15 Exceptionalism

Exceptionalism is a form of self-oriented thinking that often undermines ethical decision-making. Exceptionalism is where one believes or acts as if one group (or person) is exempt from following the rules that everyone else must follow or is immune from being judged by the same standards as others. Typically (though not always), exceptionalism is self-serving. We tend to want special treatment for members of our own group, and we may tend to rationalize reasons why the general rules and standards shouldn’t apply to us. One of the most common forms of exceptionalism is nationalism—though there are many others.


As mentioned, nationalism is a common type of exceptionalist thinking.

What other kinds of exceptionalism are there?

It is important to remember that exceptionalism is not only a moral failure; it is a rational failure. Exceptionalist thinking treats one group or individual as different from every other when there is, in fact, no relevant difference. Of course, if there is a difference that justifies differential treatment, then this differential treatment could be fair and consistent. Sometimes the same rules shouldn’t apply to everyone equally. Sometimes there are relevant facts that entail that it would be unfair to treat everyone exactly the same.

After all, sometimes we have a special obligation to the members of a certain group that justifies placing their interests over others. For instance, a teacher will typically prioritize the learning goals of their own students over those of other students who aren’t in their classes. As another example, the members of our group may be systematically treated unfairly in some respects and given this injustice, it may be fairer to give us special opportunities. This is the logic behind most affirmative action initiatives. In such cases, getting clear on the facts is obviously important. Certainly, if one believes that a particular individual or group should be exempt from the rules governing everyone else, then one should expect to be able to give an argument justifying it.

Importantly, exceptionalism may infect the way in which we think about accountability. Particularly within certain groups—like professional organizations, political parties, or religious groups—there is a tendency to think that one is only truly accountable to the members of one’s own group. This, however, is just a self-serving way of protecting oneself from criticism and is, again, a kind of moral failure. As a general rule, we should think of ourselves as accountable to everyone who is affected by our actions or who has an interest in our behaviour.


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Applied Ethics Primer by Letitia Meynell and Clarisse Paron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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