Circles Of Compassion: Studying The Expansion Of Moral Concern
The term “moral circle” can be defined as the “breadth of people’s moral concern for others.” In other words, our moral circle describes who we think is worthy of our moral concern and should be included in our moral considerations. Our moral circles have been expanding throughout history, as is exemplified by civil rights, gay rights, the LGBTQ movement, and, more recently, animal welfare and rights.
Scientists used to regard our moral circles as binary with entities either on the inside or outside. When they started to form more graded (non-binary) judgments about the boundaries of our moral circles, they only focused on measuring the extent to which we value the specific entities in question.
Recently, however, researchers have designed the Moral Expansiveness Scale (MES), which examines judgments about a large number of human and non-human-animals as well as the environment. It also establishes different boundaries that express the extent of our moral concern for various entities, as well as our willingness to defend our convictions and at what cost.
Using the MES, researchers found that we tend to put families and friends at the center of our moral circles, followed by in-group members, out-group members, highly sentient animals, the environment, animals with low sentience, and, lastly, plants. However, not all people construct their circles of compassion in this way. Some people’s moral boundaries are wider than others’ and are more likely to expand or shrink. This paper summarizes four factors that contribute to these differences.
- Individual characteristics. Scientists discovered that characteristics such as increased empathy, compassion, and creativity are associated with higher MES scores and indicate a greater likelihood that individuals will expand their moral circles.
- Cognitive influences. We are less likely to exclude from our moral circles entities about which we feel ambiguous. By allowing them to remain, our moral circles grow. On the other hand, when we already have strict boundaries, we tend not to let new entities in. This results in smaller moral circles. In addition, the framing effect—a form of cognitive bias—also has an impact: we tend to include those animals in which we can identify human-like characteristics and traits; we show less moral concern for animals when this is reversed an we attempt to identify in humans animal-like qualities.
- Motivational influences. When people are about to eat meat, they are less likely to express moral concern for animals. Similarly, when there is a conflict between our needs and animals’ needs, we tend to exclude animals from our moral circles. However, we can also be motivated to expand our moral circles by inducing empathic states.
- Possession of morally relevant attributes. We tend to include in our moral circles entities that possess a mind or human-like characteristics. We are less willing to include entities that lack fundamental human qualities such as emotionality or warmth.
Knowing what makes us more likely to expand our circles is useful because this can help us deal with global problems related to social inequality, limited resources, and lack of action to further humanitarian and environmental causes. For animal advocates, the MES can help us understand how people include (and exclude) animals from their moral circles so that we can develop strategies to foster inclusion.