The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress

The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress

The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress

The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress

Synopsis

What is ethics? Where do moral standards come from? Are they based on emotions, reason, or some innate sense of right and wrong? For many scientists, the key lies entirely in biology--especially in Darwinian theories of evolution and self-preservation. But if evolution is a struggle for survival, why are we still capable of altruism?


In his classic study The Expanding Circle, Peter Singer argues that altruism began as a genetically based drive to protect one's kin and community members but has developed into a consciously chosen ethic with an expanding circle of moral concern. Drawing on philosophy and evolutionary psychology, he demonstrates that human ethics cannot be explained by biology alone. Rather, it is our capacity for reasoning that makes moral progress possible. In a new afterword, Singer takes stock of his argument in light of recent research on the evolution of morality.

Excerpt

The Expanding Circle may well have been the first book-length attempt to assess the implications of “sociobiology” for our understanding of ethics. Since its appearance in 1981, there has been a stream of books and articles on the origins and development of ethics, and during the last decade, especially, a dramatic increase in the quantity and quality of scientific investigation into how we make moral judgments. It is pleasing to find that the book’s central theses have gained additional support from this research. It is now generally accepted that the roots of our ethics lie in patterns of behavior that evolved among our prehuman ancestors, the social mammals, and that we retain within our biological nature elements of these evolved responses. We have learned considerably more about these responses, and we are beginning to understand how they interact with our capacity to reason. Many philosophers now recognize the relevance of this work to our understanding of ethics. In the afterword I describe some of the scientific research that has taken place in the last decade, and its significance for the views I set out in the original text. I also explain why, if I were writing the book today, I would be more open to the idea of objective reasons for action and objective truth in ethics than I was thirty years ago. I have placed this discussion at the end of the book because for most readers it will make more sense when read after the main text . . .

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