dangling with possibility

Peter Singer on the Evolution of Moral Progress

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Peter Singer’s classic from 1981, now reprinted with updates in a 2011 release, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progressis a pioneer in the study of ethics and human morality from a sociobiological point of view. More popularly now called “evolutionary psychology.”

“Ethics is inescapable. Even if in grim adherence to some skeptical philosophy we deliberately avoid all moral language, we will find it impossible to prevent within ourselves inwardly classifying actions as right or wrong.”

The research of Singer and others, such as James R. Flynn, demonstrate that humanity is in fact evolving in what we would call a positive direction, that the trend in humanity is going up in altruism, down in crime, and up in intelligence. His ideas centralized in this book have served for decades as a trove data for many social scientists who have since followed.

Are moral standards based on emotions, reason, or some innate sense of right and wrong? For many scientists, the key lies entirely in biology–especially in Darwinian theories of evolution and self-preservation.

“If evolution is a struggle for survival, why hasn’t it ruthlessly eliminated altruists, who seem to increase another’s prospects of survival at the cost of their own?”

In 1981 Singer explored these topics from a point of view that suggested altruism and a sense of right and wrong is separate from “objective truth.” 30 years later, he has come full circle, and argues in an afterward that there just might be certain applicable “objective” standards.

Singer argues that altruism began as a genetically based drive to protect one’s kin and community members but has developed into a consciously chosen ethic with an expanding circle of moral concern. Drawing on philosophy and evolutionary psychology, he demonstrates that human ethics cannot be explained by biology alone. Rather, it is our capacity for reasoning that makes moral progress possible. In a new afterword, Singer takes stock of his argument in light of recent research on the evolution of morality.

He doesn’t suggest that the progress in studying human biology can somehow replace, or be “annexed” by philosophers, whose role is still vital and separate. He is glad to see, though, that there is growing acceptance of the scientific contributions to social and moral philosophers.

Below is a TedTalk with Peter Singer discussing the natural impulse to be altruistic to others. He asks what’s the most effective way to give? He talks through some surprising thought experiments to help you balance emotion and practicality — and make the biggest impact with whatever you can share. NOTE: Starting at 0:30, this talk contains 30 seconds of graphic footage.

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