The Expanding Circle

The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress

Peter Singer
Copyright Date: 1981
Pages: 232
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7sg4n
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  • Book Info
    The Expanding Circle
    Book Description:

    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 studyThe 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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3843-1
    Subjects: Philosophy, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. PREFACE TO THE 2011 EDITION
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Peter Singer
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. xv-2)
    Peter Singer
  5. 1 THE ORIGINS OF ALTRUISM
    (pp. 3-22)

    Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once wrote that in the state of nature human beings had “no fixed home, no need of one another; they met perhaps twice in their lives, without knowing each other and without speaking.” Rousseau was wrong. Fossil finds show that five million years ago our ancestor, the half-human, half-ape creature known to anthropologists asAustralopithecus africanus,lived in groups, as our nearest living relatives—the gorillas and chimpanzees—still do. AsAustralopithecusevolved into the first truly human being,Homo habilis,and then...

  6. 2 THE BIOLOGICAL BASIS OF ETHICS
    (pp. 23-53)

    Every human society has some code of behavior for its members. This is true of nomads and city-dwellers, of hunter-gatherers and of industrial civilizations, of Eskimos in Greenland and Bushmen in Africa, of a tribe of twenty Australian aborigines and of the billion people that make up China. Ethics is part of the natural human condition.

    That ethics is natural to human beings has been denied. More than three hundred years ago Thomas Hobbes wrote in hisLeviathan:

    During the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe they are in that condition called War;...

  7. 3 FROM EVOLUTION TO ETHICS?
    (pp. 54-86)

    We have now seen how—consistent with what we know of evolutionary theory—kin altruism, reciprocal altruism, and a limited amount of group altruism could have developed among the social animals from which we are descended; and could, quite naturally, have evolved into systems of ethics which in some respects resemble the ethical systems common among humans. Edward Wilson has claimed that sociobiological theories have great significance for human ethics. In this chapter I shall present, and then try to clarify and assess, Wilson’s claims. First, we need to see what these claims are. It is an indication of the...

  8. 4 REASON
    (pp. 87-124)

    The blind progress of evolution has thrown up several species capable of reasoning; but the reasoning powers of normal human beings far exceed those of any other species. This is not to say that humans always do reason well, but that they are capable of reasoning well. How has this capacity affected the development of ethics?

    The capacity to reason is a special sort of capacity because it can lead us to places we did not expect to go. This distinguishes it from, say, the ability to type. As I work on the draft of this chapter, I am using...

  9. 5 REASON AND GENES
    (pp. 125-147)

    The previous chapter concluded on a lofty note. Now we must descend to earth. We are capable of reasoning; but we are also the products of selective pressure on genes. We owe our existence to the ability of our ancestors to further their own interests and the interests of their kin. Can we really expect beings who have evolved in this manner to give up their narrower pursuits and adopt the universal standpoint of pure reason?

    In 1739 David Hume’sTreatise of Human Naturechallenged the common view that our reason and our desires are locked in combat. Hume declared...

  10. 6 A NEW UNDERSTANDING OF ETHICS
    (pp. 148-174)

    The account of ethics sociobiologists offer is incomplete and therefore misleading. Nevertheless, sociobiology provides the basis for a new understanding of ethics. It enables us to see ethics as a mode of human reasoning which develops in a group context, building on more limited, biologically based forms of altruism.

    So ethics loses its air of mystery. Its principles are not laws written up in heaven. Nor are they absolute truths about the universe, known by intuition. The principles of ethics come from our own nature as social, reasoning beings. At the same time, a view of ethics grounded on evolutionary...

  11. NOTES ON SOURCES
    (pp. 175-186)
  12. AFTERWORD TO THE 2011 EDITION
    (pp. 187-204)

    Science does not stand still, and neither does philosophy, although the latter has a tendency to walk in circles. Maybe that’s unfair: philosophy does make progress. Better to say, perhaps, that philosophy likes to revisit its old haunts and find something of value in what it did in the good old days. But let’s start with science. What have the last thirty years of scientific research added to our knowledge of the origins and nature of ethics?

    First, the case for a biological, rather than cultural, basis to our ethics has been strengthened by several different avenues of research. Frans...

  13. INDEX
    (pp. 205-208)