25 February 2011

Moral Circles

Ethical systems differ in a variety of ways, perhaps most fundamentally in the scope extent of the moral circle--the group of people (or animals) that we owe moral duties to. Perhaps the three most important contributors to our understanding of the moral circle are Confucius, Jesus and Buddha.

Let's look at Confucius first. He's clearly the most conservative of the three, emphasizing duty to authority and respect for tradition over empathy. I think Confucius's moral circle is considerably smaller, and also more complex than either Jesus's or Buddha's. The story, from the Analects, that has always disturbed my Western mind the most goes like this:

The Duke of She informed Confucius, saying, “Among us here there are those who may be styled upright in their conduct. If their father have stolen a sheep, they will bear witness to the fact.” Confucius said, “Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.

Maybe my interpretation is wrong here, but Confucius seems to be saying that a son’s duty to his father trumps his duty to society. So Confucius’s moral circle seems to be small, and layered. In the first ring is family, who we must be loyal to even if it means harming everyone else in the society (letting theft go unpunished is almost surely harmful to society), the second ring is our duty to the ruler (and so far as I can tell, it is our common duty to the same ruler that constitutes the primary moral tie between unrelated individuals within a community) and in the last ring is our duty to our friends. There is an outer ring as well, where we have a duty (of sorts) to all of humanity. This is expressed in Confucius’s version of what Westerner’s call the Golden Rule: “do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” Some have argued that this is logically equivalent to the Golden Rule espoused by Jesus (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), but I don’t think they are equivalent at all. If we follow Jesus’s teaching, we are duty-bound to help someone in need, while if we follow Confucius’s teaching, we are only duty-bound to avoid causing direct harm to others, and would seem to have no obligation to do anything for anyone we don’t have a relationship with. If we find that our obligations to our family conflict with the greater good, Confucius tells us to serve our family first. This shrinks the moral circle to the smallest size possible (since if we shrink it one level more, to the individual, it can hardly be called a moral system at all—then it’s just called capitalism!)

Jesus, on the other hand, greatly expanded the moral circle. Before Jesus, ethics in the Middle East were fairly ethno-centric. This can be seen in the story of David and Goliath (where David, the in-group Hebrew is virtuous and human, but Goliath, the out-group Philistine, is portrayed as an inhuman monster). Dehumanizing other ethnic groups is, unfortunately, fairly natural to our species. Indeed, Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees who "dechimpized" chimps from other tribal groups during inter-group warfare, treating them not as fellow chimps but as prey animals. This is why Jesus's teaching, which expanded the moral circle to all of humanity was so revolutionary (the expansion of the moral circle can be seen in Jesus's story of The Good Samaritan, where a hated ethnic groups is shown to be good, moral, and deserving of inclusion in the moral circle).

Buddha's moral circle was considerably wider than Jesus's, including not just all humans, but all sentient beings. (The moral circle of Hindu India at the time already included all sentient beings, but Buddha gets credit for transforming this moral teaching into a religion that was more exportable to other regions.) This to me is the most ethically defensible moral circle: if an animal is capable of feeling pain, we should try not to hurt it. Though natural selection has imbued me with feelings that cause me to favor my family members over non-family members, and even my nationality over others, for the most part I can resist these impulses because my rational mind tells me they are just instincts, and instincts can often cause immoral behavior (like my instinct to sleep with lots of women, even when I'm in a relationship).

The smallest moral circle, as I alluded to above, is that of capitalism. At first, capitalism doesn't seem to qualify as a moral system at all, in part because the moral circle is restricted to the individual himself. But libertarian thinkers like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek argue that if everyone pursues their own selfish interest, this leads to the greatest possible benefit to society. Their theory is based on a lot of false assumptions about human nature which I don't have time to get into now, and is backed up with essentially no empirical evidence (if someone can provide some, I'd love to take a look at it). But because rich powerful people love the idea that screwing over poor people is not only not morally wrong but morally right, the theory has been promoted by governments and other powerful institutions. I believe this to be the predominant moral philosophy of Hong Kong and the United States. Luckily, humans aren't as selfish as free-market fundamentalists assume, and so even when a society is designed to maximize selfishness and greed, kindness and generosity still exist.


  1. One of the reasons why I like visiting your blog so much is because it has become a daily reference I can use in order to learn new nice stuff. It's like a curiosities box that surprises you over and over again.

  2. Sadly ethics are obsolete in this greedy world, anyway I appreciate your point of view so much, keep on working sir.


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