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?