Why Impartialists Make Good Friends


Why Impartialists Make Good Friends:
A Defense of The Motivational Structure of Consequentalism.

Utilitarians are often thought to make bad friends and lousy lovers. Philosophical heavyweights such as John Rawls and Bernard Williams argue, respectively, that Utilitarianism destroys the distinction between persons and is an attack on our integrity. Even though, as Rawls and Williams show us, the objections to Utilitarianism vary, a common worry does emerge. This worry is something like: without family and friends our lives would be miserable. Meaningful friendships are impossible for utilitarians because their motivation is exclusively to produce the best consequences. So, if we accept a utilitarian doctrine, we will all lead miserable lives. In this paper, I propose a thesis that responds to this objection. I will argue that utilitarians make good friends because the utilitarian principle of impartiality inspires the motivations we associate with friendship. The essence of my thesis is seen in the conclusion of the poem, “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars” by Richard Lovelace.

“Yet this Inconstancy is such, As you too shall adore

I could not love thee Dear so much, Loved I not honor more.”

The utilitarian commitment to impartiality ‘purifies’ the motives of their friendship in a way that a partialist friendship cannot. In a partial friendship, a friend has value because I decide they are worth my care, for instance, because we have similar interests or experiences. No such discretion is available to utilitarians, and this constancy is an attractive characteristic in a friend. When the poem is mutilated to help explicate my thesis, it reads something like, “I could not love thee Dear so much, loved I not interests other than my own more.”

In an effort to make a compelling case for thesis I will take five steps. First, I will present three warnings to clarify the scope of my project. Second, I will present a working definition of friendship that both critics and proponents of utilitarianism can accept. Third, I will endeavor to show that in influential Utilitarian accounts, such as Peter Singer’s, impartiality is presented as lexically prior to utility maximization. Fourth, I will endeavor to show that this lexical priority creates room in the motivational structure of Utilitarianism for a pure dedication to end-friendships. Fifth, I will end where I began, entertaining objections to my thesis.

My first warning is that while this thesis may seem audacious, its goal is a humble one. The goal of this paper is less about proving that Utiliarians make good friends, and more about suggesting that this is an active possibility we ought to consider. I will be satisfied if my thesis sounds less absurd at the end of my paper than it may have at the beginning.

The second warning is that it might seem in this paper that I use Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics as a paradigm case of Utilitarianism. To clarify, the object of this paper is not to advocate for a Singerian reading of Utilitarianism. What I do want to do is emphasize the importance of impartialism in making the case that Utilitarian intuitions are those we associate with friendship. Practical Ethics is emphasized because it emphasizes impartiality. Philosophers such as Lori Gruen argue that even amongst Utilitarians Singer is particularly committed to impartialism. She writes that, “Singer’s version of utilitarianism, unlike other versions of consequentalism, cannot coherently accommodate partial considerations.” (129) While parts of this argument include a close textual reading of Practical Ethics, these sections are meant to emphasize impartiality, and the inconsistency in the positions of objectors, and not to advocate for Singer’s account of Utilitarianism.

The third and final warning responds to the immediate objection that, “Your whole thesis is a mute point. Singer’s impartiality means we would never get to a point where we could have friendships, because we would be too busy sacrificing everything of comparable moral significance!” This objection is especially problematic in that I can respond to it simply, but may never entirely cast it aside. Elinor Mason put it perfectly when she said that, “If personal relationships are a vital pat of human well-being, then consequentalism will recommend rather than oppose them” (393) and Singer himself argues,

“There are Utilitarian reasons for believing that we ought not to try to calculate these consequences for every ethical decision we make in our daily lives, but only very unusual circumstances, or perhaps when we reflecting on our choice of general principles to guide us in future” (13)

An objector might, very fairly, take issue with the rule utilitarianism being adopted by Mason and Singer. Adopting rule Utilitarianism, says the objector, means that Mason and Singer may be good friends, but they are no longer Utilitarians. While I will return to this objection again at the end of the paper, I present it now as a warning in the hopes that the reader will temporarily set it aside and consider the viability of my thesis prior to raising this objection.

To begin, we require a working definition of the relationship at stake: friendship. “Friendship is a distinctively personal relationship that is grounded in a concern on the part of each friend for the welfare of the other, for the other’s sake, and that involves some degree of intimacy” says the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. While no consensus exists in the literature on a definition of friendship, this particular definition is helpful for our purposes because I think even critics of utilitarianism would accept it. What is important to critics of utilitarianism is that, in friendship, a friend is valued as an end in themselves.

One philosopher who argues that friends are necessarily valuable as ends in themselves is Neera Badhwar Kapur. The crux of Kapur’s objection is that the care that we give to a friend, when we love them as an end in themselves, cannot be motivated by utility maximization. The broad scope of Kapur’s objection is important. Kapur takes issue with the teleological conception of consequentalist action: the idea that actions are motivated in terms of their purposes. It is worth noting here, that even though this is not the object of paper, the deontologists are in trouble as well as the consequentalists. Essentially what Kapur is saying to the Deontologists and the Consequentalists is: you cannot care, and caring is what friendship is about.

There are two ways in which a Utilitarian could respond to this objection. First, by denying this definition of friendship as unsound. Second, by showing that they do care. To deny the definition of friendship is not a strong response, and instead turns our discussion into one of semantics. We will attempt the second option available to Utilitarians, to show that they do really care. This is step three, to show that there is space for caring in Utilitarianism and its motives for action.

Objectors to utilitarianism argue that utilitarians are committed to impartiality because they are committed to utility maximization and that utilitarians think that acts should be evaluated based on their consequences. In contrast, Singer begins by refuting this suggestion,

“The way I have thinking differs from Classical Utilitarianism in that ‘best consequences’ is understood as meaning what, on balance, furthers the interests of those affected, rather than what increases pleasure and reduces pain.” (14)

As seen here, Singer does not begin Practical Ethics with utility maximization, but instead by arguing that to be impartial is to be ethical. Singer argues that ethics must be conducted from a universal point of view, and that most everyone agrees with him. From the stoics to the Christians, the existentialists to Habermas, says Singer, almost everyone agrees that acting ethically involves stepping outside ourselves to consider more than what is in our own self-interest.

“One could argue endlessly about the merits of each of these characteristics of the ethics; but what they have in common is more important than their differences. They agree that an ethical principle cannot e justified in relation to any partial or sectional group. Ethics takes a universal point of view” (11)

While Singer’s suggestion that almost everyone is in agreement is certainly audacious, I think his critics help prove him right. While philosophers, such as partialists, object to the impartiality of Singer’s ethics, they do accept Singer’s claim that we all have these things called interests, interests are morally considerable and that acting ethically involves stepping outside myself to consider the interests of others.

While I think it would be a mistake to consider Singer’s principle of equal consideration of interests and ‘The Golden Rule’ as being identical, Singer draws a connection in the text and in the History of Philosophy. “From ancient times, philosophers and moralists have expressed the idea that ethical conduct is acceptable from a point of view that is somehow universal. The ‘Golden Rule’ attributed to Moses… tells us to go beyond our own personal interest and ‘love they neighbor as thyself’ –in other words, give the same weight to the interests of others as one gives to one’s own interest. (Singer, 11)

It would be fair, here, for an objector to accuse me from straying from the topic of this essay, friendship, into the realm of ethics. This objection is an important one. However, what this tangential textual reading of Singer needs to show is that the principle of equal consideration of interests is presented prior to the maximization of utility in the text, not the other way around. When we see Singer say that, “The universal aspect of ethics, I suggest, does provide a persuasive, although not conclusive, reason for taking a broadly utilitarian position.” (14) we have made a space to argue that the motives of Utilitarianism are necessarily concerned with the interests of others in order to be utility maximizing. and for my thesis, we have taken a small step in suggesting that Utilitarianism is commensurate with friendship.

While critics suggest that Utilitarianism is necessarily instrumental, what seems of paramount importance here has nothing to do with instrumentality, and everything to do with making ethics not about me. While Singer thinks that the most compelling ethical theory is utilitarianism, he first argues, and rests his maximization on the ‘Golden Rule Cannon’ of ethics. To be impartial is to be ethical.

Undeterred, utilitarianism’s critics, like Michael Bryon, persist. Byron argesu that what we see in Singer is a filtered, indirect, sophisticated utilitarianism that itself has cast aside and denies, “The logic of the maximizing conception” (25)

What troubles Byron about the logic of the maximizing conception, and what he thinks is totally incommensurate with Utilitarianism, are the terminating conditions for friendships. For Byron, it is in the situations in which utility is the least maximized that friendships matter most. For instance staying by a friend’s bedside through times of great sickness. “It is under such difficult circumstances, when a person is no longer useful or pleasant to be around, that this other kind of friendship is tested” (252) In contrast, if a friend knew that they would be abandoned as soon as utility was not maximized, friendships will be alienating. horrible experiences. “The motivation required for any genuine friendship is not compatible with being prepared to terminate any friendships on the rounds of non-optimality” (390)

Indeed, other Philosopher like Cocking and Oakley agree with Byron that the terminating questions are those upon which the question of friendship rest, “Cocking and Oakley…are prepared to admit that consequentalists can allow their motives for acting on a particular to occasion to be motives of love and friendship.” (387) What they are concerned about is not what moves someone, though, but instead what the relationship is conditional upon.

In response to objections from Byron, Cocking and Oakley, Mason presents a solution by emphasizing the dispositions in which we live our lives. For Mason, “Friendships are contingent on the pro-friendship dispositions maximizing the good…whether this sort of contingency is alienating is an open question.” (391)

The objective of this paper to respond to this open question from Mason and show good reasons for thinking that this contingency is not alienating. When Singer placed equal consideration of interests prior to maximization he made impartiality our justification for maximizing interests. The question here is twofold, why would Singer order impartiality above maximization? Second, why should we accept this order?

Singer’s emphasis on impartiality does more than allow for us to care about others, he demands that we care about others more than we care about ourselves. This Singerian selflessness is evident in a story used by Mason’s to explicate what she means by a pro-friendship disposition.

In Mason’s example, there are two friends named Sam and Polly. In the case, Sam contracts a horrible disease that makes him a pathological liar, angry and verbally abusive. So, in a moment of lucidity, Sam suspends his pro-friendship and, consequently, his friendship with Polly because he knows that while maintaining the friendship is important and would bring him pleasure in his brief moments of lucidity, because he cares about his friend he has no choice but to maximize utility. What is important in this case study is seen more clearly when considered in tandem with another example of my own.

Let us say that you are walking down the street and, all of a sudden, you see your very dearest childhood friend, Tom, whom you have not seen in years. Rather than seeing Tom in a pleasant café, however, he is running into a bank. It is clear that Tom is prepared to rob the bank. You do not know if Tom has lost his mind permanently, or temporarily, or if something more serious is going on. He has always had a difficult life. You see the police running down the street after Tom, and you have two choices. You have an opportunity to throw yourself on top of your friend and prevent him from ruining his own life by robbing the bank, but then you are risking being hurt yourself or being associated with the heist. You know that you have the opportunity to keep your former dear, dear friend out of jail with minimal risk to yourself if you jump on him. What do you do?

In both of these situations, a partial friendship would have the option of allowing you to drag your friend through your chemotherapy treatments or pretend that you never saw your dearest childhood friend throw his life away; but Utilitarianism, with its foundation of impartialism and maximization of utility, would never stand for it; and that is significant. This is the purity of utilitarian motives. If we are really committed to our friendships, we are committed in a utilitarian sense. We are committed to the value of another’s interests irrespective of our own and what we wanted, chemotherapy support or the estrangement of once-cherished friendships. This sort of constancy is associated with the motives we see as commensurate with the deepest of friendships.

The scope of this paper was meager because the argument that Utilitarians make bad friends is as ubiquitous as it is formidable. I am sympathetic to the objections to Utilitarianism insofar as I agree that the burden of proof does remain with Utilitarians to show that the consequences are indeed better, when we maintain friendships. This is by no means a simple endeavor. Complicated questions of sociology, psychology and utility calculation are at stake. The Utilitarian has to show that even if all relationships were not utility maximizing, we would still be better than a life without relationships. Questions of calculation aside, in this paper I hope to have shown that a plausible case exists for seeing the impartialists as potentially being your very best of friends.


Byron, Michael. “Consequentist Friendship and Quasi-Instrumental Goods” Utilitas. Vol. 14, No. 2, July 2002.

Green, Karen. “Distance, Divided Responsibility and Universalizability” The Monist, vol. 86, Peru Illinos, 2003. no.3, pp 501-515.

Gruen, Lori. “Must Utilitarians be Impartial?” in D. Jamieson (ed.). Singer and His Critics (Oxford:Basil Blackwell) pp. 129-149.

Lovelace, Richard. “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 2. P369.

Mason, Elinor. “Can an Indirect Consequentalist Be a Real Friend.? Ethics. January, 1998: 386-393.

Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics. New York. Cambridge University Press, 2nd Edition, 1993.

Leah Trueblood (’09) is a Philosophy major at the University of Alberta

One thought on “Why Impartialists Make Good Friends

  1. Interesting paper. I find the following paragraph genuinely puzzling, though:

    “In both of these situations, a partial friendship would have the option of allowing you to drag your friend through your chemotherapy treatments or pretend that you never saw your dearest childhood friend throw his life away; but Utilitarianism, with its foundation of impartialism and maximization of utility, would never stand for it; and that is significant. This is the purity of utilitarian motives. If we are really committed to our friendships, we are committed in a utilitarian sense. We are committed to the value of another’s interests irrespective of our own and what we wanted, chemotherapy support or the estrangement of once-cherished friendships. This sort of constancy is associated with the motives we see as commensurate with the deepest of friendships.”

    I’m curious what you mean when you say that a “partial friendship” would have the option of allowing you to disregard or act in opposition to your friend’s interest. It seems to me that, even if we accept your suggestion that impartiality is the basis of consequentialism, the problem still runs the other way. Supposing that I do have a relationship with someone that can be characterized as a “partial friendship,” wouldn’t an important element of that relationship just be that I take her interests as having a stronger claim on me than the interests of other people who aren’t my friends? In general, I still don’t see how total impartiality is compatible with the formation of friendships. Sure, a utilitarian of the type you’re describing will find something of objective value in the pursuit of my interests, but it won’t be any different from the value she finds in the pursuit of any other person’s interests. My problem with this is not that I want my utilitarian friend to value others less than he values me; it’s that I want her to find my own personal interests as a special source of motivation. It’s hard to see how, without this element, there could ever be the kind of “intimacy” that seems necessary for a relationship to properly be called a friendship.

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