The Narrowing Circle (Gwern)

by Aaron Gertler11th Feb 201915 comments


EA PhilosophyMoral CirclesMoral Philosophy

Content note: Discussion of infanticide and sexual violence.

Views I express in this essay are my own, unrelated to CEA.

Summary: Have our moral "circles" really expanded over time? While some groups get more moral consideration than they once did, others get less, or see their moral status shift back and forth. Gwern questions how much "progress" we've really made over the years, as opposed to mere shifts between the groups we care about.

In The Narrowing Circle, Gwern speculates that what we see as broad moral progress may instead be a series of moral shifts, embracing new beings/ideas and rejecting old ones in a way that isn't as predictable or linear as "expanding circle" theory might hold.

I highly recommend reading the original essay, but here's a brief summary of Gwern's main points.

Is there an expanding circle?

  • Peter Singer proposed that people tend to include more and more beings in their "circle" of moral regard over time. Many others hold a similar view ("the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice")
  • However, it's easy to see patterns appear in random data. Between that phenomenon and confirmation bias, we should be careful not to jump too eagerly to an "expanding circle" explanation without considering that we could be ignoring beings that have been excluded from moral regard, perhaps because we no longer even consider those beings as potential inclusions.
  • Another question (not explored too deeply in this essay): Have we become more moral, or do we simply live in a world that is less morally challenging? It may be easier to feel compassion when we are rich and at peace, but if a truly threatening war broke out, would we become as bloodthirsty as ever? (We may not believe in witches, but if we did believe in witches, as our ancestors did, would we still execute them?)

How have we narrowed the circle?


Compared to people in the past, people in the present hold very little regard (on average) for supernatural entities. This isn't always because of atheism or agnosticism; many people claim to be religious but also make little or no effort to "keep the faith". Has our disregard for the gods outpaced our disbelief?

This disregard extends to the case of "sacred animals". Not only have we dramatically scaled up factory farming; we have also (on a smaller scale) removed "protected" status from certain categories of animals that had holy significance in the past. (We've also stopped putting animals on trial, though this seems to me like a separate phenomenon.)


Infants and the unborn have seen their moral status shift back and forth around the world and through the centuries. Some societies regularly cast out unwanted infants (or even mandated the killing of infants in some cases); others banned abortion from the time of conception.

If one accepts the basic premise that a fetus is human, then the annual rate (as pro-life activists never tire of pointing out) of millions of abortions worldwide would negate centuries of moral progress. If one does not accept the premise, then per C.S. Lewis, we have change in facts as to what is human, but nothing one could call an expanding circle.


In many ways, we take much better care of people with disabilities than we did in past eras. In other ways, we've come up with new reasons to exclude people; modern society may discriminate more viciously than past societies on the basis of weight or facial appearance. (I'll add a quote from Aeon: "There is no shame worse than poor teeth in a rich world.")

Judicial Torture

Many states, in both the East and West, have moved back and forth on policies related to the torture of prisoners and dissidents. We no longer hang prisoners in front of cheering crowds, but we lock tens of thousands of people in solitary confinement and make jokes about the sexual abuse of prisoners. (I'll also note that society constantly redefines what a "crime" is; we're much nicer to thieves than we once were, and probably harsher toward drug users.)

Let’s not talk about how one is sentenced to jail in the first place; Hunter Felt: Your third arrest, you go to jail for life. Why the third? Because in a game a guy gets three times to swing a stick at a ball.


We do a poor job of respecting the wishes of the dead, even when those people have made reasonable and non-harmful plans for the use of their assets (many trusts put away for charity are torn apart by lawyers and heirs).

More dramatically, we dishonor our ancestors by neglecting their graves, by not offering any sacrifices or even performing any rituals, by forgetting their names (can you name your great-grandparents?), by selling off the family estate when we think the market has hit the peak, and so on.

Gwern argues, convincingly, that people in the past were much more respectful in this sense (perhaps a useless gesture to those no longer able to receive it, but might it not have been a comfort to those who died long ago to know that they would be remembered, respected, even revered?).


This is fairly standard EA material about planning for the long term, and is as such slightly out of date ("there are no explicit advocates for futurity"). But we are a tiny group within society, and when I think about the majority of living people outside of EA, this rings true:

Has the living’s concern for their descendants, the inclusion of the future into the circle or moral concern, increased or decreased over time? Whichever one’s opinion, I submit that the answer is shaky and not supported by excellent evidence.

My thoughts

I make no claim that any of these views are original, but I'm trying to note things I didn't see in Gwern's essay.

When we cease to grant moral regard to certain groups, it seems to happen for one or more of the following reasons:

1. We no longer view them as "possible" targets for moral regard (e.g. the gods, to an atheist)

2. While we acknowledge that they are "possible" targets, our modern morality doesn't really "cover" them (e.g. fetuses, to some in the pro-choice movement, though this issue is complicated, nearly everyone wants fewer abortions, and any "side" in the debate holds a wide range of views about what to do and why)

3. We've learned new ways to take advantage of them (e.g. animals, in the case of factory farming)

4. We've genuinely become more antagonistic toward them (e.g. the view of Muslims by certain groups since 2001; the treatment of American prisoners)

It seems to me as though (1) generally doesn't interfere with the notion of the expanding circle. Neither does (3), necessarily; if our ancestors knew how to establish factory farms, I assume they would have done so, since they were no strangers to animal cruelty (e.g. bear-baiting, gladitorial combat).

(2) does complicate things, and while I favor expanding abortion rights, I'm not sure I'd think of them as a facet of the "expanding circle" in the same way as I do the expansion of civil rights for certain groups. And (4) implies that the expanding circle can, under the right circumstances, shrink, due to the same kinds of mass movements and meme-spreading that categorize expansion of the circle.

For example, it's often argued that knowing a gay person makes you more likely to favor gay rights; as more people come out of the closet, more people know that they have gay friends and relatives, and support for gay rights spreads rapidly.

Could the opposite be true for prisoners? As the crime rate shrinks, and people with criminal records become less likely to re-integrate into society, perhaps fewer people know someone who's been to prison. Would that make it easier to think of criminals as "the other", people you'd never love or befriend?

(On the one hand, incarceration rose in the U.S. during a time of large increases in the crime rate; on the other hand, prison reform seems to have lagged substantially behind reduction in the crime rate, implying that some factor other than a direct "fear of criminals" is in play. Do we simply care less nowadays?)

This also makes me rethink my position on certain kinds of animal cruelty; as fewer and fewer people live on farms, might we care less and less about the way farm animals are treated?

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Much discussion of Moral Circle Expansion seems hampered by lack of conceptual clarity about what the Moral Circle means.

There are a lot of distinctions that need to be drawn, but here are two positions on one dimension:

  1. The moral circle merely refers to which (groups or types of) entities are viewed as possible targets of moral regard
  2. The moral circle refers to the amount of actual moral concern granted to such entities

A lot more distinctions should be drawn on this dimension alone (e.g. for "actual moral concern" are we interested in abstract attitudes of concern, actual amount of effort extended, or actual treatment extended), but even these suffice for now.

On the first view, which seems somewhat closer to original uses of the term, it does seem like retrenchment of the Moral Circle should be expected to be quite rare, at least once you reach contexts like our own (in WEIRD societies) where there are extremely prevalent memes about at least potentially considering entities as possible moral targets if they might be persons in any sense (or more generally in contexts where the conditions for considering the possibility of including some group in the moral circle are as extensive and plural as they are now). It seems relatively hard for groups to fall entirely out of the moral circle in the first sense, in such cases, except in cases like those you mention where we decide that certain entities don't exist or aren't sentient.

With the more expansive second sense of Moral Circle (which seems to be what people are using), where all that is required for Moral Circle expansion/retraction is an increase or reduction in moral concern extended (as seems to be implied by examples such as more/less care being granted to the elderly and so on), it seems like the Moral Circle should be expected to be expanding and retracting near constantly on an individual or group basis. This is especially so if we understand degree of moral concern as meaning the actual extend to which needs are weighted and help extended (in which case this will, almost necessarily, be pervaded by tradeoffs in a near zero sum fashion) which is why further distinction being drawn within this category is so important.

(2) does complicate things, and while I favor expanding abortion rights, I'm not sure I'd think of them as a facet of the "expanding circle" in the same way as I do the expansion of civil rights for certain groups.

This seems like a quite backwards way of describing the situation. The abortion case is very similar to canonical expanding circle cases, like the end of slavery, prohibition of spousal rape, or animal rights:

  • In each case one group (slave owners, husbands, abortionists, omnivores) were systematically acting in a way that advantaged themselves (forcing slaves to production of cotton, raping wives for sex, killing fetuses to avoid pregnancy, killing animals for meat) at high cost (brutality and loss of freedom, sexual abuse, death, torture and death) of another group (black people, wives, fetuses, animals).
  • In each case the dominant group justified their conduct partly by arguing that the other group didn't really count as people, perhaps because they lacked certain mental capacities.
  • In each case the dominant group justified their conduct partly by arguing that the other group had reduced or no ability to feel pain.
  • In each case the dominant group justified their conduct partly by arguing that they had an inherent right to act in this way, even if it hurt the other group.
  • In each case the dominant group argued that it was fine for others to avoid taking this action, but it was wrong for such conscientious objectors to prohibit them.
  • In each case the victimised group lacked formal representation in government.
  • In each case the scale of the issue was very large, and one could reasonably believe ending it was the most important issue in the world.

The abortion case is very similar to the standard expanding circle cases, and contrary to many western people's views. The fact that we have not seen a similar expanding moral circle for unborn children is either a big problem with the expanding circle theory (if we take it as a positive description of human values) or with our current legal and social system (if we take the theory as normative prescription for who we *should* care about).

I don't think we disagree here, but I can see how that section was ambiguous. I think many people would think of "expanding abortion rights" as part of "the expanding circle" (people having more freedom and fewer restrictions, as long as you take it for granted that fetuses don't "count"). Of course, there are multiple ways to argue that fetuses might "count" (as ensoulled entities, as potential future people, as living creatures, etc.), so one could also look at expanded abortion rights as a case of "the narrowing circle".

As you outlined, those on the side of the "narrowing circle" have a better case if you consider the literal meaning of "expanding circle" (more beings are in the moral domain, full stop), as well as the parallels between abortion rights and, say, animal rights.

But I think there's a difference in that certain rights which feel "fundamental" are in play on either side (I think there are important differences between "the right to eat meat" and "the right not to bring human life into the world for which you will be held responsible"). In the less literal sense of "expanding circle", which turns into something more like "the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice", there are perspectives from which expanded abortion rights bend the universe either toward or away from justice.

Anyway, to clarify, I don't think it's obvious whether abortion rights expand or narrow the circle in the way that I normally hear "expanding circle" used, though they do narrow it by the literal "who gets considered" definition.


More crudely: Some people think of early-term fetuses as being morally akin to a plant or an amoeba, and if Peter Singer is among them (I don't know whether he is), I'm not sure that plants/amoebas entering the moral domain would qualify as "expanding the circle" from his point of view.

The only time he uses the expression in his essay "The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle":

At the end of the nineteenth century WH Lecky wrote of human concern as an expanding circle which begins with the individual, then embraces the family and ‘soon the circle... 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 [sic] with the animal world’.

I'm not sure whether abortion, or at least early-term abortion, qualifies as "the dealings of man with the animal world" in the same way as factory farming.

That said, I haven't read Singer's full book on the expanding circle concept, so there are probably nuances and details in his complete definition that I'm not aware of.

It seems like a fair assumption that prisoners are broadly treated better today (in the West) than they used to be. Sexual abuse and solitary confinement were probably more common back in the day.

I agree. While the absolute size of the moral catastrophe that is wrongful treatment of prisoners is brought up a lot, that's a different issue than either the proportion of the population presently in prison, or the amount of harm inflicted on each individual prisoner, relative to the past.

Question: What are some other "categories" of people or animals that seem to have seen the circle shift away from them?

Some of my ideas:

  • Various groups who are popular targets for discrimination in their respective regions. They may have lived in (relative) peace for a long time before things became very bad very quickly (the Tutsis, the Rohingya, the Uighurs)
    • Jewish people may be the most prominent example throughout history. The story of my people can be seen as a story of shifting circles, with wildly varying levels of violence culminating in the Holocaust (and, some say, rising again today, though I'm not sure how 2019 compares to, say, 1979).
  • Immigrants. There have been eras when it was much easier to move between countries and find opportunity (though there was less opportunity to go around). Nearly every Ellis Island applicant became a U.S. citizen; that's much harder today.

Elderly people in the West are treated with less regard than they might been a century ago, I think (although I'm not certain - maybe elderly people in the West have always been treated poorly?)

Seems like a real shift. (Perhaps driven by the creation of a nursing home industry?)

Government social safety nets for elderly people (such as Social Security in the US) reduce the need for young adults to provide direct care to their elderly parents. This seems likely related.

To me this seems more of an expansion in moral circles though. Most of us in the developed world now seem to think that we're responsible for everyone's elderly parents rather than just our own.

Eh, but nowadays we're "responsible" in a way that carries dark undertones.

Many US elderly aren't embedded in multigenerational communities, but instead warehoused in nursing homes (where they aren't in regular contact with their families & don't have a clear role to play in society).

Hard to say whether this is an improvement over how things were 100 years ago. I do know that I'm personally afraid of ending up in a nursing home & plan to make arrangements to reduce the probability of such.

My impression is the West hasn't traditionally revered elders as highly as some other societies, but in the distant past the West revered elders more than we do now.

It's hard to generalize across times and cultures, but ephebophiles and hebephiles seem to be treated much more harshly these days. Often they are placed in the category of pedophiles (who also might have been more tolerated in the past, I'm not sure).

I think historical immigrants to the US had to deal with more frequent racism at the social level. Historical immigration policy might have been guided by economic need rather than moral values.

Neat post! Feedback:

  • One population neglected in a lot of conversation on moral circle expansion, and in Gwern's consideration, is how the treatment of children after infancy has changed over time. I'm only knowledgeable of the history of the last couple hundred years as it relates to legal treatment, such as child labour laws. The study of how the treatment of children has changed will be complicated by the changing definition of 'children' over time; over time adulthood in societies has been treated to begin as early as the onset of puberty up to twenty years of age. That stated, people older than two or three and lower than the historical lower-bound for age of adulthood seem to have stably been regarded as 'children' throughout history.
  • Another kind of potential moral patient neglected in this conversation are abstract entities, such as concern for the overall health of a tribe, local community, or society; and, more recently in history, cultures and nations, the environment, and biodiversity. One thing all these entities have in common is there appears to be a common moral intuition one can evaluate their overall moral well-being that is greater than the sum of the well-being of their individual members (such as humans or other animals). This differs from how EA typically approaches similar entities, such as more often conflating their moral well-being with the aggregate well-being of their individual members. I'm guessing there are ways moral psychology regarding these entities differs significantly from how people think morally about individual moral patients. I don't know enough about what those differences might be to comment on them, but to understand them better seems crucial to thinking about this topic.

One argument for why people don't proportionally care about future generations is because they're such a distant concern. A pattern I notice with the moral shifts you describe is most people have become more distant from the relevant populations over time, such as prisoners and animals. We're also more "distant" from our ancestors and deities in the sense we may care about them much less in large part because we're exposed to memes promoting caring about them in our everyday lives much less frequently.

Summary: One theory for the pattern of moral shifts over the last few hundred years from a perspective of social science and history is the apparent moral shifts have followed a transition from more traditionalist and religious worldviews to more liberal ones, as largely driven by economic and political changes produced by industrialization and modernization. While this narrative model has limitations, it definitely seems significant enough to change how EA thinks about moral circle expansion.

One possibility is the pattern of moral shifts observed in the last couple hundred years in the Western world, and other parts of the world to a lesser extent, is driven by modernization. With the modernization, industrialization, urbanization, and rationalization (i.e., integration of society with advanced science and technology) of societies, popular consideration of different populations of moral patients has shifted along common lines. The upshot for this is EA should consider the possibility moral shifts are driven more by the influence of a changing material and technological environment, and less to do with whole societies intentionally shifting the exercise of their moral agency.

Modernization has given rise to the modern nation-state and greater political centralization, giving the rise to various forms of liberal political ideologies. While liberalism started with the Enlightenment, its popular spread followed the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, and greater urbanization. The increased contact between different groups, such as differing ethnic groups and the sexes in the workplace, accentuated societal prejudices by making apparent how superficial and arbitrary the material deprivation between different groups of people was, at a historically unprecedented growth in global material wealth. This has a lot of power to explain civil rights and more moral consideration being extended to ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities, and women and children.

At the same time, the decline of more agrarian and religious society alienated more people from traditional communities and religion. This is consistent with the analysis why moral consideration of elders, ancestors, deities, and other groups traditional local communities and religion gave people more moral exposure to.

On one hand, a single convenient narrative explaining how apparent moral progress across societies is actually a natural political and social progression driven almost exclusively by technological and economic changes seems too convenient in the absence of overwhelming evidence. It definitely seems to me intuitively unlikely apparent moral circle expansions would necessarily have happened in the course of history. On the other hand, the idea that the moral circle expansion is an apt evidence-based theory for explaining historical moral progress could be recognized by EA as a largely confused notion, and we could spend less time trying to frame moral shifts through a flawed lens. From there, we could view the theory of moral circle expansion as more of a prospective model for thinking about how various societies' moral circles may likely expand in the present and near future.