The Myth of the Expanding Circle or You Can’t Learn How to Be an English Vegetarian

September 2, 2014

This is a comment at Santi’s blog that became so long I figure it can stand alone as post. He mentioned this TED talk dialogue between Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein as it appears to be in line with his own optimistic view of moral progress and opposed to my more pessimistic view. If you haven’t seen the video before I highly recommend it. In the following I’ll just summarize the main points and then go on to present my own view on the matter.

The Long Reach of Reason

Obviously, reason has its merits. As Goldstein begins by  pointing out, we wouldn’t have a debate about that using anything other than reason. And when we have reason, and the knowledge that comes with it, we rarely look for alternatives. No one asks a witch doctor to fix their car – not even a superstitious person. We ask a mechanic because mechanics is based on reason and reason will fix the car as it fixes so many other problems. In short, we don’t argue with success, and reason has been enormously successful in many ways. But exactly how long is the reach of reason – and is it equally successful in the moral domain?

Goldstein says it is, although on two conditions – humans must have self-interest and there must be a community of reasoners with the capacity to communicate and affect each other’s well-being. This vague and somewhat libertarian sounding idea seems plain wrong to me. It presupposes a lot of things, for instance that all citizens would be equipped with reason, that they would care about the well-being of others etc. But perhaps this is just a rhetorical starting point of the dialogue?

Anyway, Pinker questions this idea by asking if it accords with the cruelties we find in cultures world wide right up until the modern era, and if it can explain how we from there on have become more humane. Instead of reason, he points to the better angels of our nature, “self-control, empathy, a sense of fairness.” These angels, he argues, gain ground as the circle of empathy expands,

“…with the expansion of literacy and travel, people started to sympathize with wider and wider circles, the clan, the tribe, the nation, the race, and perhaps eventually, all of humanity.”

By this logic, moral progress occurs as the circle of empathy expands to include more and more people we previously thought of as strangers or whose existence we didn’t reflect on at all. The circle would have begun to expand from the late 1400s during the Age of Discovery, when global trade interconnected the world in an unprecedented way. And it wouldn’t require much reason, just empathy and an increasing awareness of people around the world.

Goldstein counters with an Adam Smith quote from 1759, claiming that a European would be more upset to lose a finger than at the prospect of China perishing in an earthquake. If that was the sentiment in mid 1700s Europe, we’d have around 250 years of getting acquainted and not much empathy to show for. Instead she argues that it was Enlightenment (aka the Age of Reason), beginning from late 1600s, that expanded the circle of empathy, a process driven by the thinkers of that era,

“…if you look at the history of moral progress, you can trace a direct pathway from reasoned arguments to changes in the way that we actually feel. Time and again, a thinker would lay out an argument as to why some practice was indefensible, irrational, inconsistent with values already held.”

We wouldn’t like to be kept as slaves, we wouldn’t like this for our family or friends either, so why would we like it for foreigners? Reason compels us to widen our circle of empathy.

She then proceeds to illustrate her point with some humanitarians like Bentham, Erasmus, John Locke, Mary Astell etc. Pinker concedes and they both reflect on how this reason-driven process will make our grandchildren think of us as barbarians given how much further their circle of empathy will reach. End of story.

The Haidtian Elephant in the Room

And yet at the beginning of the dialogue Pinker stated,

“My fellow psychologists have shown that we’re led by our bodies and our emotions and use our puny powers of reason merely to rationalize our gut feelings after the fact.”

This of course refers to Jonathan Haidt and others whose research makes a good case for such post hoc rationalization being an important aspect of human nature. To illustrate this behavior he likens our emotions with an elephant and our reason with the rider. The elephant, being much stronger, walks about as he pleases while the helpless rider pretends that he is in complete control.

Given this statement, it’s a bit disconcerting how easily Pinker ignores the obvious risk that their conclusion might also be post hoc rationalization. After all, two top notch academics agreeing that all you need is reason sounds a bit like two hippies agreeing that all you need is love. So is it post hoc? It definitely has some conspicuous flaws that suggest so.

As Pinker himself pointed out back in 2002 in his book The Blank Slate, all behavioral traits are highly inheritable and change very little over the lifespan and, most importantly, they are unaffected by shared environment, such as schools, education – and humanitarian essays. But width of empathy must, by any reasonable definition, be a behavioral trait. But by their logic it would be a trait like no other, strongly affected by shared environment, even though all other traits, thus including very similar traits like ingroup loyalty and identification, aren’t. So either width of empathy isn’t a behavioral trait – which is crazy – or it is somehow a completely unique trait affected by shared environment. Either way Pinker and Goldstein have some serious splaining to do.

Still, moral progress has been achieved, no argument there, so what exactly did happen during the last 4-5 centuries? I would argue that there was progress, but without any widening of the circle of empathy. How can that be? I believe that the people Locke and others addressed were already equipped with a wide capacity for empathy. When they heard of other people around the world and the arguments on how they should be treated they responded accordingly and this naturally had implications for other categories too, like women, children and even animals. Before that their concern had been mainly with family, clan, and tribe because that was their world.

The Chinese Anomaly

But if width of empathy is so large in most people, does it really matter if it’s a behavioral trait or not? Doesn’t growing awareness and the empathic inclusion that follows amount to the same thing as an expansion of our circle of empathy? Yes, you might say this is all semantics, weren’t it for one important thing: width of empathy is only large in Northwest Europeans and their descendants. People sometimes referred to as WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic). This trait is intimately (inversely) linked to ingroup loyalty which is weaker among the WEIRD populations as well as among liberal/progressive people, as Haidt’s research has shown.

The rest of the world is not very impressed by Enlightenment ideals and it never was. To this day most of the world is not very into human rights. It’s something you do to make rich Western friends. And now with the rise of China many are abandoning this pretense altogether.

In fact, present day China makes an excellent example of how awareness and reason (this is a highly intelligent people) in no way has expanded the circle of empathy. The internet is full of videos from China illustrating cruelty and lack of concern for both humans and animals. This is a glaring contradiction that Pinker and Goldstein fail to address. Another friend of the expanding circle (who even wrote a book with that name), Australian philosopher Peter Singer has made an attempt to resolve this problem in his own TED talk. In it he shows very disturbing film clip (so click at your own peril) in which a 2-year-old Chinese girl is run over by a car and then left lying in the street. Other people look at her but walk by without helping in any way. He then goes on to compare this behavior with Westerners who can prevent child mortality by supporting UNICEF but fail to do so, at least sufficiently to eradicate the problem,

Does it really matter that we’re not walking past them in the street? Does it really matter that they’re far away? I don’t think it does make a morally relevant difference. The fact that they’re not right in front of us, the fact, of course, that they’re of a different nationality or race, none of that seems morally relevant to me. What is really important is, can we reduce that death toll? Can we save some of those 19,000 children dying every day?

As you can see by this quote, in Singer the circle is wider than the sky. But this attempt at killing the anomaly implies that Westerners fail to help in other ways and that the difference between his (largely WEIRD) audience and the Chinese is illusory. But do Westerners (and especially Northwesterners) fail in other ways? I don’t know about UNICEF specifically but if you look at foreign aid as a percentage of gross national income, 18 of the top 20 contributors are all in Northwestern Europe, directly bordering to these countries or having substantial ancestry from this region (USA, Canada and Australia). The two outsiders are Portugal at 17th and Japan at 20th place. So on closer inspection it would seem Singer’s implication is false and the difference is even bigger than you may have thought initially.

And I wonder what he would make of this scene, which is also very disturbing to watch, a Chinese dog vendor pressures soft-hearted woman to buy dog at a high price by threatening to kill it. In the surrounding crowd people are smiling and taking pictures. Not trying to bash China here. I could show much scarier pictures from the Middle East or Africa. I’m just trying to make a simple point: width of empathy varies across populations, and these differences persist despite efforts by the influential Northwest Euros to promote their really wide circle as the global norm.

Human Biodiversity (General introduction here)

My thinking is that this can be explained by HBD Chick’s observation that cultural and social differences around the world can largely be explained by varying degrees of inbreeding and how this phenomenon applies to basic evolutionary theory. There is research to show that humans care more for those they share gene variants with – in all populations. This for the simple fact that if you do, then you pass on your gene variants via others and increase your fitness. When you for instance ask people who they’d save first from a burning building they tend to make young close relatives their top priority, especially their own children. But this circumstance is not a human universal because populations differ in how inbred they are. The more inbred, the more gene variants you can pass on via relatives and the more of a priority relatives become.  And this familial altruism is more or less the reverse of width of empathy.

Using anthropological and historical records as well as biological data, the aforementioned Chick  has tracked the varying degress of long-term inbreeding of populations over the world. Her conclusion is that evolution must have created distinct variations in familiar altruism/empathic width. And most interestingly, she finds that Northwestern Europe is expected to have the least familiar altruism/widest circle of empathy.  The center of this area, she concludes, must be England (not the UK) and the Netherlands. As you may have noticed, of the seven humanitarians and reformers that are mentioned in this TED talk, four are English, one of English descent, one Dutch, one French and one from northern Italy. Enlightenment is often referred to as an Anglo-French phenomenon, but it’s way more Anglo than French. (If you want to read further about the moral characteristics of Northwestern peoples there are several posts on this topic on Peter Frosts’ blog Evo and Proud.)

A skeptical reader might say that England’s geographic location was optimal for getting acquainted with the world and starting the process Pinker and Goldstein speak of. But Portugal and Spain were better poised and did in fact start the Age of Discovery way before the rest. But couldn’t it have been a combination of geography and intelligence since it seems, going back at least to Victorian England, the population may have been very intelligent. This makes more sense, but if so, shouldn’t all such advantages be gone by now? We are more interconnected than ever before so with geography out of the equation we’d expect countries on the same IQ level to have the same width of empathy. But looking at foreign aid and similar indicators we find that countries on the same level or even higher than Northwestern Europe, like South Korea, China, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary do not have wide circles of empathy. This all points to HBD Chick being right on the money.

The English Vegetarian

A way of illustrating this theory is by using maps of ethnic correlates, maps I’ve come to think of as JayMaps, for obvious reasons. In this case I looked at vegetarianism and English ancestry in America. For vegetarians empathy transcends the art barrier which I figure is an indication of extremely wide empathy something we might expect to find more of among the English than in any other population. English ancestry varies a lot by state so it enables us to use national data rather than the mess of international comparisons. In this case I used a catalog from of 11782 restaurants and health food stores across America half of which are completely vegan or vegetarian and half are vegetarian friendly. With the measure of restaurants/million inhabitants as a proxy for vegetarianism, I made this map showing the variation across the contiguous states except for Washington DC,


And another one showing self-reported English ancestry according to Wikipedia/US Census 2000,

English Ancestry

As you can see the maps are fairly similar. They could hardly be identical since people have moved around. There is for instance good reason to believe that WEIRD people of all ethnicities have flocked to California. As an indication that English isn’t just a proxy for white, I made a non-hispanic white map too,

White by state


Here you can clearly see that vegetarianism is way more English than generically white. How much? I used one of the online number crunchers and came up with this correlation between diet and English ancestry,

vegetarians by english ancestry.php


As you can see that’s a pretty hefty correlation, 0.68 to be precise. For non-hispanic whites the same picture looks like this,

vegetarians by white ancestry


This correlation is a measly 0.13.  The difference is striking, especially considering that most people of self-reported English ancestry probably are white. It looks like the English brought their empathic width with them to their new country and incorporated it in their culture in this way. Other white Europeans with more narrow empathy did not.

What Is Moral Progress?

Moral progress can’t be the expanding circle as Pinker, Goldstein and Singer believe simply because everything point to the size of the circle being a behavioral trait like any other. But it can also not be progress unless you’re WEIRD/Northwestern to begin with. As Haidt has pointed out, the rest of the world value ingroup loyalty more. Expanding the cirlce would go against their morals.  Moral progress is better defined as the implementation of morals specific to certian groups and individuals. By this definition progress will mean different things in England, Syria, and China. And one man’s progress is inevitably another man’s decline.

So, from my relatively WEIRD perspective, am I an optimist or a pessimist? I would say I’m cautiously  optimistic. I don’t think Northwestern civilization is doomed, only its current cultural manifestation of multiculturalism which combines pathological altruism with an equally oppressive attitude towards anyone dares stand up against it. We recently got an example of the destructiveness of this culture when it was uncovered that 1400 children have been systematically raped by Muslim men in Rotherham, just one small city in England, while those who were supposed to protect the children hushed it up out of fear of racist accusations. (Kind of makes a sadistic dog vendor in China look like small potatoes.) But this oppressive PC culture is finally coming to an end. A recent poll by BBC showed 95 percent thought multiculturalism had failed.

There is probably a Rotherham effect in this poll but  UKIP became the largest party in the EU elections and we’re seeing anti-immigration parties rising throughout the region. And it’s not people dreaming of the 1950s or of old-school fascism either. You’ll sometimes see both the Israeli and rainbow flag at their rallies. People who are tolerant and inclusive but without forgetting their identity or allowing themselves to be exploited or victimized. Perhaps some will think I’m an incurable optimist but I think I see a new healthier incarnation of the Northwestern spirit in this movement.



Eating Animals Gives People Cognitive Dissonance

April 1, 2013
One man's friend is another man's dinner.

One man’s friend is another man’s dinner.

Is eating meat an emotional problem? Does it cause cognitive dissonance, that is, does it collide with our care for animals in a way that makes us uncomfortable? A recent three part study by psychologists Brock Bastian and colleagues, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 38/2 (2012), offers some interesting insights.

In the first study participants where simply asked to rate different animals in regard to their minds and their edibility. The mind measure was a composite using likert scales for things like fear, pain, memory, emotion etc. The edibility was measured the same way but with two questions, “Would you choose to eat this animal?” and “Would you eat this animal if asked to?”

As you might have guessed, there was a negative correlation between mind attribution and edibility. This could be construed as a wish to eat only mindless animals like fish or shrimps and not those more evolved like monkey, dog, dolphin, elephant found in the cluster of animals deemed least edible. However, in this cluster we also find the horse, a fairly stupid animal, but one that people often interact with and have feelings for.Cows have minds about as evolved as horses but not in the eye of the participants who rated cow low in mind – and high in edibility. This suggests that there is a tendency to attribute mind to animals that are loved, and deny mind to those we choose to eat. One explanation for this could be that participants (and people in general) experience cognitive dissonance when eating animals due to both wanting to eat them and also feeling bad for them.

To explore this possibility further, the researchers conducted a second study in which participants were given to pictures of a cow and a sheep. The first picture to be shown came with the neutral text,

“This lamb/cow will be moved to other paddocks, and will spend most of its time eating grass with other lambs/cows.”

The second picture had a potentially more disturbing description,

“This lamb/cow will be taken to an abattoir, killed, butchered, and sent to supermarkets as meat products for humans.”

Both these animals were attributed roughly the same mind in the first study but in this study a new difference emerged. The animal presented as being slaughtered and used for food was attributed less mind, regardless of whether it was a cow or a sheep. This clearly indicates that mind attribution is dependent on whether we think about the animal as food or not.

But is this due to cognitive dissonance? After all, it could be that the design of the experiment influenced participants to think in categories and that the food text makes us think of food rather than animals. To answer this question, the researchers made a third, more elaborate, study.

This time they told participants that they were making a study on consumer behavior. First they were shown the cow/sheep picture in the previous study with the neutral test and as previously asked to rate how evolved mind the animal has. Then participants were shown a list of different foods that they would require eating if they took part in the study. This was to ensure that no one was squeamish about eating meat. Next, they all wrote a little essay on how a cow or a sheep is processed into food. They were informed that they would not be sampling the type of meat they were writing about. Some participants would not be eating meat at all, but apple instead.

As they wrote their essays the researchers carried in the beef, lamb and apples. When the essays where done they informed the participants that they were just going to get some cutlery and asked the participants if they would be willing to help out with another study that involved rating the animal they were about to eat along with a measure called Daily Mood Scale, measuring positive and negative affect. And they walked right into the trap the researchers had so cleverly designed for them. That is, those who were sampling meat. Some were sampling fruit.) So what happened?

Apple eaters, exposed to no potential cognitive dissonance, gave the same mind attribution on both rating occasions. Meat eaters, however, reduced the mind attribution distinctly on the second occasion when they were about to eat the animal they rated. And in this study they were only given the essay to write about meat production so there was no neutral option, no one was prompted to think into different categories of animals versus food.

But the most interesting of all the results in the third study was the one on the Daily Mood Scale. It showed that those who reduced mind attribution when expecting to eat the animal being rated did not report any negative affect, while those who maintained a consistent mind attribution did so at the cost of reporting more negative affect. This is a very clear indication that imagining the animals we are about to eat as less evolved serves the purpose of reducing cognitive dissonance. It’s also a bit scary how flexible people are in this respect. Humans are rarely truth-over-harmony. If there is a conflict between reality (in this case the mind of an animal) and our emotions, then most people seem ok with adjusting their view of reality to spare their feelings.

So, where am I going with all this? Well, as a vegetarian I feel strongly for the animals, and I’d like for more people to stop eating meat. But the study is in no way showing that vegetarianism is the morally superior choice. We all have our own morals and to my knowledge there isn’t any way to prove that one is objectively better than the other. But what the study does suggest is that if you find meat production to be an unpleasant topic of conversation during dinner, then you’re suppressing your empathy in order to feel good about eating animals. This means you have a moral code, you’re not ok with eating animals, but for some reason you don’t live by your code. This may be due to conformism, lack of self-respect, lack of reflection etc. But is there any good reason to not live by your code? I can’t think of one.

So if you care for animals and feel bad about eating them, but try to tell yourself it’s no big deal, you’re not just letting the animals down, you’re letting yourself down too.

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