The Nature and Ethics of Indifference


Indifference is sometimes said to be a virtue. Perhaps more frequently it is said to be a vice. Yet who is indifferent; to what; and in what way is poorly understood, and frequently subject to controversy and confusion. This paper presents a framework for the interpretation and analysis of ethically significant forms of indifference in terms of how subjects of indifference are variously related to their objects in different circumstances; and how an indifferent orientation can be either more or less dynamic, or more or less sensitive to the nature and state of its object. The resulting analysis is located in a wider context of moral psychology and ethical theory; in particular with respect to work on the virtues of care, empathy and other forms of affective engagement. During the course of this discussion, a number of recent claims associated with the ethics of care and empathy are shown to be either misleading or implausible.

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  1. 1.

    The language of indifference as unimportance naturally raises the question whether indifference thus understood is essentially comparative, or whether there is such a thing as being absolutely indifferent. The relevant distinction here is that between something that matters less than everything else on the one hand, and something that matters not at all on the other. I take no view on this matter here.

  2. 2.

    The term ‘indifference’ has also been employed, in common parlance or in the academic literature, in ways that will appear only at the margins of my discussion in this paper. Among these may potentially be counted ‘religious indifference’ in the sense of loving acquiescence of a Divine Will; ‘sacreligious indifference’, in the sense of adopting an irreverent attitude towards recognized ethical and religious codes; ‘sublime indifference’ in the sense of the ethical significance of something being so great that it transcends the human capacity of comprehension; ‘cosmic indifference’ in the sense of the apparent lack of concern showed by God or the Universe towards the human condition; and ‘undifferentiated indifference’ in the sense of some aspect of reality being considered as pre-ordered, non-conceptualized, indeterminate or unconnected. Although none of these additional senses of ‘indifference’ are the focus of my analysis in this paper, some of them are obviously connected with it.

  3. 3.

    Although each aspect of indifference can be separately identified in theory, in practice they are obviously related. Thus, you cannot be indifferent to your investments unless you are located in a society with an economy that makes it possible for you to have them. Nor can you cultivate indifference to physical pain unless you are embodied in an organism where physical injury is registered in first person consciousness. When I define the four different aspects of indifference as I do here, I do not mean to presuppose that any of these aspects can be subtracted from the others in a given scenario while leaving all the others unchanged.

  4. 4.

    Another question relevant here is the fact that someone could be indifferent to something under one mode of presentation (e.g. ‘The person over there’) but not under another (e.g. ‘My long lost friend’). This fact is of particular significance to the attribution of indifferent orientations conceptually articulable contents. (See e.g. Salmon and Soames 1988.)

  5. 5.

    It might also be tempting to define a ‘basic’ sense of ‘indifference’ in terms of some ‘standard’, ‘paradigm’, or ‘canonical’ case: e.g. that someone is indifferent to someone or something if and only if they are actually aware of that someone or something (or could easily become aware of that someone or something); and they actually show no significant attitudinal response to that someone or something (or would not (easily) show any significant attitudinal response to that someone or something were they to become aware of it). The employment of such a definition (or something even more precise) could certainly be useful for a range of practical or theoretical purposes. It would also go someway to address the worry (if it is a worry) that on the account just described everyone will strictly speaking be indifferent to everything in at least some respect. I nevertheless resist the temptation of pursuing this definitional project further, given the expository purposes of this paper.

  6. 6.

    I apply this fourfold distinction to the ethical evaluation of different kinds of indifference in Lillehammer (2014a, b).

  7. 7.

    The point is controversial. (See e.g. Baron-Cohen 2011, 126 ff.)


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I am grateful to audiences at Cambridge, Hertfordshire, Birkbeck (Cumberland Lodge) and Sussex for questions and comments aspects of this paper, and to James Laidlaw, Fabian Freyenhagen, Maike Albertzart, Christine Tiefensee and Dónall Mc Ginley for some helpful suggestions at an early stage.

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Correspondence to Hallvard Lillehammer.

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Lillehammer, H. The Nature and Ethics of Indifference. J Ethics 21, 17–35 (2017).

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  • Care
  • Detachment
  • Empathy
  • Indifference
  • Vice
  • Virtue