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Monday, October 3, 2022

Individualist moral principles and the expansion of the moral circle

Singh, M., & Hoffman, M. (2022, August 20).


The last three centuries have witnessed a moral and political transformation. Groups previously denied equivalent moral standing—including propertyless men, women, ethnic and religious minorities, homosexuals, and slaves—became moral equals deserving of similar legal treatment. Here we argue that this process was driven by the reputational benefits of demonstrating commitment to individualist moral principles. These principles flourished in “fluid” social ecologies with high relational mobility and weak kinship institutions, both as individuals aimed to signal impersonal prosociality and as they strove to be governed under institutions that protected substitutable individuals unbound by formal obligations. As long as parties benefited from appearing committed to these principles, and denying rights to certain groups appeared inconsistent with these principles, then those parties were incentivized to grant those rights. Given the universalist nature of these principles, people signaling commitment were also incentivized to sanction rights-based violations in other countries, helping expand rights beyond their original context. We use this account to explain both expansions and contractions of the moral circle and reconcile the roles of ideas, markets, reasoning, reputation, the Catholic Church, argumentation, moral intuition, social organization, individual strategizing, and large-scale cultural evolution.

From the General Discussion

The first, which we’ll call sincere ideology, acknowledges that expansions occurred because of internalized principles yet rejects or downplays the role of trust. By this account, people have pushed for better treatment because of principles adopted for many potential reasons, such as argumentation or other socialization processes, yet desires to attract trust have been minimally involved.  For the sake of convenience, we refer this account as sincere ideology, although a better name might be sincere ideology without trust, given that our account permits that individuals will internalize and genuinely feel committed to principles to the extent that doing so helps cultivate trust.

The second alternative we call bargaining-for-rights. By this account, the moral circle has expanded because minority groups were better able to bargain for better treatment. An example of this account is Acemoglu and Robinson’s (2000) proposal that Western elites expanded the franchise as concessions to deter social unrest.

Both alternatives are consistent with some of the observations we and other researchers have reported. For instance, the sincere ideology account similarly predicts that revolutionaries who claim certain moral principles will create corresponding institutions after gaining power (sect. 4.2).  Bargaining-for-rights, meanwhile, is consistent with rights expanding with increasingly fluid social ecologies.  Yet on their own, each has difficulty explaining key patterns.