Notes on Peter Singer’s Expanding Circle

Peter Singer

I finally got around to reading Peter Singer’s The Expanding Circle (Princeton, 2011). I love the book and agree with its central thesis that biology gets ethics started but that human reason pushes it forward. I also find various problems with the book. Following are my summary notes with commentary. Numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in the printed text.

Biological Origins of Ethics

Singer begins by briefly considering and then quickly rejecting the now obviously false view that humans started out in isolation and then rationally “came together to hammer out a basis for setting up the first human society,” the so-called social-contract theory of ethics (4). Our prehuman and early human ancestors were social by their evolved biology. Singer takes E. O. Wilson’s 1975 Sociobiology as the “most impressive attempt” to that point (Singer’s book first appeared in 1981) to explain the biological origins of ethics (4).

Altruism, “behavior which benefits others at some cost to oneself,” is central to “our present ethical systems [that] have their roots in the altruistic behavior of our early human and pre-human ancestors,” Singer writes (5).

Let us pause to note the complexity and potential ambiguity of the term “altruism.” Apparently it leaves out any direct exchange of value for value, in which both parties obviously win. But what about cases of status-seeking by displays of generosity and expectations of future reciprocal back-scratching? Often those get thrown in with altruism even though they are driven by indirect self-interest. And what about cases of living things sacrificing (or trading off) their own survival interests for the benefit of offspring or other close relatives? Are such acts altruistic because they help others or selfish because the individual has an interest in the survival of relatives that carry the same genes?

Singer wrestles with the gene-centric nature of evolution (9) given the existence of (apparent) animal altruism (6–8) and looks to “kin altruism and reciprocal altruism” to solve the puzzle (11). Singer sensibly calls parents acting on behalf of their children a sort of altruism (12–13). Although the Objectivists will insist that is a form of selfishness, clearly parents do sometimes take hits to the robustness of their own survival for the sake of their children. This can sensibly be called “selfish” only if we allow human values beyond strictly survival-oriented ones, as is reasonable. But at that point the difference between selfishness and altruism sometimes becomes largely semantic.

Singer considers the possibility of group selection playing some limited role in explaining reciprocal “altruism,” something that likely comes with “a degree of hostility to outsiders” (20). I haven’t followed the debates over group selection closely enough to comment further about it here. But I’ll note that Singer recognizes that group selection may collapse or reduce to kin selection (21).

In his second chapter, Singer (further) considers the biological basis of ethics. It is striking that, in 1981, Singer still must insist there are no “sharp lines between ourselves and other animals” (27). That is so natural to my thinking—humans obviously are a sort of ape—that the earlier presumption that humans are distinct from animals seems almost comical, barely worth mentioning. Of course we have a much greater capacity for reason than any other species, and this is part of our biological heritage. Singer also sensibly rejects the notion that human ethics is purely a matter of convention and notes it must have biological origins starting with kin relations (29).

Clearly ethics does have a cultural dimension, though. For example (33), whereas bias against people of other “races” used to be common, today usually it is socially discouraged and legally punished. The question for us is not whether the biology of kin preference underpins (much of) ethics; rather, it is to what degree the traditional or usual manifestations of kin preference can be culturally manipulated (33–36). We cannot just set aside biology. Aside from short-term special circumstances, the abolition of the family is a non-starter, Singer notes, despite its popularity among a certain type of utopian.

Reciprocity, and punishment for non-reciprocators, help explain the origins of the concept of fairness (39) and of legal justice (41). Singer throws a bone to the egoists: “Reciprocal altruism seems not really altruism at all; it could more accurately be described as enlightened self-interest” (42). Yet, Singer notes, usually we look for others to be genuinely concerned with the welfare of others, as with a stranger rescuing someone from a river, and not merely calculators of expected returns (42–43).

Here Singer wishes to restrict further use of the term altruism to cases in which the actor’s “intention was to benefit someone else” rather than the self (43). He paraphrases Robert Trivers: “People who are altruistically motivated will make more reliable partners than those motivated by self-interest.” Yes, but is it not in one’s self-interest to be (and to be seen as) a reliable partner in friendship and mating? Here again the lines between altruism and selfishness blur.

Singer points out that we tend to be altruistic (in his sense) toward altruistic people. Further, he concedes, “there is an evolutionary advantage in having genuine concern for others” (44). In other words, evolution has programmed us to act self-interestedly by feeling and acting altruistically. A paradox! As Singer puts it, “The Prisoner’s Dilemma shows that, paradoxical as it may seem, we will sometimes be better off if we are not self-interested” (47).

Singer places his section “Group Altruism and Human Ethics” (49–53) in his chapter on biology. However, I think here a theory of public goods better explains what Singer describes. Generally, we’re all better off if we all do things like help someone out in a pinch. Even without formal theories, people can see the general advantages to such “altruism.” It’s a sort of expanded reciprocal altruism. I scratch your back, not with the expectation that you will scratch mine, but that you will scratch someone else’s back when they need it, as someone else will scratch mine.

Natural Does Not Mean Right

In his third chapter, Singer challenges Wilson’s view that ethics can or should be “biologicized” (55). Obviously Wilson is wrong about that. Of course biology is relevant to ethical considerations, as Singer recognizes (68). Further, biology (and science generally) can as well overturn traditional moral beliefs, such as regarding the alleged “unnaturalness” of homosexuality (62–63).

The findings of biology also can make us more skeptical that what is “natural” even matters. “Discovering biological origins for our intuitions should make us skeptical about thinking of them as self-evident moral axioms,” Singer writes (71). He offers the example of the “naturalness” of a bias against the outgroup. “Once we understand the principle as an expression of kin selection, that belief loses credibility,” Singer writes (71). This insight poses a challenge to Wilson’s approach; in the end biology cannot suffice. Indeed, Wilson pretty grossly commits the naturalistic fallacy in positing “the cardinal value of the survival of human genes in the form of a common pool” (73–74). (Among other absurdities—and this is my note—Wilson’s view seems to pretty directly imply a sort of eugenics, although he doesn’t see that.)

The Centrality of Reason

Here is a great line: “Our ability to be a participant in a decision-making process, to reflect and to choose, is as much a fact about human nature as the effect of the limbic system of our emotions” (82). Here Singer also succinctly endorses compatibilism regarding freedom of will.

Heading into his fourth chapter (at the close of the third), Singer puts on the table the possibility of an “ethics for beings capable of reasoning and [who are] at the same time the product of the natural selection of genes” (86). Now we’re getting somewhere.

Ethics at the level of conceptual beings must involve principles that must in some sense be universal and disinterested (in the sense of avoiding special-pleading). “In a dispute between members of a cohesive group of reasoning beings, the demand for a reason is a demand for a justification that can be accepted by the group as a whole,” Singer writes (93).

Obviously in a broader sense a person can (and should) have an interest in his society embracing objective laws. So a person should be “disinterested” only in the narrow sense that he should not appeal to his own interests in a way that he would regard as illegitimate if done by another person, such as by claiming a “right” to seize the wealth of others for personal gain. “I cannot say that I may take nuts from others because it benefits me, whereas when others take nuts from me, I lose,” Singer writes (93).

Of course humans often are expert at concocting false reasons to promote their interests at the expense of others, at creating an “impartial guise” (93). A related problem: Customs often “are necessarily impartial between individuals, in form at least,” but “may oppress whole groups, like women, or the poor” (94).

Recognition that customs can conflict helps raise the possibility of reasoning about customs, Singer notes (96–98). “Reasoning is inherently expansionist. It seeks universal application,” Singer writes (99).

The Move to Utilitarianism

But how does reasoning reach positive conclusions, rather than merely sweep away the fallacious old? Singer finds hope in the idea of C. I. Lewis and of R. M. Hare of imagining “myself living the lives of all affected by my decision, and then ask[ing] what decision I prefer” (101). Okay, but does this imply utilitarianism? Singer first seems to suggest that it does (101) before questioning that conclusion (102–103). Singer considers as a possibility a “disinterested form of egoism” in which everyone pursues his own interests (103), but he worries this either is ultimately directed at the general welfare or else “is potentially disastrous” (104).

Singer discusses the problem of moving past subjective preferences (105–106) and finds hope in evolutionary biology, which implies “the existence of ethics can be explained as the product of evolution among long-lived social animals with the capacity to reason” (106).

Singer soon settles on utilitarianism after all, endorsing “the principle of impartial consideration of interests” (109). (But he qualifies this in the Afterword; see below.) Apparently he thinks that what biology adds is an indication that our interests pertain (largely?) to our “social instincts” (111). Singer, then, thinks reason leads us to recognize that “our own interests are no more important than the interests of others” (111).

How Singer escapes subjectivism is not clear (again, see notes about the Afterword below). What if everyone in society has an interest in me being crucified, and I alone do not share that interest? If morality is a matter of weighing up everyone’s interests equally or disinterestedly, then it seems I am destined for the cross. Singer, it seems to me, is in danger of evading the central question: By what basis can we evaluate a person’s interests as good or bad? And if we establish such a basis, Singer’s utilitarianism seems beside the point.

Singer moves next to expand the circle. After briefly reviewing out-group atrocities (111–113), Singer seeks “a point of view that is fully universal.” Singer thinks “the autonomy of reason” can serve as an “escalator” toward this universalism (113).

Here is a key passage: “Disinterestedness within a group involves the rejection of purely egoistic reasoning. To reason ethically I have to see my own interests as one among the many interests of those that make up the group, an interest no more important than others. Justifying my actions to the group therefore leads me to take up a perspective from which the fact that I am and you are is not important. . . . Once I have come to see my interests and those of my kin and neighbors as no more important, from the ethical point of view, than those of others within my society, the next step is to ask why the interests of my society shall be more important than the interests of other societies” (117–118).

I would state the proper underlying principle rather differently. I can fully take my interests as more important to me, and recognize that another person’s interests are more important to that person, and recognize that, when I am defending my actions publicly, I cannot expect others to take me seriously if I give myself obviously preferential treatment. I cannot say, for example, that I alone have a “right” to take others’ property by force.

Again Singer tries (unjustifiably) to push his universalism in a utilitarian direction: “Taking the impartial element in ethical reasoning to its logical conclusion means, first, accepting that we ought to have equal concern for all human beings” (119). But I don’t have to have the same concern for someone I’ve never met in a far-off country as I have for myself or my child in order to want a universal system of justice and individual rights to prevail.

Singer explicitly couches his theory of disinterestedness as including material well-being (119–120). “The only justifiable stopping place for the expansion of altruism is the point at which all whose welfare can be affected by our actions are included within the circle of altruism,” Singer writes (120).

Interestingly, Singer concedes it is not the case “that a human being and a mouse must always be treated equally, or that their lives are of equal value. Humans have interests—in ideas, in education, in their future plans—that mice are not capable of having.” Yet when “comparing similar interests” we should “give equal weight to the interests of the human and the mouse” (120–121). Although Singer mentions “the interest in avoiding pain” as relevant, it is not clear to me how Singer expects us to sort out the “similar interests” from the dissimilar ones. Read straight, Singer’s remarks here would seem to rule out inflicting pain on a mouse for scientific research, even if the findings would save the life of a human. Singer says we “should not value everything by its usefulness to human beings” (121), but does his view allow humans to use animals for any purpose?

Singer visits the absurd by suggesting that perhaps a universalist ethic would “go beyond animals too, and embrace plants, or perhaps even mountains, rocks, and streams” (121). Thankfully, he quickly excludes from (direct) moral consideration things “with no interests” (124).

‘Reason Can Master Our Genes’

Near the start of his fifth chapter, Singer sensibly observes that a “selfishness” that counts all of a person’s possible interests as “selfish” serves “no useful function at all” (127). Singer also points out that sociobiologists sometimes tend to confuse individual “selfishness” in the sense of acting for one’s own survival with “selfishness” in the sense of propagating one’s genes (129). Is an individual “selfish” who dies protecting its offspring? And Singer notes (as he has before) that we can distinguish an individual’s psychological motivation from the biological effects of action (129). An individual aiding its offspring is very much compatible with the individual sincerely wanting to do so—or not wanting to do so.

Singer gives a few examples of sociobiologists who (seem to) claim that “altruism” can pertain only to genetic success and so can rarely expand beyond kin groups. Such views “go beyond what sociobiological theories justify” (130). We are not strictly bound by such biology. Singer offers the obvious counterexample of people choosing to to have sex other than for reproductive purposes (130–131).

Singer correctly concludes “that reasoning beings are not bound to do what makes evolutionary sense”; “reason can master our genes” (131). He offers as (some) evidence the many variations of the Golden Rule (136–137).

Singer points to “the objective point of view from which [one’s] interests are no more important than the like interests of anyone else” (140). He says that individuals stray from an “objective standpoint” by giving “priority to their own interests” (141). I deny that this is what objectivity means or requires. I can at the same time preference my own interests and work toward a world of fair rules for all.

I quite like Singer’s solution to the problem of motivation. He agrees with Hume that there “must be some desire, some want or aversion . . . with which reason can combine to generate an action.” But then, once we use reason we can “prefer to act in accordance with the conclusions of impartial reasoning” and become “uncomfortable with inconsistencies” (142). Reason “develops its own motivating force” (143). I think we (also) have a very direct capacity to enjoy the use of our reasoning minds, as creatures generally enjoy exercising their faculties.

Singer also explains part of why we often do not wish to be hypocrites: “To present a false face in public, to be constantly on guard instead of open and spontaneous, to deceive even one’s friends about one’s true principles, all this brings disharmony into one’s life. The desire to reduce this disharmony between public principles and private practice could operate as a motivating force” (144–145).

Hedging on Utilitarianism

Heading into his sixth chapter, Singer discusses the view of William Godwin that, in an emergency, a person ought to save the life of an important working author over the life of one’s own noninfluential father. Later, Singer notes, Godwin made room for acting on “the sentiment of filial affection.” Singer leaves the matter ambiguous; he says it would be “better” to save the author but that a person who saves his father “might nevertheless be a good person” (151–153).

To me this illustrates the absurdities of utilitarianism. Singer is simply wrong that reason compels us to treat all impartially. Instead, reason compels (or draws) us to want fair social rules. There is not, and cannot be, a sensible social rule that requires a person to save a stranger over his own father or child.

Singer seeks refuge by backing away from “too great a reliance on abstract reasoning” (154). “A rational ethical code must also make use of existing tendencies in human nature,” he writes (155). This is an epistemological mistake. “Abstract reasoning” properly done simply cannot float away from the facts of reality, for it builds on those facts. “Abstract reasoning” at odds with reality is not genuine reasoning at all. The real problem is that Singer’s utilitarian “reasoning” is just wrong, so it comes as no surprise that he must try to paper over it with concessions to the real world.

Singer writes, “[A]n ethic of rules builds on our feelings for others as individuals rather than on an impersonal concern for all. An ethic of rules also limits our obligations. Taking seriously the idea of impartial concern for all would be impossibly demanding; there is always something I can do to make someone else a little happier” (159). When moral “reasoning” leads us to conclusions that we cannot take seriously, that should cause us to question the “reasoning.” Singer offers altruists a lifetime of something like Catholic guilt: They can always strive for the ideal but never reach it, for human nature interferes.

The Problem of Pragmatism

Singer mentions another problem with the “principle of impartial concern”: Many people lack the “capacity for calculation and long-term thinking” it requires (161). The problems of universal welfare calculations are far tougher even than Singer assumes, especially if we consider cascading incentives and social dynamics. Singer does consider that, precisely because utilitarian calculation is so hard, efforts to engage in it often end up in motivated reasoning disguised as pragmatism (161–162).

And yet Singer endorses pragmatism in the end, saying we should “abandon any pretense that moral rules are exceptionless truths.” Here Singer uses lying as an example (163–165), and I think this illustrates what’s wrong with his approach. Of course it makes no sense to embrace the rule, “Never lie.” On that point Singer obviously is right. When the Nazi comes to your door asking about the Jews, you have a moral obligation to lie to protect the innocent.

But the proper approach is not to just take things situation by situation, but to define the contexts in which various principles apply. The principle of honesty requires that we tell the truth to honest people, not that we aid criminals. The principle of honesty does not require that we always reveal unpleasant truths in unpleasant ways; as examples, there is no point in emphasizing the ugliness of a spouse’s new sweater or of insisting to a Christian in hospice that Heaven is a myth. The difference in approaches might seem subtle, but it is important. Singer in effect denies that there really are moral principles and ends up a pragmatist; I agree with the Objectivists that principles properly understood are contextual. With the first orientation, people tend to bail on principles when they seem inconvenient; with the second orientation, people strive to stick to principles properly understood and applied.

The problems with Singer’s pragmatism quickly become apparent. He suggests that a professor might properly give a student an inflated grade in order to alleviate the student’s depression. Of course the professor should not publicly advocate such a policy (166). That’s horrible advice! A clinically depressed person needs counseling or appropriate drugs, not grade inflation! The proposal is ridiculous! Indeed, lying to a student in this way is extremely patronizing and disrespectful, and treating someone so shabbily will, if anything, contribute to the depression. But the pragmatic mindset, forever locked in the moment, often cannot see practical implications.

Singer here explicitly advocates public dishonesty. That is extremely dangerous. Consider a recent example. Early in the coronavirus pandemic, various health officials publicly said that wearing masks in public didn’t help. I believe they were intentionally lying in order to prevent the mass purchasing of masks at a time when medical-grade masks were running short and doctors and nurses were having a hard time getting them. (I had some construction-grade N95 masks that I donated to a doctor friend.) The problem, of course, is that later on these same officials had a hard time convincing people that masks reduce viral transmission after all.

I’m not saying public deceit is never warranted. For example, during a conflict a leader might want to deceive an enemy by intentionally misstating military plans. But then the context is such that anyone with common sense knows such deception is likely and is directed at a hostile enemy.

What worries me is the wider tolerance of dishonesty by public officials that Singer here implicitly endorses. That is the sort of thing that threatens to destroy public confidence in experts and even to tear countries apart. Singer concedes we “break ethical rules” (I’d say principles) “at our own peril” (167), which to me counts as a good reason to properly contextualize principles rather than pragmatically ignore them.

Ethical Enhancements?

Through reason, Singer reiterates, we are capable of overcoming strictly biologically based motives (171). I agree with that!

Then he writes, “Human social institutions can affect the course of human evolution,” as by weeding out aggressively violent people (172). That’s quite big line to throw in on the second-to-last page of the original work! But then, in the final paragraph!, Singer brings up the possibility of eugenics (he doesn’t call it that) to potentially “enhance” ethical conduct in future generations (173). He concedes this is hard to do and potentially dangerous at present but says maybe we can do it in the future. That is certainly one way to end a book! No loose threads there! There is quite a difference between human society unintentionally affected the evolution of humans and human institutions intentionally breeding in or genetically manipulating in more “ethical” behavior.

The Failure of Subjectivism

Ah, but we’re not done yet. Singer also has an “Afterword to the 2011 Edition,” so let’s take a look. Singer begins by noticing that the evidence for “a biological, rather than cultural, basis to our ethics” continued to build, as with the works of Frans de Waal (187).

Singer reviews research on the trolley problem to support his conclusion “that a moral intuition has an evolutionary basis” but that “often does not justify the intuition, but rather serves to debunk it” (191–195). Singer speculates that people usually have an aversion to tossing a person off a bridge to save others because we evolved in a setting in which “violence could only be inflicted in an up-close and personal way,” and we developed “immediate, emotionally based responses” to such violence (195). Singer hopes to “distinguish between our immediate emotionally based responses, and other judgments that have a rational basis” (196). That makes sense, but his utilitarian conclusion that it is rational to push the person (197) does not follow.

Singer then offers a most remarkable commentary on his own work (starting on 198), in which he concedes that, by the way, his previous arguments about utilitarianism are wrong. Extraordinary! I rather admire Singer for this. Singer attributes to R. M. Hare the view “that the logical idea of universalizability, properly understood, leads to a form of utilitarianism.” Singer writes, “I have tried over many years . . . to defend some form of this argument, but I no longer believe that it is defensible” (199–200, footnote). Quite a footnote!

Singer notices that we cannot move from subjective preferences to utilitarianism (unless that too is merely a subjective preference) (199). He writes, “The denial of objective truth in ethics . . . leads not, as I had tried to argue, to preference utilitarianism as a kind of metaphysically unproblematic default position, but to skepticism about the possibility of reaching any meaningful conclusions at all about what we ought to do (199–200).

Of course the fact that subjectivism cannot buttress utilitarianism does not mean that nothing else can or that something that often looks like utilitarianism—a general orientation of generosity—is not possible. Singer holds out hope for discovering “objective moral truths” (204), but he doesn’t make much progress here in reaching them. Still, for all its shortcomings, I very much admire Singer’s book.

Image: Ula Zarosa