Theology and Evolutionary Psychology, Chapter 6: Kin Selection, the Moral Circle, and the SXS

In the comments to my post about family values and kin selection I made the comment that, as Christians, we try to extend family affection to all people.

Let's call this the storge-to-xenia shift (SXS).

The point I was trying to make in the Family Values post is that although family is a great and joyous good (when functioning properly) it is not a moral demonstration. Jesus explicitly makes this point in the Sermon on the Mount. Thus, what the world is waiting to see from the Christian community is the SXS. In making the SXS, the church is truly making a moral demonstration.

One way to make the SXS is to leverage the psychology of kin selection (the source of storge) to the purposes of xenia. This psychological leveraging is the proposal of the ethicist Peter Singer. Singer calls this notion The Moral Circle.

Singer suggests that human moral psychology is the height of simplicity, a simple two-step process. The first step is a simple identification algorithm which sorts kin from non-kin. Recall my post on the Magic Moral Number 150? The identification algorithm is a quick appraisal telling me if you, the person standing in front of me, is INSIDE or OUTSIDE my friendship/family group. Basically, it tells me if you are a stranger.

The second step of the moral system is to extend kindness toward friends/family. This happens naturally and instinctively in most cases. I don't really choose to treat my friends and family kindly. I just do. Once identified as part of "my group" affection flows easily and naturally.

But if you are identified as a stranger you fall outside of my moral concerns. I don't treat you with kindness. Rather, I treat you instrumentally, as a tool to accomplish my purposes in the world. And if you are not helping me accomplish my purposes I can dismiss you or remove you from my path.

There it is, in all its crystalline simplicity, the human moral system. To recap:

The Human Moral System
Part 1: Identification Algorithm
Are you friend/family or stranger?

Part 2: Response Algorithm
If you are friend, I extend familial kindness.
If you are stranger, I treat you instrumentally.

When you look at the outcome of this system, as Singer notes, you create a Moral Circle. Specifically, people inside your moral circle are at the center of your moral concerns. You treat these people as, well, humans. However, if you are outside my moral circle--you are stranger--you are not the focus of my moral concerns or efforts. You are a little less human to me, an infrahuman.

In the language of Kant's Categorical Imperative we can state that:

Inside my Moral Circle: You are treated as an end in itself.
Outside my Moral Circle: You are treated as a means to an end.

Obviously, the psychology of the moral circle is driven by kin selection. That is, narrowing our earthly concerns to the FEW makes good adaptive sense (and this is why family isn't a moral demonstration).

So, how can we make the SXS with this particular moral psychology in place? As Singer suggests, we work to EXPAND the Moral Circle. We do this my modifying the identification algorithm to label more and more people as "family." As we do this everyone becomes brother or sister to me. I begin to live in a world with fewer and fewer strangers.

What is amazing about this is how Singer's notion is clearly anticipated by the bible. The NT ethical vision is to live in a world without strangers. And this is accomplished by harnessing family metaphors and imagery and applying each more and more inclusively. As I've written before:

Thus, we see co-opted kinship language sprinkled throughout church. We call the church the "family of God." We call each other "brother" and "sister." Jesus is our “older brother.” God is our “father.” And the center of Christian worship is eating around a table, a symbol of home and family gatherings.

And who gets this “family treatment”? Jesus was asked this very question. The Torah expert asked Jesus, Who is my neighbor? It was a question about the Moral Circle. Where can I draw that line? Who is inside and who is outside? Who is family? And Jesus tells the story at the heart of his ethical vision: The parable of the Good Samaritan. Who is my neighbor? Who is inside my Moral Circle? Everyone. Everyone is now family.

Thus the gospel takes a moral psychology that is naturally parochial and small-minded and gradually universalizes it, allowing familial affection to flow toward all. As a psychologist at church, as I witness this expansion of kinship language, watching how it exploits our natural biases for good, I’m always amazed by the genius of it all.

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6 thoughts on “Theology and Evolutionary Psychology, Chapter 6: Kin Selection, the Moral Circle, and the SXS”

  1. Brilliant post Richard (as usual)!
    I might add that some (myself included) would argue that even animals get included into the 'family circle' in the Kingdom of God. The fact that it is hard to imagine a world not predicated the use of animals as mere means to an end ('feed me!') doesn't change the vision of the peaceable Kingdom, in my opinion.
    Of course, it's perhaps best to start with other humans, and work from there.

  2. Since I don't have kids, it is easy for me to agree with your ethical logic without reservation. For argument's sake, let's say that in effort to be more moral, you decide to expand your moral circle beyond your family. One of the people that you now include in your circle has need of your resources (time, money, whatever). Since you have limited resources, sacrifices must be made with respect to your family, to meet the additional demands. Does there come a point where this inclusion into your moral circle can become unethical? In other words that causing harm (i.e. sacrificing resources normally spent) to your "inner circle" (family) is worse then sacrificing resources to your outer circle? Though it seems that in making distinctions between inner and outer circles, you loose the value of the axiom (expanding your moral circle).

  3. Has anyone wondered to themselves that the language or blueprint of DNA carries a weightier price tag for the Christian than we often consider, in the sense that, we are slaves to a baser genetic nature that essentially is the driving/creative force behind these inner and outer circles (via Hamilton's coefficient of relatedness--r)? J.B.S. Haldane's famous quip "I would give my life for two brothers or eight cousin's comes to mind. Christ's urging to to love others (both members of the in and out-groups) is perhaps a concession the fact that the rarity of true altruism is really only an artifact of the mortal nature we possess on Earth and will not have equivalent after death. Would we say then that the Christian imperative to love (1 John 4:7ff) prepares us for the day when we are no longer bound by an underlying genetic coding which, because of natural selection, drives us instinctively to be self-serving?

  4. Daniel,
    Singer does make that move, including animals in particular in the moral circle. His most famous book is Animal Liberation, the seminal work in the animal rights movement.

    You're probably right. It's a Malthusian dilemma.

    That's an interesting point. In my mind I sometimes think our Darwinian tendencies equate with theological notions of Original sin. And I agree wholeheartedly that if look closely at the Judeo-Christian ethic we see it explicitly "swimming upstream" against the biases of our Darwinian nature. I also like your notion of our ethical practice "preparing us" or "pointing us toward" the Day when the moral circle truly universalizes (i.e., biology is transcended).

  5. Richard,

    You wrote in response to Matt, "In my mind I sometimes think our Darwinian tendencies equate with theological notions of Original sin." In Chapter 4 of your "Theology and Evolutionary Psychology" blogpost, Geoff and I touch on the "Fall" and "Original Sin." You might want to devote some space to this matter.

    I trust you are using the "family" circle as an ideal type. Jesus also had some harsh things to say about the tendency of family to be exclusive and incestuous--and yet God's people are "called out." Yet, we are also called upon to "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Indeed, I am sometimes a "stranger" to my self. And Paul speaks of "adoption." Once again sorting all this out is hard work. As Parker Palmer once said: "our job is to be in each other's lives without getting into each other's hair."


    George C.

  6. George,
    I love the Parker Palmer quote.

    Regarding the "Fall"...

    As best as I can figure, "the Fall" and "Original sin" appears to be shorthand for: A pessimistic take on human volitional capacity to incrementally improve our moral situation. As to the truth of this formulation, I think reviews are mixed.

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