Scholarly Comments on Academic Economics

Natural and Artificial Impartiality

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Abstract

Under the influence of social contract theory, political philosophers typically assume that it is the job of participants in, and only participants in, a given scheme of social cooperation to determine how it is to be run. Yet since participants in a given scheme are always biased, the formulation of fair principles or policies requires that they adopt an imagined impartial perspective—which I term artificial impartiality. John Rawls’s appeal to the original position is the classic example of such artificial impartiality; Adam Smith’s appeal to an impartial spectator has recently been interpreted along similar lines. Smith’s impartial spectators, however, are real more often than they are imaginary; Smith believes that with regard to most conflicts in which we are not participants most of us are naturally impartial. This essay argues that an easy way to improve theorizing about justice is to shift the focus from participant perspectives (including their imagined, artificial constructs of impartiality) to the perspective of naturally impartial spectators. While artificial impartiality must continue to play an important role in political philosophizing, it will work more effectively in conjunction with greater use of natural impartiality.