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Big thanks to Matti Wilks for helping me work through my thoughts on this and write up this post.

The bounds of moral concern are blurry. Determining what falls within the scope of moral concern is not an easily defined task and what we know of it so far encompasses many forms of expressions, attitudes, and behaviours, such as the concern for human rights (McFarland et al., 2012), a sense of responsibility towards many entities (Crimston et al., 2016), the desire to reduce speciesism (Bastian et al., 2012) and wanting to protect artificial intelligence from harm (AIMS, 2021), to name a few.

We might also see a limited picture of moral concern. Most of the research has tried to understand and explain differences in how we morally value different beings. Some investigations have focused on traits, such as where we fall on the political spectrum (Waytz et al., 2019). Others have focused on differences we perceive in the entities we are judging – whether they are similar or different to us (Miralles et al., 2019), and whether we consider them sentient or intelligent (Gray et al., 2012; Jaeger & Wilks, 2021).

Although we know quiet a bit about such judge and target factors, other valuable determinants of moral concern have not yet been clearly identified. For example, people often place both caterpillars and child molesters on the margins of the moral circle, but they do so for very different reasons. Similarly, when thinking of objective forms of moral concern, we might extend this to a very different range of entities than if we were thinking about a more personal form of moral concern. Given these differences, when we ask people about moral concern, we don’t really know what we are capturing most of the time.

How a taxonomy could improve the field

A taxonomy of moral concern could help us distinguish the different formulations of moral concern, allowing us to discern the specific phenomena we seek to study from those that we don’t. It would also be helpful for research participants. Existing studies of moral concern use a range of approaches and terms that reflect the pluralistic nature of moral concern. This includes ratings on the moral expansiveness scale (MES), questions on attributions of ‘moral standing’ and ‘moral concern’ and varying methods to test inclusion/exclusion from the moral circle. While experts are familiar with the meanings of these commonly-used terms (and they still don’t have an agreed-upon definition of these), it is very unlikely that research participants would have a clear or uniform interpretation of these. If we know what formulation of moral concern we want to study, we can also improve our methods so that participants have more clarity on what we’re asking.

Having a taxonomy could also help our research in other ways. For example, we could identify where intention-behaviour gaps lie for specific formulations of moral concern, such as ones that could affect the well-being of fringe entities like digital beings. We could also more accurately study the spillover effects of a variety of moral concern formulations, which would be valuable for moral advocacy.

In summary, developing a fittingly comprehensive taxonomy of moral concern holds great promise. Such a structured framework could enhance clarity and precision in our research. It could also aid us in developing targeted interventions and strategies that promote moral concern and expand the moral circle. Ideally, by continually refining our understanding and measurements of moral concern over time, we could strive for meaningful progress in enhancing moral consideration for all beings, both now and in the future.


Bastian, B., Costello, K., Loughnan, S., & Hodson, G. (2012). When Closing the Human–Animal Divide Expands Moral Concern: The Importance of Framing. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(4), 421–429. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550611425106

Crimston, C. R., Bain, P. G., Hornsey, M. J., & Bastian, B. (2016). Moral expansiveness: Examining variability in the extension of the moral world. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(4), 636–653. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000086

Jaeger, B., & Wilks, M. (2021). A variance component analysis of the moral circle. A Variance Component Analysis of the Moral Circle.

McFarland, S., Webb, M., & Brown, D. (2012). All humanity is my ingroup: A measure and studies of identification with all humanity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 830–853. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0028724

Miralles, A., Raymond, M., & Lecointre, G. (2019). Empathy and compassion toward other species decrease with evolutionary divergence time. Scientific Reports, 9(1), Article 1. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-56006-9

Pauketat, Janet; Ladak, Ali; Harris, Jamie; Anthis, Jacy (2022), “Artificial Intelligence, Morality, and Sentience (AIMS) 2021”, Mendeley Data, V1, doi: 10.17632/x5689yhv2n.1 

Waytz, A., Iyer, R., Young, L., Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2019). Ideological differences in the expanse of the moral circle. Nature Communications, 10(1), Article 1. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-12227-0





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