The Narrowing Circle (Gwern)

Con­tent note: Dis­cus­sion of in­fan­ti­cide and sex­ual vi­o­lence.

Views I ex­press in this es­say are my own, un­re­lated to CEA.

Sum­mary: Have our moral “cir­cles” re­ally ex­panded over time? While some groups get more moral con­sid­er­a­tion than they once did, oth­ers get less, or see their moral sta­tus shift back and forth. Gw­ern ques­tions how much “progress” we’ve re­ally made over the years, as op­posed to mere shifts be­tween the groups we care about.

In The Nar­row­ing Cir­cle, Gw­ern spec­u­lates that what we see as broad moral progress may in­stead be a se­ries of moral shifts, em­brac­ing new be­ings/​ideas and re­ject­ing old ones in a way that isn’t as pre­dictable or lin­ear as “ex­pand­ing cir­cle” the­ory might hold.

I highly recom­mend read­ing the origi­nal es­say, but here’s a brief sum­mary of Gw­ern’s main points.

Is there an ex­pand­ing cir­cle?

  • Peter Singer pro­posed that peo­ple tend to in­clude more and more be­ings in their “cir­cle” of moral re­gard over time. Many oth­ers hold a similar view (“the arc of the moral uni­verse is long, but it bends to­ward jus­tice”)

  • How­ever, it’s easy to see pat­terns ap­pear in ran­dom data. Between that phe­nomenon and con­fir­ma­tion bias, we should be care­ful not to jump too ea­gerly to an “ex­pand­ing cir­cle” ex­pla­na­tion with­out con­sid­er­ing that we could be ig­nor­ing be­ings that have been ex­cluded from moral re­gard, per­haps be­cause we no longer even con­sider those be­ings as po­ten­tial in­clu­sions.

  • Another ques­tion (not ex­plored too deeply in this es­say): Have we be­come more moral, or do we sim­ply live in a world that is less morally challeng­ing? It may be eas­ier to feel com­pas­sion when we are rich and at peace, but if a truly threat­en­ing war broke out, would we be­come as bloodthirsty as ever? (We may not be­lieve in witches, but if we did be­lieve in witches, as our an­ces­tors did, would we still ex­e­cute them?)

How have we nar­rowed the cir­cle?


Com­pared to peo­ple in the past, peo­ple in the pre­sent hold very lit­tle re­gard (on av­er­age) for su­per­nat­u­ral en­tities. This isn’t always be­cause of athe­ism or ag­nos­ti­cism; many peo­ple claim to be re­li­gious but also make lit­tle or no effort to “keep the faith”. Has our dis­re­gard for the gods out­paced our dis­be­lief?

This dis­re­gard ex­tends to the case of “sa­cred an­i­mals”. Not only have we dra­mat­i­cally scaled up fac­tory farm­ing; we have also (on a smaller scale) re­moved “pro­tected” sta­tus from cer­tain cat­e­gories of an­i­mals that had holy sig­nifi­cance in the past. (We’ve also stopped putting an­i­mals on trial, though this seems to me like a sep­a­rate phe­nomenon.)


In­fants and the un­born have seen their moral sta­tus shift back and forth around the world and through the cen­turies. Some so­cieties reg­u­larly cast out un­wanted in­fants (or even man­dated the kil­ling of in­fants in some cases); oth­ers banned abor­tion from the time of con­cep­tion.

If one ac­cepts the ba­sic premise that a fe­tus is hu­man, then the an­nual rate (as pro-life ac­tivists never tire of point­ing out) of mil­lions of abor­tions wor­ld­wide would negate cen­turies of moral progress. If one does not ac­cept the premise, then per C.S. Lewis, we have change in facts as to what is hu­man, but noth­ing one could call an ex­pand­ing cir­cle.


In many ways, we take much bet­ter care of peo­ple with dis­abil­ities than we did in past eras. In other ways, we’ve come up with new rea­sons to ex­clude peo­ple; mod­ern so­ciety may dis­crim­i­nate more vi­ciously than past so­cieties on the ba­sis of weight or fa­cial ap­pear­ance. (I’ll add a quote from Aeon: “There is no shame worse than poor teeth in a rich world.“)

Ju­di­cial Torture

Many states, in both the East and West, have moved back and forth on poli­cies re­lated to the tor­ture of pris­on­ers and dis­si­dents. We no longer hang pris­on­ers in front of cheer­ing crowds, but we lock tens of thou­sands of peo­ple in soli­tary con­fine­ment and make jokes about the sex­ual abuse of pris­on­ers. (I’ll also note that so­ciety con­stantly re­defines what a “crime” is; we’re much nicer to thieves than we once were, and prob­a­bly harsher to­ward drug users.)

Let’s not talk about how one is sen­tenced to jail in the first place; Hunter Felt: Your third ar­rest, you go to jail for life. Why the third? Be­cause in a game a guy gets three times to swing a stick at a ball.


We do a poor job of re­spect­ing the wishes of the dead, even when those peo­ple have made rea­son­able and non-harm­ful plans for the use of their as­sets (many trusts put away for char­ity are torn apart by lawyers and heirs).

More dra­mat­i­cally, we dishonor our an­ces­tors by ne­glect­ing their graves, by not offer­ing any sac­ri­fices or even perform­ing any rit­u­als, by for­get­ting their names (can you name your great-grand­par­ents?), by sel­l­ing off the fam­ily es­tate when we think the mar­ket has hit the peak, and so on.

Gw­ern ar­gues, con­vinc­ingly, that peo­ple in the past were much more re­spect­ful in this sense (per­haps a use­less ges­ture to those no longer able to re­ceive it, but might it not have been a com­fort to those who died long ago to know that they would be re­mem­bered, re­spected, even revered?).


This is fairly stan­dard EA ma­te­rial about plan­ning for the long term, and is as such slightly out of date (“there are no ex­plicit ad­vo­cates for fu­tu­rity”). But we are a tiny group within so­ciety, and when I think about the ma­jor­ity of liv­ing peo­ple out­side of EA, this rings true:

Has the liv­ing’s con­cern for their de­scen­dants, the in­clu­sion of the fu­ture into the cir­cle or moral con­cern, in­creased or de­creased over time? Whichever one’s opinion, I sub­mit that the an­swer is shaky and not sup­ported by ex­cel­lent ev­i­dence.

My thoughts

I make no claim that any of these views are origi­nal, but I’m try­ing to note things I didn’t see in Gw­ern’s es­say.

When we cease to grant moral re­gard to cer­tain groups, it seems to hap­pen for one or more of the fol­low­ing rea­sons:

1. We no longer view them as “pos­si­ble” tar­gets for moral re­gard (e.g. the gods, to an athe­ist)

2. While we ac­knowl­edge that they are “pos­si­ble” tar­gets, our mod­ern moral­ity doesn’t re­ally “cover” them (e.g. fe­tuses, to some in the pro-choice move­ment, though this is­sue is com­pli­cated, nearly ev­ery­one wants fewer abor­tions, and any “side” in the de­bate holds a wide range of views about what to do and why)

3. We’ve learned new ways to take ad­van­tage of them (e.g. an­i­mals, in the case of fac­tory farm­ing)

4. We’ve gen­uinely be­come more an­tag­o­nis­tic to­ward them (e.g. the view of Mus­lims by cer­tain groups since 2001; the treat­ment of Amer­i­can pris­on­ers)

It seems to me as though (1) gen­er­ally doesn’t in­terfere with the no­tion of the ex­pand­ing cir­cle. Nei­ther does (3), nec­es­sar­ily; if our an­ces­tors knew how to es­tab­lish fac­tory farms, I as­sume they would have done so, since they were no strangers to an­i­mal cru­elty (e.g. bear-bait­ing, glad­i­to­rial com­bat).

(2) does com­pli­cate things, and while I fa­vor ex­pand­ing abor­tion rights, I’m not sure I’d think of them as a facet of the “ex­pand­ing cir­cle” in the same way as I do the ex­pan­sion of civil rights for cer­tain groups. And (4) im­plies that the ex­pand­ing cir­cle can, un­der the right cir­cum­stances, shrink, due to the same kinds of mass move­ments and meme-spread­ing that cat­e­go­rize ex­pan­sion of the cir­cle.

For ex­am­ple, it’s of­ten ar­gued that know­ing a gay per­son makes you more likely to fa­vor gay rights; as more peo­ple come out of the closet, more peo­ple know that they have gay friends and rel­a­tives, and sup­port for gay rights spreads rapidly.

Could the op­po­site be true for pris­on­ers? As the crime rate shrinks, and peo­ple with crim­i­nal records be­come less likely to re-in­te­grate into so­ciety, per­haps fewer peo­ple know some­one who’s been to prison. Would that make it eas­ier to think of crim­i­nals as “the other”, peo­ple you’d never love or befriend?

(On the one hand, in­car­cer­a­tion rose in the U.S. dur­ing a time of large in­creases in the crime rate; on the other hand, prison re­form seems to have lagged sub­stan­tially be­hind re­duc­tion in the crime rate, im­ply­ing that some fac­tor other than a di­rect “fear of crim­i­nals” is in play. Do we sim­ply care less nowa­days?)

This also makes me re­think my po­si­tion on cer­tain kinds of an­i­mal cru­elty; as fewer and fewer peo­ple live on farms, might we care less and less about the way farm an­i­mals are treated?