and beyond, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 39-62; as well as in Brandt, R. B. (1979) A theory of the good and the right, Oxford: Clarendon. However, its best known presentation is in Rawls, J. (1999 [1971]) A theory of justice, rev. ed., Cambridge: Harvard University Press. An alternative conception can be seen also in Scanlon, T. M. (1998) What we owe to each other, Cambridge: Belknap.

3 For the application of this model to nonhuman animals see: VanDeVeer, D. (1979) “Of beasts, persons and the original position”, The Monist, 62, pp. 368-377; Rowlands, M. (2009 [1998]) Animal rights: Moral, theory and practice, 2nd ed., New York: Palgrave Macmillan. A work in which the idea that the conditions of justice derived from a position in which we examine the matter impartially does not entail equal consideration for nonhuman animals is criticized is Nussbaum, M. C. (2006) Frontiers of justice: Disability, nationality, species membership, Cambridge: Belknap. Other works in which the idea of justice for animals is defended but without a formulation as the one presented here are Regan, T. & VanDeVeer, D. (eds.) (1982) And justice for all, Totowa: Rowan and Littlefield; Opotow, S. (1993) “Animals and the scope of justice”, Journal of Social Issues, 49, pp. 71-86. See also VanDeVeer, D. (1987) “Interspecific justice”, The Monist, 22, pp. 55-79.