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Arts & Letters Daily


9e. Justice - Ms. Young - PE teacher


Distributor who is impartial


Duty. Ms. Wong, a middle years teacher for the past 12 years, had been a coveted physical education teacher till three years ago when she was immobilized in a car accident. Now she was teaching English, another subject she loved. When she applied for the position of vice principal in her school, her application was refused on the grounds that she would not be able to fulfil all the duties of a vice principal because her mobility was restricted because she is in a wheel chair.

Senior management felt an apparent conflict of duties. On the one hand, they wanted to  appoint a vice principal who could attend to the varied and complex tasks and situations that arise in a high school. They thought this required a highly mobile person who could move about freely in crowded hallways, attend huge sports complexes for away games, drive at a moment’s notice, just to mention a few challenges. On the other hand, Ms. Wong had demonstrated creative mobility, outstanding communication skills with staff and students and exceptional organizational skills. At the same time, management knew they had to make a decision.

Rights. Ms. Wong objected to the decision on the grounds that her rights had been violated. There were creative ways of accommodating her physical handicap. For example, she could introduce a Student Civil Service Program which would not only support her in executing her duties but would educate students in providing volunteer community service. Management commended her for her creative solution but rejected her application. They maintained that even though she had a right to make an application, they were not obligated to receive it. Ms. Wong challenged the decision on the grounds that she had a right to demonstrate that she could fulfill the duties of a vice principal. Administration had no right to deny her the appointment on the grounds they cited.

Motive. The Management Team was convincingly impressed by Ms. Wong’s skills and abilities and trusted her creative ability to manage her physical handicap. That is all the members except one, Mr. Carpenter, who was a close friend of one of the alternative candidates. He did not disclose this special friendship. He kept on emphasising potential problems that could arise as a result of Ms. Wong’s physical handicap to the point where the other members of the Management Team began to wonder about Mr. Carpenter’s motive. Why was he so opposed to the appointment of Ms. Wong who was clearly the front runner?

Desert. There is little doubt as to what Ms. Wong deserves; she deserves the appoint. It’s not so clear what Mr. Carpenter deserves when he opposed the appointment of Ms. Wong on questionable grounds and advocated another candidate. Did he deserve an expression of disapproval for his questionable motive? In fact, that is what happened. When one of Management Team members, Mrs. Gillis, learned a few days later about the special relationship between Mr. Carpenter and the candidate he recommended for the appointment, she expressed her disappointment about Mr. Carpenter’s behaviour. At the very least, she maintained that he should have disclosed his special relationship with the candidate he favoured.

Justice. Mrs. Gillis was concerned about Mr. Carpenter’s apparent indifference towards making impartial decisions. He had demonstrated that he was quite prepared to favour on candidate over another without sound principles or reasons. At the same time, she wondered whether all decisions made with impartiality are just. ‘Lots to think about’, she said to herself.


  • Are there are general rules for determining whether a person is impartial? Explain.
  • Discuss how each judgement ( duty, rights, motive, desert, justice) contributes to a more thorough understanding a moral dilemma.
  • Discuss other situations where people use this kind of straight and crooked thinking.

You may want to discuss other dilemmas.

Consider this view of ‘impartial’

  • Crooked thinking

All distributions done with impartiality are just.

  • Straight thinking

For a distribution to be just, the distribution must be made by a distributor who is impartial. It should be noted that “impartiality”, in the primary sense, applies to the agent of the distribution and “just” refers to the distribution itself. To say that a distributor is impartial is to say that the distributor does not favor one or more recipients over others. That a distribution must be done with impartiality in order for it to be a just distribution, raises the question: “Is it the case that all distributions done with impartiality are just?” No. Although justice involves an impartial agent, impartiality does not necessarily ensure justice. An impartial agent or distributor is required to make a distribution which does not favor one or some recipients over others without sound principles or reasons. But, impartiality on the part of the agent does not necessarily lead to justice. An agent may be impartial and yet a distribution can favor one or some recipients without sound principles or reasons. People use the reference to impartial agents as evidence to support a contention that a distribution is just. Conversely, people also support their claims that a distribution is unjust by claiming that the distributor was unfair. There are no general rules for determining whether an agent is impartial. Each case must be considered by itself. Statements about whether a distributor is impartial are descriptive and not normative.

Moral principle value tests

An application of the moral principle value tests probably illustrates most clearly what is entailed in evaluative reasoning. They are:

It is important to emphasize that the moral-value principle tests are not designed to resolve issues (guarantee right answers!) but to assess the ‘justification’ for moral value decisions.

To view the Dilemma from the perspective of Duty, Rights, Motives, Desert and Justice, click the following:

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