Impartial Benevolence

I enjoyed a lecture at Lehigh University tonight. The presenter, Professor John Hare of Yale University, did a particularly good job of drawing our attention to the idea of impartial benevolence–its source, the implications of its demands, its relationship to our own desire for self-satisfaction. Several parts of the discussion seemed particularly pertinent.

His description of the concept of impartial benevolence was good. Deciding whether to purchase a nine-dollar movie ticket requires consideration that the same nine dollars could allow someone in a poverty-stricken country like Zambia to live for a week. Impartial benevolence, which seems to be a largely universal standard and is often framed in Good Samaritan terminology, requires one to extract himself from the situation and determine whether to purchase the ticket irrespective of his role as either the purchaser or the starving Zambian.

That’s clear, but painful. A tension exists between this ideal and our capacity for its accomplishment. Our desire for impartial benevolence competes with our desire for self-satisfaction (and the satisfaction of those close to us). Of course, theism offers a solution here.

Another interesting discussion revolved around the source of this Good Samaritan ideal. Although Professor Hare was unaware of examples from the animal kingdom of benevolence for creatures outside of one’s community group (and thus of an evolutionary origin), several questioners pressed this. Could the idea of impartial benevolence be the step in evolution that allows our species to exist despite its capacity for self-destruction? Could the idea of impartial benevolence–and thus of Good Samaritans–be the invention of those who believe that the construction of such indivuals benefits the larger society? Great interactions.

In the end, Professor Hare, although allowing for non-theistic incentives to act impartially benevolent, conveyed Kant’s sense that non-theistic alternatives are “rationally unstable.” It is God who presents mankind with the notion of impartial benevolence and offers a clear path toward its realization. Super.


~ by shad on March 24, 2009.

4 Responses to “Impartial Benevolence”

  1. Hey bro,

    Thanks for the positive feedback on the blog. Hey.., if you see anything like this popping up in the future, let me know. I would be interested in attending such events. Sounds like it was great!



  2. That sounds incredibly interesting. How was the attendance?

  3. Yeah, it was pretty well attended. Maybe 70 people? Some philosophy students. Some Christian alumni. Some who had enjoyed Prof. Hare’s books. Good time.

  4. Oh no–I totally forgot about it! I had it penciled into my calendar. Glad to hear it went well, though. Sounds really interesting!

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