The Expanding Circle | Reflections & Notes

Peter Singer. The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress. Princeton University Press, 1981. (208 pages)

The moral unity to be expected in different ages is not a unity of standard, or of acts, but a unity of tendency. … At one tie the benevolent affections emebrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world. – W. E. H. Lecky, The History of European Morals


@PeterSinger has given us a tremendous gift, a thorough, thoughtful, scientific, and compelling vision for expanding our moral circle, the natural progression of our species. Since he roots his arguments in our sociobiology, the normal “philosophical” contentions are brought to a much sharper focus, a rationale that is excellent in the search for verifiable truth.

My one quibble is that religion is quickly dismissed as being irrelevant for providing any grounding for ethics or morals. In addition to the Euthyphro Dilemma (see below), Singer cites the non-universality of religious beliefs and the inability of religion to provide objectivity as reasons for religion’s inadequacy. However, the very theme of the book is deeply rooted in our “sociobiology,” the very nature of our genes expressed in and through our inter-subjective relationships. On page 84 he writes,

Neither evolutionary theory, nor biology, nor science as a whole, can provide the ultimate premises of ethics. …we cannot look to religion for positive guidance either. We have to choose our ultimate ethical premises ourselves.

That last line, “We have to choose our ultimate ethical premises ourselves” is the substrate of religious beliefs and practices! Just because some religions also construct metaphysical frameworks, additional myths, and spiritual convictions that may or may not have scientific validity, this does not justify dismissing religion so outright. More to the point, on page 91-92, Singer argues,

Gradually, as we evolved from our pre-human ancestors, our brains grew and we began to reason to a degree no other animal had achieved. We became better able to communicate with our fellows. Our language developed to the point at which it enabled us to refer to indefinitely many events, past, present, or future. We became more aware of ourselves as beings existing over time, with a past and a future, and more conscious of the patterns of our social life. We could reflect, and we could choose on the basis of our reflections. All this gave us, of course, tremendous advantages in the evolutionary competition for survival; but it also brought with us something which has not, so far as we can tell, occurred in any non-human society: the transformation of our evolved, genetically-based social practices into a system of rules and precepts guiding our conduct toward one another, supported by widely shared judgments of approval for those who do as the rules and precepts require, and disapproval for those who do not. Thus we arrived at a system of ethics or morality.

Each of those developments–language, past, present, and future, reflecting–make up the very foundations for myth, story-telling, tribal narratives, and yes, ethics and morals that extend from those social structures. And a “system of rules and precepts guiding our conduct toward one another, supported by widely shared judgments of approval for those who do as the rules and precepts require, and disapproval for those who do not,” certainly sounds a lot like a religion to me.

To be fair, Singer is not suggesting that ethics and morals are derived from these systems. If anything, he is saying that these systems are the ethics and morals to which we are committed. I would simply suggest that the evolutionary relationship–biologically–between the system of religion and the system of ethics is far more intertwined than Singer acknowledges. In McLuhanesque terms, “we shaped our religion, and our religion shaped us.” While I agree that we cannot look to religion as the “answer,” I would propose that we cannot look to our biology alone either. We are far more complex than that, and religion has played a significant part of our biological evolution for a long time. (See, for instance, Augustín Fuentes, The Creative Spark)

Regardless, I very much appreciate Singer’s voice and ethical exhortations to us all. And, I would–to put a finer point on it–appeal to my religious heritage, The Way of Jesus, as a prime example of the ever Expanding Circle to which Singer appeals.


Preface to the 2011 Edition

It is now generally accepted that the roots of our ethics lie in patterns of behavior that evolved among our prehuman ancestors, the social mammals, and that we retain within our biological nature elements of these evolved responses. (xi)

…if I were writing the book today, I would be more open to the idea of objective reasons for action and objective truth in ethics than I was thirty years ago. (xi)


One reason why religion no longer provides a satisfactory answer to the puzzle about the nature of morality is that religious belief itself is no longer as universally accepted as it once was. But there is also another problem in locating the origins of mortality in the will of God. If all values result from God’s will, what reason could God have for willing as he does? If killing is wrong only because God said: “Thou shalt not kill,” God might just as easily have said: “Thou shalt kill.” Would killing then have been right? To agree that it would have been right makes morality too arbitrary; but to deny that it would have been right is to assume that there are standards of right and wrong independent of God’s will. Nor can the dilemma be avoided by claiming that God is good, and so could not have willed us to kill unjustly–for to say that God is good already implies a standard of goodness that is independent of God’s decision. For this reason many religious thinkers now agree with the non-religious that the basis of ethics must be sought outside religion and independently of belief in God. (xvi)

[via: This is known as “Euthyphro’s Dilemma.”]

1 | The Origins of Altruism


Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human. (3)

…[human beings had] no fixed home, no need of one another; they met perhaps twice in their lives, without knowing each other and without speaking. – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau was wrong. Fossil finds show that five million years ago our ancestor, the half-human, half-ape creature known to anthropologists as Australopithecus africanus, lived in groups, as our nearest living relatives–the gorillas and chimpanzees–still do. As Australopithecus evolved into the fire truly human being, Homo habilis, and then into our own species, Homo sapiens, we remained social beings. (3)

If, however, we now know that we have lived in groups longer than we have been rational human beings, we can also be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraining. (4)

Sociobiology: The New Synthesis,…1975. [E. O.] Wilson defines sociobiology as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior.” Since ethics is a form of social behavior–more than that, no doubt, but that at least–ethics falls within the scope of sociobiology. (5)

Sociobiology bears on ethics indirectly, through what it says about the development of altruism, rather than by a direct study of ethics. … If we define altruistic behavior as behavior which benefits others at some cost to oneself, altruism in non-human animals is well documented. …our present ethical systems have their roots in the altruistic behavior of our early human and pre-human ancestors. (5)

| Altruism intrigues sociobiologists. Wilson calls it “the central theoretical problem of sociobiology.” … If evolution is a struggle for survival, why hasn’t it ruthlessly eliminated altruists, who seem to increase another’s prospects of survival at the cost of their own? (5)


We can start with the warning calls given by blackbirds and thrushes when hawks fly overhead. (6)

Food sharing is another form of altruism. (7)

If a dolphin is wounded so severely that it cannot swim to the surface by itself, other dolphins group themselves under it pushing it upward to the air. (7)

The same kind of thing happens among elephants. (7)


The real basis of selection is not the species, nor some smaller group, nor even the (8) individual. It is the gene. Genes are responsible for the characteristics we inherit. If a gene leads individuals to have some feature which enhances their prospects of surviving and reproducing, that type of gene will itself survive into the next generation; if a gene reduces the prospects of leaving offspring for those individuals who carry it, that type of gene will itself die out with the death of the individual carrier. (9)

How could the genes for such self-sacrificing behavior (9) get established? (10)

Sociobiologists have,…developed Darwin’s suggestion of the importance of the principle of reciprocity. They have suggested that two forms of altruism can be explained in terms of natural selection: kin altruism and reciprocal altruism. (11)


The survival of my genes depends largely on my having children, and on my children having children, and so forth. … Thus the first and most obvious way in which evolution can produce altruism is the concern of parents for their children. (12)

…kin selection can explain some otherwise mysterious facts. For instance, why do adult zebras defend any calf in the herd attacked by a predator, whereas wildebeest do not? The reason could be that zebras live in family groups, so that adults and calves would generally all be related; wildebeest interbreed much more with other groups and adults would not be related to randomly selected calves. More startling still is the infanticide practiced by male langur monkeys. (15)

(male lions have also been observed to kill infants on taking over a pride. Is there a human parallel in the wicked stepparents so common in fairy tales? Or in the mass rapes that for centuries have characterized military conquests?) (15)


What is the link between rescuing a stranger and being res-(16)cued oneself? If one can arrange to get rescued without having to do any rescuing oneself, that seems the best strategy, from a self-interested standpoint. Why isn’t that what happens? What ensures that this form of altruism is reciprocal? (17)

| On one level, the answer to this question could be that individuals can remember who has helped them and who has not, and they will not help anyone who has refused to help them. … If this is right we would expect reciprocal altruism only among creatures capable of recognizing other individuals, sorting them into those who help and those who do not. …it would require intelligence. It would also be more likely in species with a relatively long life span, living in small, stable groups. (17)

The evidence supports this conclusion. reciprocal altruism is most common among, and perhaps limited to, birds and mammals;… (17)

On another level, there is still a problem: How did this reciprocal altruism get going? After all, reciprocal altruism looks rather like the social contract model of ethics, which we have already dismissed as a historical fantasy–and the idea of a contract becomes even more fantastic if it is extended to non-human animals. (17)


It may be that to explain how reciprocal altruism can get established, we need to allow a limited role for a form of group (18) selection. (19)

2 | The Biological Basis of Ethics

Every human society has some code of behavior for its members. (23)

The Ik, a northern Uganda tribe described by Colin Turnbull in The Mountain People… (24) … The Ik, Turnbull says, abandoned family, cooperation, social life, love, religion, and everything else except the pursuit of self-interest. They teach us that our much vaunted human values are, in Turnbulls’ words, “luxuries that can be dispensed with.” (25)

…Turnbull admitted that “the data in the book are inadequate for anything approaching proof” and recognized the existence of evidence pointing toward a different picture of Ik life. (25)

As Terrence Des Pres observes in The Survivor, a book based on reports by those who survived the camps [in Auschwitz]: “The assumption that there was no moral or social order in the camps is wrong. … Through innumerable small acts of humanness, most of them covert but everywhere in evidence, survivors were able to maintain societal structures workable enough to keep themselves alive and morally sane.” (27)

| The core of ethics runs deep in our species and is common to human beings everywhere. It survives the most appalling hardships and the most ruthless attempts to deprive human beings of their humanity. … One ground for resistance is that we like to think of our own actions as radically different from the behavior of animals, no matter how altruistic those animals may be. (27)

cf. Edward Westermarck’s The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas (1906-8)


cf. The Method of Ethics by Henry Sidgwick, 1874; Marshall Sahlins, The Use and Abuse of Biology; Yonina Talmon, Family and Community in the Kibbutz

Family ties are based on an exclusive and discriminating loyalty which sets the members of one’s family more or less apart from others. Families may easily become competing foci of emotional involvement that can infringe on loyalty to the collective. Deep attachment to one’s spouse and children…may gain precedence over the more ideological and more task-oriented relations with comrades. – Talmon

The experience of the kibbutz movement parallels that of other attempts to make the community, instead of the family, the basic unit of concern. (35)

A bias toward the interests of our own family, rather than those of the community in general, is a persistent tendency in human behavior, for good biological reasons. Not every persistent human tendency, however, is universally regarded as a virtue. (Compare attitudes toward another persistent human tendency, which probably also has a biological basis, the tendency to have sexual relations with more than one partner.) Why is it that in almost every human society concern for one’s family is a mark of moral excellence? Why do societies not merely tolerate but go out of their way to praise parents who put the interests of their children ahead of the interests of other members of the community? The answer may lie, not just in the universality and strength of family feeling, but also in the benefits to society as a whole that come from families taking care of themselves. …ethical rules which accept a degree of partiality toward the interests of one’s own family may be the best means of promoting the welfare of all families and thus of the entire community. (36)


Howard Becker, author of Man in Reciprocity, finds our tendency for reciprocity so universal that he has proposed renaming our species Homo reciprocus. (37)

Contrary to some cultural relativists, it can be hypothesized that a norm of reciprocity is universal. – Alvin Gouldner

It is surprising how many features of human ethics could have grown out of simple reciprocal practices like the mutual removal of parasites from awkward places that one cannot oneself reach. (37)

…when a man who has been helped when in danger by another does not show gratitude to his preserver, but even goes to the length of attempting to do him injury, it is clear that those who become aware of it will naturally be displeased and offended by such conduct, sharing the resentment of their injured neighbor and imagining themselves in the same situation. From all this there arises in everyone a notion of the meaning and theory of duty, which is the beginning and end of justice. – Polybius

Cicero wrote that it is “the first demand of duty” that we do most for him that loves us most; “no duty is more imperative,”… Jesus…”Ye have heard that it hath been said, thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy.” (Jesus proposed that we love our enemies instead of hating them, but even he found it necessary to hold out the prospect of a reward from God for doing more than publicans and sinners do.) (40)

If reciprocal altruism played a significant role in human evolution, an aversion to being cheated would be a distinct advantage. (40)

Personal resentment becomes moral indignation when it is shared by other members of a group and brought under a general principle. (41)

Reciprocal altruism may be especially important within a group of beings who can reason and communicate as humans can, for then it can spread from a bilateral to a multilateral relationship. If I help you, but you od not help me, I can of course cease to help you in the future. If I can talk, however, I can do more. I can tell everyone else in the group what sort of a person you are. They may then also be less likely to help you in future [sic]. Conversely, the fact that someone is a reliable reciprocator may also become generally known, and make others readier to help that person. “Having a reputation” is (41) only meaningful among creatures who communicate in a sophisticated manner; but when it develops, it immensely increases the usefulness of reciprocal altruism. (42)

That practice of reciprocal altruism should be the source of many of our attitudes of moral approval and disapproval, including our ideas of fairness, cheating, gratitude, and retribution, would be easier to accept if it were not that this explanation seems to put these attitudes and ideas on too self-interested a footing. Reciprocal altruism seems not really altruism at all; it could more accurately be described as enlightened self-interest. … Concern for one’s own interests, plus the knowledge that exchanges of assistance are likely to be in the long-term interests of both partners, is all that is needed. Our moral attitudes, however, demand something very different. (42)

Early in the previous chapter, we accepted a definition of altruism in terms of behavior–”altruistic behavior is behavior which benefits others at some cost to oneself”–without inquiring into motivation. Now we must note that when people talk of altruism they are normally thinking not simply of behavior but also of motivation. To be faithful to the generally accepted meaning of the term, we should redefine altruistic behavior as behavior which benefits others at some initial cost to oneself, and is motivated by the desire to benefit others. (43)

Robert Trivers has offered a sociobiological explanation for our moral preference for altruistic motivation. People who are altruistically motivated will make more reliable partners than those motivated by self-interest. … Evolution would therefore favor people who could distinguish self-interested from altruistic motivation in others, and then (43) select only the altruistic as beneficiaries of their gifts or services. (44)

…we find genuine altruism a more attractive character trait than a pretense of altruism covering self interested motives. (44)

…if there are advantages in being a partner in a reciprocal exchange, and if one is more likely to be selected as a partner if one has genuine concern for others, there is an evolutionary advantage in having genuine concern for others. (44)

This conclusion is highly significant for understanding ethics, because it cuts across the tendency of sociobiological reasoning to explain behavior in terms of self-interest or the interests of one’s kin. Properly understood, sociobiology does not imply that behavior is actually motivated by the desire to further one’s own interests or those of one’s kin. Sociobiology says nothing about motivation, for it remains on the level of (44) the objective consequences of types of behavior. …it is a common assumption that sociobiology implies that we are motivated by self-interest, not by genuine altruism. (45)

cf. the Prisoner’s Dilemma

A pair of altruistic prisoners will therefore come out of this situation better than a pair of self-interested prisoners, even from the point of view of self-interest. (47)

The Prisoner’s Dilemma shows that, paradoxical as it may seem, we will sometimes be better off if we are not self-interested. Two or more people motivated by self-interest alone may not be able to promote their interests as well as they could if they were more altruistic or more conscientious. (47)


Cultural influences probably enhanced the tendency toward group altruism, by punishing those who put their own interests too far ahead of the interests of the group, and rewarding those who make sacrifices for the group. (49)

cf. Sidgwick’s hierarchy of the degrees of benevolence (The Methods of Ethics)

He reports the morality of his day as placing the duty to be benevolent “to neighbours and to fellow-countrymen” immediately after the duty to be benevolent to friends, and before the duty to be benevolent to members of our own race. That we have a duty to assist the poor of our own neighborhood or nation before we assist the poor of another neighborhood or country is still a popular sentiment. (50)

When people live in small kinship groups, kin altruism and group altruism overlap; but the ethical codes of larger societies almost always contain elements of distinctively group altruism. It is very common for tribal societies to combine a high degree of altruism within the tribe with overt hostility to members of (50) neighboring tribes. (51)

Why do we regard patriotism as a virtue at all? We disapprove of selfish behavior, but we encourage group selfishness, and gild it with the name “patriotism.” (52)

In a multiracial society, strong racial feelings are a disadvantage; strong patriotic feelings, however, are not. (53)

| One other cautionary note… Up to this point our discussion has been purely descriptive. I have been speculating about the origins of human ethics. No ethical conclusions flow from these speculations. In particular, the suggestion that an aspect of human ethics is universal, or nearly so, in no way justifies that aspect of human ethics. Nor does the suggestion that a particular aspect of human ethics has a biological basis do anything to justify it. Because there is so much misunderstanding of the connection between biological theories about ethics and ethical conclusions themselves, the task of examining claims about this connection needs a chapter to itself. (53)

3 | From Evolution to Ethics?

As long as we remain within the realm of science proper, we can never meet with a sentence of the type “Thou shalt not lie” … Scientific statements of facts and relations … cannot produce ethical directives. – Albert Einstein, Out of My Later Years

…science may soon be in a position to investigate the very origin and meaning of human values, from which all ethical pronouncements and much of political practice flow. – Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature

[via: To these, I would add Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape.]


Camus said that the only serious philosophical question is suicide. That is wrong even in the strict sense intended. The biologist, who is concerned with questions of physiology and evolutionary history, realizes that self-knowledge is constrained and shaped by the emotional control centers in the hypothalamus and limbic system of the brain. These centers flood our consciousness with all the emotions–hate, love, guilt, fear and others–that are consulted by ethical philosophers who wish to intuit the standards of good and evil. What, we are then compelled to ask, made the hypothalamus and limbic system? They evolved by natural selection. That simple biological statement must be pursued to explain ethics and ethical philosophers, if not epistemology and epistemologists, at all depths. – E. O Wilson, Sociobiology

In the first chapter of this book I argued that ethical philosophers intuit the deontological canons of morality by consulting the emotive centers of their own hypothalamic-limbic systems. … Only by interpreting the activity of the emotive centers as a biological adaptation can the meaning of the canons be deciphered. – Wilson

All this Wilson sees as leading to a theory of “innate moral (56) pluralism” according to which no single set of moral standards is applicable either to all human populations or to all the different age and sex groups within each population. It is also supposed to show that “the requirement for an evolutionary approach to ethics is self-evident.” (57)

Sex is not only for reproduction: it serves to reinforce the bond between male and female, leading to cooperation in the raising of children. (57)

Wilson draws three ethical points from his biological theories. The first is a criticism of traditional “natural law” morality about sex. The idea that the primary role of sexual activity is reproduction is an error; hence attempts to condemn contraception and homosexuality on the grounds that they are “unnatural” are based on a mistake. Our nature is controlled by evolution, not by immutable divine command, so biologists rather than theologians are the real authorities on what is natural for us. (58)

[via: Without contending the claim, this is why the contention still thrives, not because of fact, but because of feeling pushed.]

| The second ethical point Wilson draws from his understanding of the biology of sex is that there will be costs, which we cannot yet measure, in implementing reforms which go against our biological tendencies. (58)

[Wilson] looks forward to the day when human biology “will fashion a biology of ethics, which will make possible the selection of values.” (59)

First comes “the cardinal value of the survival of human genes in the form of a common pool over generations.” (59)

Secondly, Wilson says, “a correct application of evolutionary theory also favors diversity in the gene pool as a cardinal value.” (59)

“Universal human rights,” according to Wilson, “might properly be regarded as a third primary value.” This is “because we are mammals.”

[via: But “human rights” cannot find any basis, whatsoever, in biology.]


Darwin himself was well aware that the “progress” of evolution is not progress in any ethical sense. (61)

[via: Natural selection is not teleological and therefore cannot be necessarily “ethical.”]

Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it. – T. H. Huxley, “Evolution and Ethics”

There are three distinct ways in which Wilson suggests that scientific findings are relevant to ethics. (62)

  1. Science may produce new knowledge about the ultimate consequences of our actions. (62)
  2. Science may undermine existing ethical beliefs. (62)
  3. Science may provide us with a new set of ethical premises or a reinterpretation of old ethical premises. (63)


cf. Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia

So to sum up the impact on ethical theories of new scientific knowledge about the possible consequences of actions and policies: New information may mean that an ethical theory which pays attention to consequences turns out to require actions different from those we previously thought it required; but the core of a consequentialist theory will remain unaffected. On the other hand, a theory which pays no attention to consequences will not be affected at all, although (67) new knowledge of the consequences of acting on such a theory might make such a theory even less plausible to those not already committed to it than it would otherwise have been. (68)

| My own view, which reflects my consequentialist position in ethics, is that all who think about ethical issues should draw their conclusions on the basis of the best information available. When well-grounded biological theories are relevant to an ethical decision, they should be taken into account. The particular moral judgments that we end up making may reflect these theories. For this reason it is perfectly true that philosophers, along with everyone else, should know something about the current state of biological theories of human nature. To ignore biology is to ignore one possible source of knowledge relevant to ethical decisions. (68)


Where an ethical belief is explicitly based on an assumption about what is natural for human beings, there is no difficulty in seeing how biology can be a tool of criticism. (68) … the impact of biology here is not tender the ethical belief untenable, but to destroy the original justification for that belief. (69)

Very few philosophers in the secular universities would think that one can validly argue from that fact to the conclusion that homosexuality is wrong. Obviously there are many things, from curing diseases to using saccharin, that are unnatural but not therefore wrong. Moreover, to argue that because something is unnatural it is wrong, is to argue from a fact to a value–a move which, for reasons I shall give in the following section, is invalid. (69)

If we come to see specific rules of ethics as biological adaptations resulting from our evolutionary history, we may cease to regard those ethical rules as morally absolute or self-evidently correct. (69)

Almost all the thinking we do about ethics involves connecting one ethical judgment to another, more fundamental one. (70)

Precisely because science is outside ethics, the scientific study of the origin of our ethical judgment is a fulcrum on which we can rest our critical lever. In itself, science cannot compel us to abandon a principle–a fulcrum is not a force–but coupled with a commitment to rationality, it can provide leverage against basic ethical principles. (70)


Asking these questions brings us squarely up against what is probably the best-known tenet of modern moral philosophy: the doctrine that there is an unbridgeable gulf between facts and values, between descriptions of what is and prescriptions of what ought to be. (73)

I cannot forbear adding to these reasonings an observation which may, perhaps, be found of some importance. In every system of morality which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a god, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find that instead of the usual copulation of propositions is and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought or an ought not. This change is imperceptible, but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought or ought not expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others which are entirely different from it. – David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature

Few persons realize the true consequences of the dissolving action of sexual reproduction and the corresponding unimportance of “lines” of descent. The DNBA of an individual is made up of about equal contributions of all the ancestors in any given generation, and it will be divided about equally among all descendants at any future moment. … The individual is an evanescent combination of genes drawn from this pool, one whose hereditary material will soon be dissolved back into it.

Is there really an unbridgeable gulf between facts and values? If so, do Wilson and others who attempt to derive ethical premises from biology slide illegitimately over this gulf? (74)

| I believe that the answer to both these questions is affirmative. The error in moving from facts to values–also known as committing “the naturalistic fallacy,” although strictly speaking this is the fallacy of defining values in terms of facts, rather than simply deducing values from facts–is not difficult to grasp. Values must provide us with reasons for action. It would be pointless to try to convince people that, say, the survival of the human gene pool is a cardinal value, unless once you had convinced your audiences of this, they regarded themselves as now having a reason for not endangering the survival of the human gene pool. (74)

If our holding certain values had no effect at all on what we chose to do, values would lose all their importance. (75)

Facts, by themselves, do not provide us with reasons for action. (75)

The gap between facts and values lies in the inability of the facts to dictate my choice.

What about those facts that sociobiologists think important: facts about the nature of human beings as biological organisms with a specific evolutionary history; facts about the genetic basis of altruism; and facts about the hypothalamus and limbic system of the brain, which produce our emotions? (76)

No science is ever going to discover ethical premises inherent in our biological nature, because ethical premises are not the kind of thing discovered by scientific investigation. We do not find our ethical premises in our biological nature, or under cabbages either. We choose them. (77)

[via: explaining ≠ deriving, observation ≠ explanation]

Neither Rawls nor other contemporary ethical philosophers are trying to explain or predict human actions. If they were, they would be scientists, not philosophers–and we would still need ethical philosophers to puzzle over what we ought to do. (78) … explaining and predicting are [far] from prescribing or justifying. The gap that separates them is the gap between facts and values. (79)

| Science seeks to explain. … Ethics consists, as Einstein put it, of directives. Directives offer advice or guidance on what to do. In themselves, facts have no direction. (79)

I cannot predict my own choice–nor can anyone else tell me of a prediction of my choice–in a way that relieves me of the necessity to decide. A prediction about my choice, no matter how well supported by scientific theory, is just one more fact to take into account in deciding. In all cases where we have a choice with thinking about, I am capable of refuting any prediction of which I become aware. To pretend otherwise is to evade responsibility for one’s own decisions. (83)


Neither evolutionary theory, nor biology, nor science as a whole, can provide the ultimate premises of ethics. …we cannot look to religion for positive guidance either. We have to choose our ultimate ethical premises ourselves. (84)

[via: But “choos[ing] our ultimate ethical premises” is what religion IS!]

Wilson’s statement about ethics leave him with no escape from ethical subjectivism, once the impossibility of deriving ethics from biology has been admitted: for Wilson regards all nonbiological ethics as a matter of emotion. He says that “ethical philosophers who wish to intuit the standards of god and evil” are really just consulting their “emotional control centers.” (85)

4 | Reason


Beginning to reason is like stepping onto an escalator that leads upward and out of sight. Once we take the first step, the distance to be traveled is independent of our will and we cannot know in advance where we shall end. (88)

cf. Euclid’s Elements of Geometry

Can our theories about the origin of altruism be blended with this view of reason to form a plausible account of the origin and nature of ethics? (90)


Ethics starts with social animals prompted by their genes to help, and to refrain from injuring, selected other animals. On this base we must now superimpose the capacity to reason. (91)

Gradually, as we evolved from our pre-human ancestors, our brains grew and we began to reason to a degree no other animal had achieved. We became better able to communicate with our fellows. Our language developed to the point at which it enabled us to refer to indefinitely many events, past, present, or future. We became (91) more aware of ourselves as beings existing over time, with a past and a future, and more conscious of the patterns of our social life. We could reflect, and we could choose on the basis of our reflections. All this gave us, of course, tremendous advantages in the evolutionary competition for survival; but it also brought with us something which has not, so far as we can tell, occurred in any non-human society: the transformation of our evolved, genetically-based social practices into a system of rules and precepts guiding our conduct toward one another, supported by widely shared judgments of approval for those who do as the rules and precepts require, and disapproval for those who do not. Thus we arrived at a system of ethics or morality. (92)

[via: Is this not essentially the story of religion!?]

The notion of a judgment carries with it the notion of a standard or a basis of comparison, against which the judging is done. Because a judgment can be challenged, it is not lim-(92)ited to a specific occasion,… If someone tells us that she may take the nuts another member of the tribe has gathered, no one may take her nuts, she can be asked why the two cases are different. To answer, she must give a reason. …the demand for a reason is a demand for a justification that can be accepted by the group as a whole. Thus the reason offered must be disinterested, at least to the extent of being equally acceptable to all. As David Hume put it, a person offering a moral justification must “depart from his private and particular situation and must choose a point of view common to him with others; he must move some universal principle of the human frame and touch as trying to which all mankind have an accord and symphony.” (93)

Early ethical systems, like the ethical systems of many cultures today, were probably marked less by deliberate questioning than by habitual acceptance. The medium between animal altruism and modern ethics was a system of social customs. The customs of a society are an accumulation of its collective approvals and disapproval. Our language still shows this: “ethics” comes from the Greek ēthos, which normally means “character” but can, in the plural, mean “manners,” and is related to the Greek word for custom, ethos, which differs only in having a shorter e. Similarly “moral” comes from the Latin mos and moralis, which mean “custom” and are related to the term “mores,” which we still use to refer to the customary manners of a society. In tribal societies, “It is not customary” often has the force that “It is wrong” has for us. (94)

…the transformation of genetically based social behavior into social customs involved the first limited application of reason to what had hitherto been under the unchallenged (94) control of our genes. … The readiness with which we can bring particular events under a general rule may be the most important difference between human and animal ethics. (95)


Socrates himself never claims to know the answer–his wisdom consists, he says, in the fact that he knows that he knows nothing. Therefore he knows more than those who know nothing but think they know something. (96)

[via: Socrates was an epistemological agnostic! ;-)]

Herodotus may have been an early cultural relativist, believing that everyone ought to follow the customs of his own society. (98)

Extreme relativism may be the first response to the shock of realization that one’s ethical views are grounded in custom, and that if one had been brought up in a different society with different customs, one would have different ethical views; but the students [Lawrence]Kohlberg studied all eventually came to hold that morality has some rational basis and therefore is not, in the end, arbitrary. (99)

Reasoning is inherently expansionist. It seeks universal application. Unless crushed by countervailing forces, each new application will become part of the territory of reasoning bequeathed to future generations. Left to itself, reasoning will develop on a principle similar to biological evolution. (99)


If ethics derives from practices which have a genetic rather than a rational basis, isn’t rational inquiry into ethics bound to be in vain? (100)

We can progress toward rational settlement of disputes over ethics by taking the elemtn of disinterestedness inherent in the idea of justifying one’s conduct to society as a whole, and extending this into the principle that to be ethical, a decision must give equal weight to the interests of all affected by it. (1900)

imagine myself living the lives of all affected by my decision, and then ask what decision I prefer. (101)

Does the element of (102) disinterestedness inherent in the idea of justifying one’s conduct to society lead us to a stance from which we give equal weight to the interests of all? (103)

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the principle of equal consideration for the interests of all is some kind of egoism. …for egoism to be a possible basis of ethics, it must be a disinterested form of egoism which holds that not just I but everyone ought to do what is in his or her interests. (103)

Following Adam Smith…we might hold that everyone ought to do what is in his or her interests simply because that is the way to promote the interests of all. But if we come to an egoistic ethics on this basis, we are not really egoists at all. Our most basic value is the good of all, impartially considered, and we have adopted egoism only as a means of gaining this end. (103)

A different defense of disinterested egoism,…would be the claim that it is right or reasonable for everyone to further his or her own interests, irrespective of the consequences of this for others. (104)

What have men to do with interests? There is a right way and a wrong way. That is all we need think about it. – Thomas Carlyle

Those who take this view of ethics assume that there is truth or falsity in ethics, independently of the preferences of living beings. … The laws of ethics, they say, existed before there was life on our planet and will continue to exist when the sun has ceased to warm the earth. (105)

| The grain of truth in this view of ethics is that there is something in ethics which is eternal and universal, not dependent on the existence of human beings or other creatures with preferences. The process of reasoning we have been dis-(105)cussing is eternal and universal. (106)

But this universal element of ethics is so abstract that although we may say that it “exists” whether or not there are humans or other creatures with preferences, without the existence of some beings with preferences, the universal element is meaningless. If there are no beings with interests, the requirement that we treat all interests equally is entirely empty. It exists only as a framework into which the deliberations of rational creatures with preferences fit, when there are such creatures. It does not exist as a moral law commanding particular actions. (106)

If there were objective values, then they would be entities of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe. Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else. – J. L. Mackie

The principle of impartial consideration of interests thus withstands challenges from alternatives which would put ethics on a different basis. It alone remains a rational basis for ethics. This is an important conclusion, so important that the way in which we reached it warrants a brief restatement. (109)

| In making ethical decisions I am trying to make decisions which can be defended to others. This requires me to take a perspective from which my own interests count to no more, simply because they are my own, than the similar interests of others. Any preference for my own interests must be justified in terms of some broader impartial principle. It might seem that this is compatible with all sorts of moral rules and principles, including some which pay little or no attention to the interests of others, as long as they pay equally little attention to my own interests. When we investigate these other moral rules or principles, however, we find that the grounds for recommending them are either that they will further the inter-(109)tests of all, or simply that they are right in themselves. If the first of these grounds is offered, the principle of equal consideration of interests remains the ultimate basis of morality, and we are left with the task of working out how best to further the interests of all. On the other hand, the idea of moral laws existing independently of the interests and preferences of living beings is implausible, once we have more straight-forward explanations of the origins of ethics. Without the notion of an independent moral reality to back them up, however, claims made on behalf of these moral rules or principles can be no more than expressions of personal preferences which, from the collective point of view, should receive no more weight than other preferences. Thus conflicts over differing moral ideals can be treated like any other conflict of preferences, that is, by assessing them impartially and doing what, on the whole, satisfies most preferences. (110)

[via: “intersubjective”]

…let us cling to the simpler idea that ethics evolved out of our social instincts and our capacity to reason. And let us cling to the principle of equal consideration of interests – …as a uniquely rational basis for ethical decision-making. (111)


This is a significant omission which I must now explain. Obviously there are actions one can defend in a manner that is acceptable within one’s own society, but unacceptable to members of other societies. (111)

So the shift from a point of view that is disinterested between individuals within a group, but not between groups, to a point of view that is fully universal, is a tremendous change–so tremendous, in fact, that it is only just beginning to be accepted on the level of ethical reasoning and is still a long way from acceptance on the level of practice. Nevertheless, it is the direction in which moral thought has been going since ancient times. It is an accident of history that this should be so, or is it the direction in which our capacity to reason leads us? (113)

In Plato’s time, to appeal to the claims of “all human beings” would have seemed absurd; but Plato’s appeal to consider the welfare of all Greeks, rather than just Athenians, served the same progressive function as the appeal to all humans has served in more recent times. (117)

Each new class which displaces the one previously dominant is forced, simply to be able to carry out its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all members of society, that is, ideally expressed. It has to give its ideas the form of universality and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones. … Every new class, therefore, achieves dominance only on a broader basis than that of the previous class ruling. – Karl Marx, The German Ideology, 1966

We can now state the rational basis of the expansion of ethics. Disinterestedness within a group involves the rejec-(117)tion of purely egoistic reasoning. To reason ethically I have to see my own interests as one among the many interests of those that make up the group, an interest no more important than others. Justifying my actions to the group therefore leads me to take up a perspective from which the fact that I am I and you are you is not important. Within the group, other distinctions are similarly not ethically relevant. … Though ethical systems everywhere recognize special obligations to kin and neighbors, they do so within a framework of impartiality which makes me see my obligations to my kin and neighbors as no more important, from the ethical point of view, than other people’s obligations to their own kin and neighbors. (118)

Ethical reasoning, once begun, pushes against our initially limited ethical horizons, leading us always toward a move universal point of view. (119)

The circle of altruism has broadened from the family and tribe to the nation and race, and we are beginning to recognize that our obligations extend to all human beings. The process should not stop there. (120)

Since today’s enlightened thinking often turns out to be tomorrow’s hidebound conservatism–witness the male bias now apparent in the eighteenth-century appeal to “brotherhood”–it would be imprudent to say too firmly that with the inclusion of non-human animals we will at last have gone as far as impartial reasoning requires. (121)

A man is really ethical only when he obeys the constraint laid on him to help all life which he is able to succour, and when he goes out of his way to avoid injuring any thing living. He does not ask how far this or that life deserves sympathy as valuable in itself, nor how far it is capable of feeling. To him life itself is sacred. – Albert Schweitzer

…I believe that the boundary of sentience–by which I mean the ability to feel, to suffer from anything or to enjoy anything–is not a morally arbitrary boundary in the way that the boundaries of race or species are arbitrary. There is a genuine difficulty in understanding how chopping down a tree can matter to the tree if the tree can feel nothing. The same is true of quarrying a mountain. (123)

We need not deliberately exclude nonsentient things from the scope of the principle of equal consideration of interests: it is just that including them within the scope of this principle leads to results identical with excluding them, since they have no preferences–and therefore no interests, strictly speaking–to be considered. … That is why I believe that if ethics grows to take into account the interests of all sentient creatures, the expansion of our moral horizons will at last have completed its long and erratic course. (124)

5 | Reason and Genes

Man is a reasoning animal. – Seneca, Ad Lucilium

Man is a rational animal who always loses his temper when he is called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason. – Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist

The previous chapter concluded on a lofty note. Now we must descend to earth. (125)

cf. David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, 1739

Hume’s statement was a deduction from his view of the nature of reason,… yet it is recognizably the ancestor of the view some sociobiologists take of human behavior. “Reason is, and ought only to be,” they would rewrite Hume, “the slave of our genes.” (126)


…some have thought that everything anyone does is ultimately selfish. (126)

[via: Yup, that has been me, since 2004.]

Nearly all philosophers now reject the doctrine. They point out that those who hold it must choose between one of two interpretations of “selfish.” In the first interpretation, to be selfish is to take no account of the interests of anyone else, except when by doing so you can get more of what you want for yourself. … So psychological egoists often take a broader view of “selfish” behavior. They say that if patriots volunteer for suicidal missions, that must show that they want to die for their country more than they want to go on living; and if blood donors give blood at no fee to a stranger, that must be because they get satisfaction from helping strangers. In this second interpretation of “selfish” it is much more difficult to refute the claim that everyone always acts selfishly–but now that claim has changed its meaning so radically that it is no longer the bold challenge to more idealistic theories of human nature that it at first seemed to be. (127)

The evolutionary theories of sociobiologists show that beings who considered only their own interests would leave fewer descendants than beings who also considered the interests of their kin. So there is a good reason to believe that we do not all act solely in our own interests. Genes promoting strictly selfish behavior in individual animals would be less likely to survive than genes which do not. (128)

cf. The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins

For sociobiologists, a being acts altruistically if it increases the fitness of another at the expense of its own, and selfishly if it increases its own fitness at the expense of another’s This looks like normal usage, until we realize that by “fitness” sociobiologists do not mean, as we might at first imagine, the individual’s own fitness for survival; instead they mean fitness as measured by the number of surviving offspring. (129)

cf. Beast and Man, Mary Midgley

In all the writings of sociobiologists, “selfish” and “altruistic” have nothing to do with motivation; they refer only to the actual consequences of the individual’s behavior, whether or not the individual is motivated by or even aware of these consequences. That is why Dawkins can write of a “selfish gene” and Wilson of an altruistic parasite. Using these terms in this way makes genetics and the study of parasites more readily understandable, but to transfer this usage to discussions of human behavior without noting that “selfish” genes are entirely compatible with completely unselfish motivation on the part of those whose genes they are, would be highly misleading. (129)

| So sociobiology, properly understood, does not support the view that we are all irredeemably selfish, at least not in any normal sense of the term. (129)

Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts which simply do not make evolutionary sense. – Dawkins

The growth of modern contraceptive techniques is a splendid example of the use of reason to overcome the normal consequences of our evolved behavior. It shows that reason can master our genes. (131)

…there is no reason to believe that we always do what is in our own interest, whether we take this term either in the usual sense of getting more of what we want for ourselves or in the extended biological sense of enhancing the survival of our genes. We can therefore go on to consider with an open mind the possibility of rationally based altruism. (133)


Biological theories of the evolution of altruism through kin selection, reciprocity, and group selection can be made compatible with the existence of non-reciprocal al-(134)truism toward strangers if they can accept this kind of extension of the circle of altruism. (135)

The expansion of the community must have played a role in the expansion of altruism. (135)

That the idea of treating others as one would like to be treated oneself should often be repeated is not surprising; what is surprising is the way in which the idea crops up independently in quite different ethical and cultural traditions and is, in each case, seized on as something fundamental to ethical living, a foundation from (136) which all else can be derived. Or rather: this would be surprising if reason had no rule to play in ethics. … Once reason is admitted to have a role to play in ethics, however, there is nothing at all surprising in the fact that, despite immense cultural differences, outstanding thinkers in different periods and places should extrapolate beyond more limited forms of altruism to what is essentially the same fundamental principle of an impartial ethic. (137)


Many people in no way deficient in their ability to reason rarely or never act in accordance with the objective standpoint. They usually or always give priority to their own interests. (141)

If people are capable of grasping the reasons for taking an objective point of view, how do we explain the fact that many act as if these reasons did not exist? (141)

Hume was at least partly right. Alone and unaided, reason (141) cannot give rise to action. There must be some desire, some want or aversion, some pro or con feeling with which reason can combine to generate an action. (142)

On the other hand, Hume was not entirely right. Tools have a way of influencing the purpose for which they are used, especially if that purpose is pursued with less than single-minded determination. (142)

We built cars to travel and then discovered that we enjoyed driving for its own sake. In the case of ethical reasoning, we begin to reason impartially in order to justify our conduct to others, and then discover that we prefer to act in accordance with the conclusions of impartial reasoning. (142)

cf. Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

if we sense an inconsistency in our beliefs, or between our beliefs and our actions, we will try to do something to eliminate the sense of inconsistency, just as when we feel hungry we will try to do something to eliminate our hunger. (143)

…people can be perfectly rational and yet perfectly self-interested. (144)

One can adopt one set of principles in private and a different set in public without any inconsistency; all one has to do is make one’s overriding principle the pursuit of self-interest, and then use ethical reasoning in public situations for the purpose of impressing others with one’s impartiality, but not as a real guide to one’s actions. This is hypocritical, but the hypocrisy is part of a consistent design for promoting one’s own interests. (144)

Since ancient times, philosophers have maintained that to strive too hard for one’s own happiness is self-defeating. The “paradox of hedonism,” as philosophers have called it, is that those who seek their own pleasure do not find it, and those who do not seek it find it anyway. (145)

I have suggested that (146) reason is not powerless. On the collective level, once we have begun to justify our conduct publicly, reason leads us to develop and expand our moral concerns, drawing us on toward an objective point of view. (147)

6 | A New Understanding of Ethics


…sociobiology provides the basis for a new understanding of ethics. It enables us to see ethics as a mode of human reasoning which develops in a group context, building on more limited, biologically based forms of altruism. (149)

[via: My conclusion too; ethics/morals are “inter-subjective!”]

The principles of ethics come from our own nature as social, reasoning beings. At the same time, a view of ethics grounded on evolutionary theory need not reduce ethics simply to a matter of subjective feelings or arbitrary choices. The fact that our ethical judgments are not dictated to us by an external authority does not mean that any ethical judgment is as good as any other. Ethical reasoning points the way to an assessment of ethical judgments from an objective point of view. (149)

Emphasizing the rational element in ethical choice, however, narrows the gap between facts and values. Rational criticism of an ethical choice becomes possible, and facts may be relevant to this rational process. (150)

Very few philosophers have been prepared to take impartiality all the way to its logical conclusion. (151)

cf. William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice


We can clarify Godwin’s problem–and the general issue of impartial reasoning and its conflict with conventional ethical standards–by separating two questions: “What ought I to do?” and “What ought to be the ethical code of our society?” (152)

It is also true that sociobiology bears out one of the assumptions of conservatives from Burke to the present day: the assumption that some of the problems of human life have their roots in human nature rather than in the corrupting effect of society. … Though the viewpoint of an impartial spectator is the ultimate criterion of what is right, it is not wise to make this the sole practical criterion, sweeping away all other customs and biases. Human nature is not free-flowing, but its course is not eternally fixed. It cannot be made to flow uphill, but its direction can be altered if we make use of its inherent features instead of fighting against them. (156)


Our feelings of benevolence and sympathy are more easily aroused by specific human beings than by a large group in which no individuals stand out. (157)

If we were more rational, we would be different: we would use our resources to save as many lives as possible, irrespective of whether we do it by reducing the road toll or by saving specific, identifiable lives: and we would be no readier to kill children from great heights than face to face. An ethic that relied solely on an appeal to impartial rationality would, however, be followed only by the impartially rational. (157)

So we have come full circle in our understanding of the relevance of biology to ethics. Seeing that an ethical principle has a biological basis does not support that principle. If anything, it undermines it, by showing that its widespread acceptance is no evidence that it is some kind of absolute moral truth. Clearing away these biologically based principles leaves us with the standpoint of impartial reasoning, and the principles of equal consideration of interests. Yet to rely on so broad and abstract a principle as equal consideration of interests would result in a morality unsuited to normal human beings, and unlikely to be obeyed by them. Hence, without abandoning the objective standpoint as the ultimate ideal test of right and wrong, we must return to biology, to use our knowledge of human nature as a guide to what will or will not work as a code of ethics for normal human beings. (158)


Human social institutions can affect the course of human evolution. Just as climate, food supply, predators, and other natural forces of selection have molded our nature, so too can our culture. (172)

In the past, our culture may have counteracted the genetic advantages of aggressive or selfish conduct without anyone realizing that it was having this effect. In the future we will be more aware of the genetic consequences of our practices, (172) and will be able to take deliberate steps to see that our culture not only encourages ethical conduct in the present generation but enhances its prospects of spreading in the next. At present we know too little about human genetics to do this in anything but a very crude and potentially damaging manner. When we know more, we will truly be able to claim that we are no longer the slaves of our genes. (173)

Notes on Sources

Afterword to the 2011 Edition

Science does not stand still, and neither does philosophy, although the latter has a tendency to walk in circles. Maybe that’s unfair: philosophy does make progress. Beter to say, perhaps, that philosophy likes to revisit its old haunts and find something of value in what it did in the good old days. (187)

The denial of objective truth in ethics thus leads not, as (199) I had tried to argue, to preference utilitarianism as a kind of metaphysically unproblematic default position, but to skepticism about the possibility of reaching any meaningful conclusions at all about what we ought to do. The only conclusions we could reach would be subjective ones, based on our own desires or preferences, and therefore not ones that others with different desires or preferences would have any reason to accept. I was reluctant to embrace such skeptical or subjectivism views in 1981, and that reluctance has not abated over the intervening years. (200)

In the 1930s, however, logical positivism became dominant in English-language philosophy, and for logical positivists, truths must either be tautologies, that is, true in virtue of the meanings of the terms used, or they must be empirical. Mathematical truths, on the positivist view, are tautologies. (201)

The existence of objective moral truths allows us to hope that we may be able to distinguish these intuitive responses from the reasons for action that all rational sentient beings would have, even rational sentient beings who had evolved in circumstances very different from our own. (204)

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  1. Pingback: Why We Love Dogs Eat Pigs and Wear Cows | Reflections & Notes | vialogue

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