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What is impartiality for a judge deciding something like a legal case? I'm not asking about an impartial decision by the judge, but about an impartial situation. For instance, I'm necessarily partial (in this sense) when deciding a case concerning myself. But it seems that I'm also partial when deciding a case concerning my children, since I love them a lot. A racist is necessarily partial when deciding a case between people from different races, isn't he/she? What about a human deciding a case related to the interests of animals? And what about any decent person deciding a case against a criminal?

February 28, 2013

Response from Allen Stairs on March 2, 2013
I'm a little worried about the distinction between the decision and the situation. A judge's decision is impartial, roughly, if it amounts to applying the law to the facts as opposed to tinkering with what the law actually calls for or what the facts actually amount to. The decision can be impartial even if the judge privately wishes that the right verdict were otherwise. A simple example: I might judge that one of two students deserves a prize because his record is stronger, even though I wish the other student were the one who should win. My judgment is impartial even though I have private and partial attitudes that, if acted on, might lead to a different result. Is the situation impartial? Perhaps not; I do, after all have a preference about how I wish things would turn out. But that's consistent with the decision being impartial. That's because there are many cases where we're capable of setting our personal views aside. And that's all we can reasonably ask.

That said, in some cases it's asking too much to expect the person judging to put his or her views aside. For example: it would be asking too much in a legal case to expect a judge to act impartially if the defendant were his or her spouse or business partner or friend.

The phrase "impartial situation" isn't one I've heard used and I'd prefer to say that a situation is conducive to impartiality. We might say that a judgment situation is is conducive to impartiality if we can reasonably expect the person making the judgment to decide impartially. The crucial thing is that it doesn't have to be a case where the person judging has no private preferences; it just has to be one where those preferences can be put aside.

Which situations are those? There's no good blanket answer, but a decent human being might well be able to decide whether a defendant is guilty under the law even if what the defendant is accused of is pretty nasty. And if the accused is found guilty, a decent human being might well be able to decide that the law doesn't allow for a certain harsh penalty even if the person deciding privately wishes it did. That seems to me to be all we can reasonably ask.


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