Partiality As Life-Philosophy: Reconciling Morality with Life

First, a story. Not mine, Plato’s.

Socrates faces the end of his life. The Athenian jury condemned him to death months ago, the sacred rite during which executions are prohibited ended yesterday, and he has so many times refused to allow his friends to aid in an escape that they no longer bother him with it. But they still come. They come to do what Socrates has always taught them to do: question, postulate, discuss, question again, question again. Phaedo, Apollodorus, Simmias, and Cebes have come, even Crito has found a place to sit and rest his aged legs while he farewells his old friend. The guard, Ctesippus, must come soon, but in the many months of Socrates’ stay at the jail he has come to know Socrates well and wishes to delay his duty as long as possible.

Here at the precipice of his death, Socrates is visited by his family: Xanthippe his wife, Lamprocles his teenage son, and the two babies. Pheado, the teller of this tale, is pre-occupied with the philosophical dialogue at hand and so we do not know what Socrates said to his grieving wife and children. There was speculation (primarily from Xenophon) of much animosity within the family (specifically, that Xanthippe was a harsh mother and argumentative wife), but this is largely believed to be apocryphal (if she disliked him so much, why would she be with him on the eve of his death?). Nevertheless, Plato tells us that Socrates neither labored for money nor visited home very often, preferring the company of his students and the public marketplace- it is unlikely this state of affairs was very conducive to a healthy family atmosphere (especially in ancient Athens, where women could barely leave the house without their husbands). When Socrates returns to the dialogue, he tells his friends “I sent the women away, to avoid unseemliness, for I am told one should die in a good omened silence:” he did not want the grieving of his family to disrupt the discussion and respect of his death (Plato 117e).

If one has come to the position of admiring Socrates’ moral spirit (as Plato wishes us to), this sudden heartlessness comes as quite a surprise. This man, willing to die rather than violate a promise or desist philosophizing, suddenly turns on a value we hold to be most dear (family) and off-handedly rejects it. Though this particular event is not emphasized by Plato, it does fit with Plato’s general conception of Socrates as a man who ignores traditional worldly concerns for the sake of his moral calling (philosophy). Family, while important (just as much to the Ancient Greeks as it is now), pales in comparison to the divinely sanctioned duty to philosophy that Socrates serves. However, if we consider things from Xanthippe’s (or better yet, Lamprocles’) view, the callousness and alienation of this “philosophical” action should show us just how much partiality is necessary to any normative philosophy.

To probe this point further, let us consider not Plato’s superhumanly moral Socrates, but Socrates as normal, but still moral, man. Assuming that events did actually transpire as Plato tells them, what could Socrates have been thinking? Certainly, Socrates thought that philosophizing   was a morally righteous action, but he has said the same of true friendship and family elsewhere. Moreover, Socrates sent specifically his family away. He did not send other friends away, nor did he send his more lackluster students away (in fact, Cebes and Simmias, the primary interlocutors of the dialogue, are total strangers). Socrates’ motives seem to specifically orient around continuing a philosophical dialogue despite the circumstances, and yet without Plato’s aura of moral genius to explain this away, this behavior seems rather bizarre from a human near death. Perhaps I have over explained, for the motive which makes sense of Socrates’ action should be obvious to any (remaining) reader of this paper: a love of and dedication to philosophy. How do we explain this philosophical calling (as Socrates himself explains it in the Apology)? Socrates clearly considers it a duty, yet he also pursues it freely (he would not have it any other way) and partially (he does not, in this dialogue, extend the duty to philosophize to anyone else). In examining partiality we are used to dealing with objective accounts like Plato’s, but from Socrates we get a less objective, but still demanding view which seems impossible to categorize.


The story complete, our purpose now will be to explain Socrates’ motives through an account of partiality founded on life-philosophy: a set of values and principles, identical in structure to impartial values, which we choose to apply to ourselves and only ourselves. The primary evidence for such an approach will come from examining the motivational origins of partiality: what it is in us that necessitates a partial way of looking at life. As we will see, this foundational narrative will bring us into conflict with both Jeske’s Relationships and (less so) Williams’s Projects view. However, with some minor modifications we can easily inject life-philosophy into Williams’s Projects view. With a framework filled out, the question becomes can this life-philosophy partiality be reconciled with morality? While there do exist insurmountable barriers to such a reconciliation, the two complement each other in a way we would not expect.

Before we begin any defense or argumentation, let us understand precisely what is meant by life-philosophy. We already gave the basic definition as those values and principles which we hold self-referentially and pointed to it as the difference between Socrates (who claims to be motivated only by his personal daemon) and Plato (who, in Republic at least, considers philosophy as an objective value). We can see the workings of life-philosophy in more everyday examples as well. For example, most statements of personal taste or style fall into this category (“I’m just old-fashioned” or “I like to take my time with things”) as do personal choices between things perceived as of equal impartial value (“I support this cause, but protests aren’t really my thing, I’m much more passionate about exploring this issue academically;” in fact, academics do this all the time by choosing specific niches to study within a field they already consider important). In sum, we use life-philosophy to determine the meaning of our life: what it is important we succeed at, accomplish, and avoid but that we would neither (deliberately) credit nor fault another for doing the same.

Perhaps most importantly, life philosophy generates our deliberated likes, dislikes, interests, and ideal character. This is very similar to what Williams broadly calls character, “[a] pattern of interests, desires, and projects”, but there exist two important differences (11). First, Williams seems willing to allow desires, passions, and other non-deliberated motivators so long as they are stable features of the individual. Life-philosophy is specifically not these things, in fact our lives are often characterized by conflict between our life-philosophies and our less rational desires and whims. Williams (or others) might object that excluding desires seems to rule out aspects of partiality that feel necessary such as love of others, desires to acquire certain important objects, or pursuit of particular accolades. We will have more to say about love and relationships below, but for now the fact remains that any desires which truly matter will pass the test of rational analysis and will thus become incorporated (or be found to already match) one’s life-philosophy. Those desires which do not ascend to this level will be trivial or short-lived: infatuations, whims, fetishized greed, petty pride, these are all things we, even without morality, would likely choose to avoid. Second, Williams frames character as inherently practical, based on “desiring something,” but life-philosophy is particularly ideological and law-like in nature- one need not have explicit goals to have a life-philosophy (though we often do) (10).

Moving now to reasons for accepting life-philosophy, we are aided by the fact that there are only so many possible foundations for partiality. Irrationality and selfishness we have already dismissed as too short-sighted and self-sabotaging. The remaining possibilities are a psychological explanation (where some innate need or desire of ours explains why we have partial motivations) or a moral explanation (where morality itself has both a partial and impartial dimension). There is no reason to counter a psychological explanation, for so long as we accept partiality as being rational any psychological explanation will inevitable reduce to life-philosophy. This is due to the structure we have inherited from morality: just as any ethical action must inevitably arise from a moral value, just so any partial action must inevitably be justified by a personal principle of action. Whether an individual is cognizant of their principle or not, this will always be true: it does not matter if the principle is used as an explicit motive by the subject or if the principle is implied by the subject’s pattern of action- there is always a coherent meaning of life by which an individual’s actions are governed. An example: a swimmer wishes more than anything else to win an Olympic gold medal. When asked why he does something, even vital life decisions like marriage and career, his response is always: “I want to win the gold.” This might seem like his partial motive but it is not, for his desire to win the gold is further motivated (even if he does not realize it) by an idea of what is valuable for him in the world (in this case, likely successor fame). In choosing between any two options, this reliance on life values is at work. Thus, a partial action, by its very existence, implies a meaning of life which actuated it.

The moral explanation, however, remains in the running, for our meaning of life will always include certain objective beliefs, even if it is primarily made up of personal subjective ones. There are many ways one could argue that meaning of life is something entirely moral and objective, but one account which emphasizes objections of partiality is Jeske’s Relationship view. The essence of Jeske’s argument is that if partial motivations are left subjective, they become nearly arbitrary and this seems out of line with our intuitions about relationships: “We do think that some form of criticism of me would be appropriate if I could easily transfer my affections and concerns” (34). Yet, in some sense, arbitrariness here is another word for freedom and it seems equally intuitive to claim that our personal values are completely free and up to us. Jeske’s concern here is that by placing all partial actions under the same subjective framework we devalue serious actions of partiality as arbitrary and trivial, “it is unattractive to consider our reasons of intimacy to be on par with our reasons to have wine or buy skirts” (32). Jeske is right to point out this equivalency and it is one that could make life-philosophy unreasonable (if we are expected to bring our personal ideals to every action) or impotent (if no requirement is placed on following our personal values). However, Jeske is addressing a partiality theory (Hume’s) based on desire, one that draws importance only from how strongly we feel about something. As Jeske herself later states, even this sort of account can escape the triviality claim, but life-philosophy does much better. Inherent in any system of value, any meaning of life, is a ranking of what is important and what is trivial. Moral theories do this with ease (a utilitarian can provide a very straightforward account of why a paper cut is no great evil while a death is) and so can our life-philosophies (the swimmer from our earlier example might find winning a poker game with friends a good thing, but he measures the success of winning an Olympic medal as much higher).

Jeske’s more powerful critique attacks arbitrariness for another reason: lack of stability. Again, Jeske is addressing Hume and thus speaks of the fickleness of our “psychological attitudes,” but it is not difficult to imagine that life-philosophy too could change gradually over time or even rapidly if one encounters dramatic life experience (34). This type of change would lead to exactly the sort of friendship abandoning that Jeske considers unacceptable from a theory of partiality. But her example is loaded: she tells us to imagine that “I did decide that I would rather be close to Emma than to Tracy; after all, Emma is both wealthy and generous and I enjoy spending time with people who lavish me with expensive gifts” (33). It’s clear that Jeske considers this a bad motive for changing friends, and this is exactly why such behavior is inoperable in the life-philosophy view. Unlike the Humean view, there is a requirement for changing one’s life-philosophy: the new one (according to the subject) must be better. Why else would one change personal values unless they thought the new value was superior in some way? Thus, a change in relationship for the follower of life-philosophy partiality is not an arbitrary or short-sighted action, but a deliberate change from an inferior relationship to a superior one. This happens in real life all the time. As we grow older and wiser, we drift away from our old friends as we discover new reasons to find other people and relationships valuable. This is not an unfair abandonment, nor should we take measures to rescue the old relationships (unless, as is in fact usually the case, our old friends keep pace with our personal evolution and come to hold value in our eyes once again)- we are simply moving to further stage in life.

These comments on Jeske allow us to transition nicely to the foundation of the Relationships view and what puts it in firm opposition to the life-philosophy view. To use Jeske’s own descriptive terms, the life-philosophy view is a partiality account based on construing personal ideology as a fundamental and subjective reason for action. In contrast, Jeske thinks that intimacy is our fundamental reason; “intimate relationships ground reasons” (63). Why? “Because they are the sorts of relationships that they are” (Jeske 63). Keller summarizes the answer even more succinctly, “they just are” (119). It is Keller himself who suggests that this is an inadequate fundamental reason, “the whole problem is that their[those who follow the Relationships view] reasons are not reflected in their values” (122). If intimacy itself is what justifies being partial, it seems that the reasons we become intimate with particular individuals in the first place is irrelevant. This is a problem that the life-philosophy view handles quite intuitively. Our fundamental reasons are our personal values and naturally we form relationships with people who exemplify these values. Our partial attachments are not justified by intimacy or, as Keller suggests, by the value of the other individual, but by the fact that we value them (regardless of how others or morality values them). As we alluded to earlier, this also provides an accurate account of how we exit relationships. If a marriage begins because the partners find each other to be valuable and worthwhile people, it also makes sense for it to end if one of the parties no longer appreciates the other. This seems much more phenomenologically accurate then the idea that we value someone else just because we have an intimate connection.

What about the Projects view then? Williams clearly has some of the same concerns about partiality that we have presented life-philosophy as a solution to: he worries that without the right to certain projects we will simply fall away from morality, lose “allegiance to life itself” (18). In addition, the idea of ground projects, “a set of desires, concerns…[that provide] a reason for living at all”, sounds very similar to, perhaps even a more practical form of, life-philosophy (5). Projects are indeed more practical, but in Williams they are a practical expression of character rather than life-philosophy. Earlier we covered the differences between these things but did not explain that the key advantage of life-philosophy (as we have defined it) is that it includes the life of the mind, whereas Williams’s projects do not. To Williams, if one fails to achieve the goals of one’s ground projects then “he feels… he might as well have died:” the meaning and value of the project comes from actually fulfilling it (13). The life-philosophy view is not so limited, for our projects and goals in this view are inspired by our ideals, and these ideals produce meaning for us regardless of how they pan out in the real world. To see why this is a good thing, let us borrow an example from a more existential perspective on ground projects. Kierkegaard, in trying to explain the final step of faith to us, describes a knight hopelessly in love with a princess. “A young lad falls in love with a princess, and this love is the entire substance of his life, and yet the relation is such that it cannot possibly be realized, cannot possibly be translated from ideality to reality” (Kierkegaard 42). The knight nevertheless takes on the love as a ground project, “makes sure that this love really is the contents of his life… he is not afraid to let it insinuate itself into his most secret and most remote thoughts” (42). The love is from the outset proven entirely impossible, but “the knight of infinite resignation does not give up the love, not for all the glories in the world,” for the love has become valuable to him as pure ideal, “his love for the princess has become for him the expression of an eternal love, has assumed a religious character” (42-3). So the knight, by Williams’s system, has surrendered his ground project, resigned his goals and should now be approaching a near-suicidal depression. Yet the knight goes on, yes “his soul is solemn,” but he still “feels a blissful delight in letting love palpitate in every nerve” and shows no sign of losing meaning or giving up his allegiance to life and morality (Kierkegaard 42). Regardless of whether we agree with Kierkegaard’s illustration of resignation, the point is that Williams’s theory cannot include any such subsistence on pure ideality: religious conviction, a personal code of honor, none of these things are sufficient in themselves for the Projects view. Thus, the life-philosophy view mirrors the Projects view but replaces goals, projects, and character with personal ideals and principles. It is these ideals which give our life meaning and motivate our partial actions.

We arrive, finally, at the important question: are partial ideals and moral ideals compatible under our view? The initial sketch is promising: life-philosophy and morality are, after all, similar in structure and normative power. Unfortunately, this is where the similarities end and a chasm opens between the two. The source of this difference is the incompatible standards they employ to assess validity. Moral values are themselves subject to criticism and debate. “Why is freedom (or some other fundamental moral value) a proper thing to center a moral theory?” is a valid and productive question; we make moral progress by questioning and properly situating values themselves. A “correct” moral value would give us a compelling reason for thinking that all rational individuals should respect it. This sort of approach makes no sense with a personal value- the question “Why is philosophy a proper personal value?” if answered in relation to the value itself, is completely unproductive. What makes a value a good personal value? Nothing, it just happens to be one. The proper question to ask is “why is philosophy a good value for you to have?” Validity comes from a process of self-reflection whereby one examines their psychology and determines whether they are satisfied with their motives. A classic example is when a subject comes to the realization that their personal value was, without their realization, the pleasing of someone else. This does not always prompt change, but often such a realization is repugnant if the subject values their own self-determinacy or disvalues that particular someone else. Furthermore, not only do morality and life-philosophy inhabit entirely different systems of evaluation, but it is easy for them to run against each other. As Keller says of the Projects view, it forces you to “prioritize your own projects over others’ projects” and there seems to be no moral or impartial justification for acting on your own personal ideals when they come to conflict with other’s personal ideals (as is inevitable) (117).

If the partiality of life-philosophy and morality are indeed not just incompatible, but outright opposed, how can we justify maintaining both? The existentialists’ answer was to simply make morality an afterthought and regulate only life-philosophy, but this brings up a host of meta-ethical issues which are not easily put to rest. Dismissing life-philosophy or merging it into morality itself also seems impractical, for we are left with no answer to “the question of why we go on at all” (Williams 10). Instead, we can find a path to reconciliation not through ideology (where, as we have already explained, they are opposed), but in human practice. If art and history are any guide, the most persistent obstacle to moral behavior is failure of will: our failure (out of selfishness or delusion) to do what we know is right. Life-philosophy is invaluable in building up our immunity to the temptations of frivolous whims and short-sighted self-indulgences, for, unlike morality, when we fail to live up to our own ideals it is we who suffer. A child grows out of pure hedonism not by moral pressure (though, of course, this plays a role), but by having his conscious aims consistently defeated by his own hedonic behavior.

This may seem like a trivial reconciliation, but now at the end, let us bring back Socrates and see the benefit of our compromise. Surely morality is important, but even so, would it be worth it to lose the genius of Socrates just to enforce moral consistency? For, make no mistake, that is what is at stake here. Socrates, you, me: none of us would be who we are without our personal codes of value. To make Socrates the family man, holding his wife and reassuring her at his deathbed, would also make him no longer Socrates, no longer that same man that placed philosophy ahead of life itself. Is it not worth Socrates and the multitude of great figures who gave their lives for their principles to allow life-philosophy its own boundary to reign? Is it not a fair request to be allowed to better and refine ourselves? Who knows… perhaps it is not in impartial morality, but in our own sense of virtue that we will find salvation.



Works Cited

Jeske, Diane. Rationality and Moral Theory. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Keller, Simon. Partiality. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Plato. Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. 2nd. indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002.

Williams, Bernard. “Persons, Character, and Morality.” Williams, Bernard. Moral Luck. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981. 1-19.



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