Insiders and Outsiders: The Expansion of the Moral Circle, Part 1

The famous ethical philosopher, Peter Singer (photo courtesy of Princeton's Office of Communication), suggests that the moral psychology of human beings is a simple two-stage process. First, there is a classification mechanism which identifies "kin" or "family" from "non-kin." Once we identify our "family" the second mechanism kicks in: Extend "kindness" toward our "kin" (note how "kind"--as in "of the same kind"-- "kindness," and "kin" all share the same root).

It is as simple as that.

Singer's idea is called the Moral Circle. That is, we psychologically draw a circle around a group of people whom I identify as "my kind," "my group," "my clan," "my family." This group does start out populated mostly with family members, but as we grow it includes more and more non-biological "family members," my best friends. The point is, once I allow you into this Circle, love and charity flows naturally. I don't have to work to love my wife, mother, sons, or best friends. Once you're inside my Moral Circle, love is like breathing; it's just a part of who I am.

So, the whole issue revolves around who I let into my Moral Circle.

What about those who are not of my "kind"? Those on the outside of my Moral Circle? Those people we treat, to use psychological jargon, instrumentally. As tools to accomplish our goals in the world. Either that or you are an obstacle to me meeting my goals. Or, if you aren't my tool and you are not an obstacle, I simply feel indifferent toward you. The point is, we treat those inside the Moral Circle with love and mercy and those outside the Moral Circle with indifference, hostility, or pragmatism. And it all flows naturally from a simple psychological mechanism: Are you identified as "family"? Once the identification is made (or not), the life inside and outside the Circle flows easily and reflexively.

I use the following scenario in class to illustrate the power of the Moral Circle. Your best friend just got a job waiting tables at a restaurant. To celebrate with her, you go to the restaurant to eat dinner on her first night. You get seated in her section. Soon your friend comes to your table, sweating and stressed out. She is having a terrible night. Things are going badly and she is behind getting food and drinks out. So, what do you do? Easily and naturally, you say, "Don't worry about me. Take care of everyone else first. Then get back to me." This act of kindness on your part is no great ethical chore. It is just natural to extend grace to a suffering friend. She is inside your Moral Circle.

But imagine you go out to eat tonight. And your server, whom you vaguely notice seems stressed out, performs poorly. You don't get good service. What do you do? Well, since this stranger is not a part of your Moral Circle, we get frustrated and angry. She is a tool and she is not performing properly. She is inconveniencing me. So, we complain to the manager and refuse to tip. In the end, we failed to treat another human being with mercy and dignity. Why? Because in a deep psychological sense, she wasn't really "human" to us. She was a part of the "backdrop" of our lives. Part of the teeming anonymous masses toward whom I feel indifference, fear, or frustration. Only those Inside my circle are truly "persons" to me.

Note the stark differences in how we treat people Inside vs. Outside the Circle. Same situation in the restaurant, but one big moral difference.

I think the Moral Circle has a lot to say to us and I'll get to that tomorrow. For today, however, watch how you treat those on the Inside versus those on the Outside.

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