Did you know that you have a moral circle? And while it might sound like something positive, for the most part it isn't positive at all. It divides our world into family and not-family, kin and not-kin, into us and them, into people and "ends to our means".
Here's how Richard Beck describes our moral circle:
... These two instinctive processes [differentiating kin from non-kin, and extending '"kindness" toward our "kin"'] create what Singer calls our moral circle. That is, we psychologically draw a circle around a group of people whom we identify as "my kind," "my tribe," "my clan," "my family." This circle is initially populated with family members, but as we grow the circle includes more and more non-biological relations, "friends" who are "like family to us."
... In Kantian language, people inside the moral circle are treated as ends in themselves while people on the outside of the moral circle are treated as means to our ends. We treat those inside the moral circle with love, affection, and mercy, and those outside the moral circle with indifference, hostility, or pragmatism. And all of this flows naturally from a simple psychological mechanism: Are you identified as "family"?
Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality(pp. 100-101)
The concept of moral circles explains how a mobster who has had many people executed and whose drug trade has destroyed the lives of many youth, can be loving and caring toward his grandchildren. The grandchildren are inside his moral circle, The people he had killed and nameless youth dying in the streets are not.
They can also explain how I can be patient with my friend but not with the store clerk or the driver ahead of me on the way home.
Fascinating concept, which ties in with other aspects of how we treat one another and the bigger ideas of mercy versus sacrifice. I'll be exploring more about these circles in the next few posts. In the meantime, check out some of the links below.
Watch a video of Richard Beck talk about moral circles.
Read Richard Beck's book, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, to learn more about this and much more. It's on my Top 5 books list. And, as you can probably tell, I'm a big fan of Richard.
p.s. [invisible people]: If you think having people outside of our moral circles is bad, check out the Medial Prefrontal Cortex -- it's the part of our brain that can make some people invisible.