Saturday, July 13, 2013

Simon Keller's "Partiality"

Simon Keller is associate professor of philosophy at Victoria University, Wellington. He is the author of The Limits of Loyalty.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Partiality, and reported the following:
Sadly, I hope that page 99 of Partialty does not reveal the nature of the whole book. Partiality is a work in moral philosophy, and page 99 finds me engaged in an activity of which philosophers are perhaps a little too fond: drawing distinctions. The page is part of a brief passage in which I clear some conceptual ground before giving my answer to the question of why we should we give special treatment to our friends and loved ones – why we should sometimes be partial, not impartial.

To understand page 99 and its role in the book, you need to know about Bill and Mary, whom I imagine (indulge me) to be your parents. Imagine hearing that your parents have been the victims of a house fire. You should immediately rush to comfort them – but why? The answer I give is inspired by an elusive suggestion from Iris Murdoch. Loving another person, says Murdoch, requires “really looking”: seeing the person as she is in her own right, with your own self and your own needs dropping from view. So your reason to rush to comfort your parents, I say, is that they are Bill and Mary. Your reason is not simply that you care about them, and not simply that they are your parents. It comes rather from their importance as particular distinct individuals, considered in their own rights.

Page 99 draws distinctions between some different things we might mean when we say that Bill and Mary are valuable, and when we say that their value gives you a reason to rush to their aid. Those distinctions in hand, I am able to go on to articulate and argue for my Murdoch-inspired position. If I am right, then to understand the morality of partiality – and in particular the experience of acting out of special concern for another person – we need to focus on a good old Enlightenment value: the value of individual persons, as persons. To see how that value can give reasons to be partial, not always impartial, we need to rethink not the value itself, but rather the responses we give to it, in particular manifestations and contexts. That, I hope, is what makes the book interesting. But you wouldn’t know it from page 99.
Learn more about Partiality at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue