Right vs Wrong ft. Peter Singer

(This is a collection of my thoughts after reading The Expanding Circle by Peter Singer, a book on moral philosophy.)

We live in a post-truth world where everyone feels their position is right and the spawns of the devil on the other side have abominable views about everything that matters in the world. A reason for this chasm might be that people get their moral philosophy from different sources — some from religious or philosophical texts and others from Whatsapp texts. They use this divine knowledge to quarrel with the opposite side, in hopes of helping those heathens to reach salvation. I am part of one such quarreling side colloquially known as ‘Libtards’ or ‘Leftist Scum’ or sometimes as ‘Godless feminist cultural Marxist in need of Burnol’, depending on how many characters are remaining in the tweet. However, there are some people who try to understand the other side, who seek reasons for beliefs that the other person holds in order to understand if those troglodytes on the other side are somehow, against all plausibility, right.

This pattern of discord is neither unique to the internet age nor limited to normal people. Philosophers have been participating in similar debates from pre-historic times. Actually, we the normal people can be accused of plagiarism by the philosophers. I recently engaged in one such act of cheating by trying to read a book on moral philosophy — The Expanding Circle. In that book, Peter Singer tries to understand Sociobiology (Evolution, Darwin, Dawkins, etc.) as a source of ethics, destroys it with ‘facts and logic’, and then puts forward an understanding of ethics as he understands it. I hope to steal some ideas from this book next time I debate someone on the other side.

Why the book piqued my interest?

All jokes aside, I am quite fascinated by the field of moral philosophy. I am deeply affected by existentialist thought which gave me an uncomfortable refuge after I lost my belief in religion and God. I started writing just because I wanted to write what I understood of it (albeit very poorly). Although it helps me grapple with the questions about the meaning of life, the school of thought destroys all sources of morality for its followers. It becomes a faith without an Ark of the Covenant or any commandments.

This is an uncomfortable position for me as I do possess feelings about what’s right and wrong in this world. How do I justify those moral positions? I need to find a foundation to base these beliefs on or change them if needed. There are a lot of options to choose from — Virtue Ethics, Utilitarianism, Duty based Ethics. The trolley problem (and its variants) are a set of great philosophical thought experiments where different choices correspond to major schools of thought. The small variants of the problem (pulling lever vs. pushing someone on the track) bring out discomfort even if we genuinely believe in a certain school of thought. For me, the trolley problem shows that for each philosophy there is a valid solution but which philosophy we choose is up to us. It just depends on which set of ideas makes the most sense and holds up to rational scrutiny.

Sadly, if we think deeply about them, none of them withstand closer inspection. That is if we keep on asking our “Whys”, we reach beliefs that are axiomatic in nature. Many philosophers try to formulate these moral intuitions as innate to us and as something that we know to be true without a preceding argument. This works great until we start thinking about the role of Evolution and modern psychology in the formation of these intuitions.

Our brains might be predisposed to a certain set of intuitions because these predispositions were favorable for survival and hence evolved by Natural selection in us(Evolutionary Debunking). Also, experiments(from Johnathan Haidt) show we make moral judgments based on intuitions and use reason later to justify them in a post hoc manner. Hence we depend a lot on our intuitions while doing moral reasoning and those intuitions cannot be assumed to be correct just because they were beneficial for the survival of genes during our evolutionary past. This is because if something “is” a certain way, it does not mean it “ought” to be that way. Is does not imply ought. And moral philosophy is a study of what we ought to do?

I have read about these Evolutionary debunking arguments during my epistemology class in College. They did convince me that moral truths might not exist and we only have heuristics or biases to depend on when deciding right from wrong. However, I was left wanting for more and this book seemed to be a perfect next step as Peter Singer promises to study the role of evolution in ethics and how we can make moral progress in light of this new science.

What does Sociobiology say?

Evolution is a revolutionary idea that redefined how we think about the world. The complexity of living beings which was attributed to all-powerful Gods can now be explained in terms of probability and hereditary working over long periods of time. It answers why we have eyes or why butterflies have beautiful eye-like patterns. Sociobiology tries to take this one step further and ask if biology can explain social behavior too.

The basic tenet: genes that assign useful characteristics to live beings help in their survival and hence are propagated to the future populations. This survival of the fittest lens of evolution gives you an intuition that all living beings evolved due to natural selection must be selfish. They would never be “altruistic” if it can endanger the life of the altruistic being and hence the propagation of its genes. If genes for altruism was somehow to originate, they are bound to be extinct under the pressure of natural selection. But then why do we observe altruistic behavior in animals: both non-human and human?

Gene theory actually answers that through ideas of Kin selection and Reciprocal altruism². The idea is that genes are shared among close relatives: My children share half of my DNA and hence their survival means our common genes can propagate even if I am endangered while helping my children.

Similarly, if animals (like some mammals) that live in groups might follow a reciprocal code of ethics: I scratch your back, and you scratch mine. This might help the chances of survival of both parties who participate in such a social code of ethics. Even if someone wants to cheat this tries to benefit by not paying back, an animal with intelligence can hold a grudge and punish the cheater as a group.

Peter Singer goes spends almost half of the book explaining how these ideas might explain most of the altruistic behaviors showcased by animals and humans. For humans, he also argues that even if moral codes across the world throughout history have been different, they share some common patterns. This means that something common to all humans, like our evolutionary history might be underlying our common intuitions of what is right or wrong. Up till here, this has been a revision of the evolutionary debunking arguments that I discussed above. What we believed to be golden truths might just be a product of our evolutionary past.

The author argues that however, we cannot use these facts discovered by biology to define our values. The jump from facts to values requires an additional assumption: We ought to do something because traditionally it has helped in the propagation of our genes. This is not necessarily true as we always have a choice: Should we follow our biologically evolved natural instincts or do something else? This decision is one based on our values and facts about how we came upon our instincts are not useful for this decision.

Hence we need something else to base our moral system or we will be left without a moral code. Then whatever choices we make are based on our emotions or something we believe just because we took a leap of faith. Singer however wants to pursue “Reason”, something we evolved for benefit of survival but which we can use for other uses, as a way to create a system of morals.

Reason to Ethics

We can explain altruism through ideas like Reciprocal Altruism. This may have evolved into grunts to call out cheaters but the power of reasoning allows us to generalize this into principle-based judgment. Let’s imagine a court with humans who can speak (even if in primitive cavemen language) trying to decide a case.

Suppose you are accused of doing a “bad” act. To plead your case for avoiding punishment from your group, you cannot just claim selfish interest. You need to bring up principles that impartially condone your actions. You need to reason from a position: “anyone in my shoes” would be right in doing the same. In some sense, most judgments in modern human court cases are based on common law which can be thought of as principles and you reason within the limits of those customs to defend or prosecute. The common law customs might be the moral intuitions that we have evolved.

But, if we can use reason to argue within the limits of customs, a rebel can also use reason to challenge the basic tenets of that custom. For example, using the position of impartiality, you can try to imagine the lives that are part of this decision and use a utility-based calculation to reason the best outcome which promotes the well-being of the group (or all people affected by the action). This outcome might be outside the customs defined by the common law and using this heuristic, we have used reason to create a basis of ethics outside the customs we follow. That is why court cases that overturn the precedents exist.

This means we can use reason to possibly create a new system of ethics. Peter Singer argues that utilitarian heuristic is the only logical way to create a system of ethics from reason. He scrutinizes other systems of ethics originating from reason like rights-based ethics and decides that none of them stand up to scrutiny. Utilitarianism wins by default. This well-being calculation is something that I can explain to my group while defending my actions because it works from a position of impartiality. This means, our code of ethics is defined as — take actions that benefit the group's well-being as a whole.

At this point, the author introduces the basic tenet of the expanding circle. The argument that I cannot prefer my personal interests over others is used to define the group utility-based ethics. But this is a “moral escalator” as we can extend this to groups and society. If the previous point is true, then we cannot also argue that I prefer my group over someone else’s group. Preferring my group might be beneficial from an evolutionary perspective but I cannot reason why I ought to do one over the other. Hence if we follow this escalator our circle of concern expands — from individuals to kinds to all humans and eventually even animals.

This means we slowly start caring about more and more beings as we expand our circle of moral concern using our reasoning abilities. This is apparent in our moral progress in general. Earlier it was considered fair to murder members of the opposite tribe or to rape their population after the conquest. Now, we have moral laws that forbid these actions as wrong and even prisoners of war have human rights that they cannot be denied. Women were not considered fully human until very recently but recent laws aim to bring equality between both the sexes. Veganism is an attempt to expand the circle beyond humans to other intelligent beings.

We might have developed reasoning for impartiality in order to justify our conduct to our group. But now that we have developed it, we might discover that we like acting as if interests of being outside our group also matter. This is how we developed cars to travel between two points but we later discovered that going on drives is in itself enjoyable.

Practical Morality

If we have this one meta-rule to define good and bad which is derived from our reasoning abilities that all humans share, why aren't humans moral in general?

The most basic reason is that humans can live with cognitive dissonance. All humans might have an ability to reason as Peter Singer does above but they might ignore this for their selfish interest especially if there is no punishment for not doing so. We might strive to reduce our cognitive dissonance by correcting our actions but some people might accept an illogical fact or ignore reasoning about these thinking in general. Most people don’t think too hard about their moral actions. Fathers in a patriarchal society thinking that not allowing their daughters to work is for their benefit have accepted this as fact and do not try to reason about it.

Also, the code of ethics developed here argues from the position of group or society to reach the preference utilitarianism. It might be in the interest of the group to follow a certain logic and reasonable for an individual to follow that logic. At an individual level, we have desires which are stronger than our desire to act according to reason. Hence most people are driven by their desires(which might have evolved) beyond their desire to act according to perfect reason.

Acting altruistically requires a lot of commitment especially when it clashes against our naturally evolved moral intuitions. Also, it is impossible to do these utilitarian calculations for each small action on a day-to-day basis. Hence most cultures try to encode any rationality based ethics into a set of moral rules to bound personal responsibility.

If you are familiar with Kahneman’s System 1 or System 2 then Singer shares a good analogy — The moral rules are like system 1 in that we rely on them for our day to day actions but we still have our reasoning and utility-based law as a system 2 to fall back on. Peter Singer goes into interesting points about exceptions to moral rules and how they exist but must not be acknowledged but I will skip this in the interest of space.

Is moral philosophy solved?

After reading the book, I was impressed by how the author debunks the call for bio-based ethics and tries to carefully create a reasoning based ethics. While I was still soaking in the material, the skeptic in me was feeling uneasy. The argument that this is the only form of ethics that we can justify to a group does not mean this is what we “ought” to do. What if the group can go to hell and the true form of ethics lies elsewhere?

Also, the moral escalator which argues for expanding the circle felt like a leap of faith. It might be because I have not grasped the arguments fully but I believe you might have felt the same from my description above. Even if I can use my reason to argue that it is not right for me to favor my group over another, why is this the right choice? Peter Singer dismantles opposing schools of thought and comes up with this as the only remaining school of ethics but I was not personally convinced if this proves that this Sherlockian argumentation¹ is right.

Peter Singer himself agrees in an afterword that this argument does not stand completely on its own. The basic claim that “my own interests are not different from others” is a descriptive claim. The normative claim that “I should not prefer my own interests over interest over others” is a subjective one and is inherently assumed to be true in the reasoning above. It leads to “maximization of everyone preferences in the group” and hence might be accepted by a group as a whole. But that in itself does not make it right. Thus, now the arguments above again lead to “skepticism about the possibility of reaching any meaningful conclusion about what we ought to do?”.

Alas, there is still work left to be done before we can figure out right from wrong?

Final Review

Even if it did not solve my long-standing question about moral philosophy, the book was a great read. It read like a novel with easy and simple to follow arguments that slowly built upon one another. Unlike other philosophy books, this book was very beginner-friendly and did not have the pedantic terminology and “isms” to confuse a general reader. It summarizes the ideas about evolution as a source of our moral intuitions and gives a good survey of arguments people give for biology as the source of ethics.

The book has a weak link and hence its argument about the expanding circle being an absolute truth about moral progress does not stand. Still, following the arguments was delightful and was good practice in doing philosophy and critical thinking. Also, without a rational basis, I feel strongly about its central idea and how it inspires us to be more thoughtful about our daily decisions. It pushes us to think more about Veganism, Altruism, etc. — things that I feel are eventual next steps in the progress of our human civilization. Somehow my “moral intuitions” tell me that this is the future of our moral progress.


[1] “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” — Sherlock when high.

[2] Dawkin discusses this at length in his book — The Selfish Gene

I write when I am depressed.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store