Moral Expansiveness: A Way To Measure Our Altruistic Inclinations
As all animal advocates can attest to, we humans are prone to treat beings and entities outside our moral boundaries badly, with little concern for their welfare. Meanwhile, many important social and political debates are prolonged due to the subjects being on the margins of our moral boundaries. Our moral judgments and how we treat others depend greatly on whether we deem them worthy or unworthy of our moral consideration.
Social scientists have long observed that our collective moral circle has expanded throughout history. Nonetheless, there are significant variations across individuals. In this study, a team of Australian researchers decided to introduce a new concept — moral expansiveness — as a parameter encompassing three key elements:
- a graded approach to moral concern;
- a broad range of entities;
- the consideration of personal costs when granting moral inclusion.
Throughout six studies summarized in this research, the scientists explored how moral expansiveness was related to existing moral constructs (e.g. moral identity), predictors of moral standing (e.g. moral patiency), and other constructs associated with concern for others (e.g. empathy). However, it sought to expand on past research and offered greater predictive capacity. This was because researchers look at both the breadth of people’s moral circles, while also taking into account how willing they were to suffer potential costs of moral inclusion such as time or money. Acknowledging that another entity is worthy of moral standing is more meaningful when it involves a commitment to defend those moral rights, after all.
During each round of surveys, 30 entities were presented, spanning 10 categories: family and friends, in-group, out-group, revered people (e.g. soldiers), stigmatized (e.g. refugees), villains (e.g. terrorists), high-sentience animals (chimpanzees, dolphins, and cows), low-sentience animals (chickens, fishes, and bees), plants, and environment (e.g. coral reefs).
The results revealed a consistent average hierarchy, where high-sentience animals held the highest moral standing of nonhuman groups, followed by environmental entities, low-sentience animals, and plants, respectively. Interestingly, villains were shown even less consideration than plants. Moral expansiveness was found not to be reducible to general political attitudes or religious beliefs. “Binding” foundations such as loyalty, authority, and purity, on the other hand, led to lower moral expansiveness. High scores, spanning both human and nonhuman domains, exhibited positive associations with identification with all humanity and connectedness to nature. Finally, holding more expansive moral boundaries was also associated with perceiving others as significantly warmer beings.
In terms of self-sacrifice for nonhuman entities, connectedness to nature and universalism values were positively correlated, while authority and purity dimensions were associated with a reluctance endure personal sacrifice on behalf of other beings. All in all, the researchers found that moral expansiveness can be a powerful predictor of a willingness to protect others while making the ultimate sacrifice – one’s life. Although other research suggests that we couple moral patiency (e.g. the capacity to suffer) with deservingness of moral rights, this study found no association between willingness to self-sacrifice and perceptions of experience.
When it comes to predicting pragmatic altruism, a significantly positive relationship was found, as hypothesized by the researchers, between moral expansiveness and willingness to act, for example by joining a letter-writing campaign. Specifically, the study indicates that with every unit increase in moral expansiveness (the entire scale ranges from 0 to 90 points), the likelihood of joining the campaign rose by 6%. This shows that measured moral expansiveness can be used to predict actual altruistic behaviors, related to moral decision making and concern for the well-being of others.
Coming back to the roots of our morality, the authors note that recent evidence suggests that we humans possess instinctual moral abilities which include the ability to distinguish kindness from cruelty, to convey empathy and compassion, and a preference for fairness. In fact, children as young as six years old have been shown to struggle with eating meat for moral reasons. Moral expansiveness is actually suspected to decrease through aging and cultural experiences. The authors suggest that we could learn a lot about the mechanisms behind such changes via cross-cultural moral expansiveness comparisons of both children and adults.
The authors note that yet another critical aspect of why some of us are reluctant to show benevolence to others goes way back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – when more primary needs of ours are not met, our moral circles shrink. This explains why meat-eaters exhibit low attributions of moral value to cows when they are at the dinner table, in contrast to higher levels of consideration expressed when being questioned while not in a state of hunger. The researchers go as far as to suggest that moral expansiveness may be linearly associated with gross domestic product in large cross-cultural samples.
At a time when issues of aid and consideration are increasingly at the forefront of our sociopolitical landscape, moral expansiveness may play an important role in understanding and addressing a wide range of questions. Animal advocates focusing their efforts on effective altruism will find this set of studies a trove of valuable information. The findings outlined here suggest that moral expansiveness may be a suitable empirical parameter for the use in various fields employing behavior anticipation. In fact, the moral expansiveness scale was a single characteristic uniquely capable of predicting people’s willingness to prioritize humanitarian and environmental concerns over personal and national self-interest, willingness to sacrifice one’s life to save others, and actual volunteering behavior.