Impartiality is a broad concept that is commonly understood as a principle of justice. Often viewed as synonymous with fair-mindedness, impartiality holds that decisions should be based on objective criteria rather than on the basis of bias, prejudice, or preferring to benefit one person over another for "improper reasons."[1] We typically associate impartiality with certain professions such as judges and administrators. Impartiality is frequently identified as a core value in professional codes of ethics. The Government of Canada names impartiality among its public service values, and the federal Health Products and Food Branch "takes pride in being an impartial scientific and regulatory authority."[2] We expect a good parent to treat her children impartially, without showing favortism to one child over the others.

Moral Impartiality

Within the scholarly literature, the broad concept of impartiality is frequently displaced by the more specific notion of moral impartiality. While the "moral" descriptor may not be explicitly stated, it is generally accepted as implied. Impartiality, according to this view, may be desirable or undesirable in the context of ethical decision-making.

Moral Impartiality in Different Ethical Frameworks

Diversity in China

Ethical thought in China can be traced to the time of Confucius (551-479 BCE). Confucians believed that the ideal society possessed moral character in addition to external goods. For Confucians, moral character required "universal altruism," meaning that the scope of a person's caring should extend to strangers as well as close relations. Impartiality, however, was not an expectation under Confucianism. It was understood that persons would, by nature, care more deeply for family members than for strangers.

As a Chinese school of ethical thought, Mohism was once viewed as the only rival to Confucianism. Like the Confucians, Mohists believed in universal altruism. Unlike the Confucians, however, they argued for "impartial caring" (juan-ai) and insisted that all persons hold an obligation to care for everyone in the world equally and impartially.[3]

Adam Smith and the "Impartial Spectator"

In the eighteenth century, British philosopher Adam Smith identified the moral point of view with that of an "impartial spectator."[4] According to Smith, imagination played a central role in the human experience. In order for us to make a moral judgement on the behaviour of others, we must be able to adopt the perspective of an impartial spectator, imagining ourselves in the circumstances of those whom we judge. We can approve of the behaviour of others if the behaviour resembles that which we imagine ourselves experiencing in the same situation. Described in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith's notion of the impartial spectator extended substantial influence on subsequent ethical theory.

Immanuel Kant and Impartiality of the Categorical Imperative

For German philosopher Immanuel Kant, impartiality was vital to the moral life. Kant believed that philosophers too often confused moral actions with self-serving actions, mistakenly urging as to make "moral choices" as a means toward happiness. According to Kant, this approach to morality led us to continually make exceptions for ourselves, treating our personal desires as excuses for self-serving behaviour.

Kant espoused a deontological moral theory, the heart of which was grounded in his principle of the Categorical Imperative. While Kant provided three formulations of the Categorical Imperative, it is the first, Categorical Imperative I, which emphasizes impartiality. Categorical Imperative I states that we must not act on any personal maxim which we could not consistently will to be a universal law.[5] In contrast to his "Hypothetical Imperatives," which give us direction to perform those actions that would hypothetically serve only our own aims and interests, Kant viewed the Categorical Imperative as an unconditionally necessary command of reason that prescribes as act as good in and of itself. In other words, regardless of whether an action will contribute to our own happiness, we are morally obligated to take an impartial view and act accordingly.

John Rawls and the "Difference Principle"

In recent times, one of the more influential works in moral philosophy has been John Rawls' A Theory of Justice. A professor of philosophy at Harvard University, Rawls espoused a liberal approach to justice whereby individuals should enjoy maximum freedom to pursue their life goals. For Rawls, this individual freedom should be in place so long as it does not prevent others from successfully pursuing their own goals.However, unlike Smith and Kant, Rawls did not view impartiality as an essential characteristic of moral action. On the contrary, he argued that we must sometimes dispense with impartiality and, instead, treat others differently in order to achieve true justice. Rawls called this "the difference principle."[6]

According to the difference principle, it is just to provide some individuals with an advantage if doing so would benefit the less privileged members of society. For example, it might allow special consideration for persons who have traditionally been marginalized or subject to discrimination. The difference principle has been associated with affirmative action programs, which are designed to "level the playing field" in areas such a hiring and university admissions. In such instances, the difference principle may be viewed as a contributor to justice because it allows, for example, persons with visible disabilities to successfully compete.

Contemporary Issues in Impartiality

While the adage, "buyer beware," is well known among generations young and old, it takes on new meaning in the digital information age where consumers are being presented with unprecedented volumes of information from sources both credible and non-credible. Traditional assumptions of impartiality -- such as those associated with journalism and health information -- are no longer valid prima facie. For example, in a 2011 report to the UK Government, representatives from US-owned FOX News acknowledged what audiences and media critics have long observed -- that the conservative news outlet offers "opinionated" news content to its viewers. FOX is far from alone in its divergence from editorial principles of impartiality. In Canada, Sun News, a limited distribution cable and satellite network, has been called "FOX News North," prompting an influx of consumer complaints[7] to the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC).
  1. ^ Jollimore, T. (2011). Impartiality. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from
  2. ^ Health Canada, Health Products and Food Branch. (2012). Health Products and Food Branch 2012-2015 Strategic Plan. Retrieved from
  3. ^ Xiao, Y. (2010). In J. Skorupski (Ed.), The Routledge companion to ethics (3-20). New York: Routledge.
  4. ^ Cottingham, J. (2010). In J. Skorupski (Ed.), The Routledge companion to ethics (617-627). New York: Routledge.
  5. ^ Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.
  6. ^ Hinman, L. M. (2013). Contemporary moral issues: Diversity and consensus (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
  7. ^ Castaldo, J. (2013, April 24). The Sun also sets. Retrieved from