The Expanding Circle
reviewed by Don Browning
Human Nature and History, vol. 38, no. 4, January, 1982, pp. 539-541

These two books develop considerably different responses to the claims of sociobiology. Both of them want to temper those claims. Neither takes the stand that biological knowledge is of no relevance whatsoever to an understanding of human ethics and action. But after saying this, it is important to know how significantly these books diverge from one another. Singer is far more appreciative of sociobiology and, from the standpoint of this reviewer, his book is the more balanced and useful of the two.

Peter Singer is an Oxford-trained moral philosopher and author of a well-received book about our moral obligations to animals, entitled Animal Liberation. Bock is a sociologist from the University of California, Berkeley. Singer is primarily addressing the claims, put forth by E. O. Wilson in his Sociology: The New Synthesis and On Human Nature, that biologists have more to tell us about human ethics than do moral philosophers and theologians. Bock is more interested in Wilson's claims that sociobiology should provide the foundations for the social sciences in general. Both books are competent and well-written and are worth the attention of the serious student of religion, who probably should be paying more attention to this debate.

Bock is the more skeptical of sociobiology. He primarily is interested in how to explain social change. He lamely admits that sociobiology may have something to tell us about this, but he confesses that he is not quite sure what it is. All of the truly important factors which influence social and cultural change have to do with human action, by which he means genuine intentional historical action in contrast to simple biological behavior controlled by our genes. Bock makes much of this distinction between action and behavior, and although he admits that our biologically-grounded behavior must influence in some way our historical action, he seems interested not in the least in suggesting how this might be so.

Singer, on the other hand, is clear that sociobiology does indeed have something to contribute to the discipline of ethics, but not in the way Wilson proposes. Singer's argument goes something like this: our various biologically-determined capacities for altruism-kin, reciprocal, and group altriusm-predispose us to limited and basically tribal levels of sympathetic and helpful activity. This help is frequently at some cost to ourselves and for this reason must be seen as genuinely altruistic. But at this level, our behavior is not necessarily moral. It is not moral until reason is added and these limited and tribally-oriented tendencies to help others are generalized to those beyond our family, tribe, and nation. But evolution also has made us the creatures of reason, and when reason emerges and starts its work, it both builds on these more elemental tendencies and expands them to progressively wider circles.

What we have in this book is a remarkable and worthwhile synthesis of the neo-Kantian ethics of the Harvard moral philosopher John Rawls and the sociobiology of Harvard's E. 0. Wilson. Singer uses Rawls lightly, but this is where he is coming from. Ethics has to do with impartiality-the capacity to weigh the interests equally of all the people in a particular action. Rawls is probably the source of this principle, although Singer does not actually make too much of his Rawlsian connection. The moral philosophies of C. S. Lewis and R. M. Hare are also sources. Singer's argument is that when reason in the form of impartiality works on our natural altruistic tendencies, it generalizes or universalizes these tendencies to people and groups beyond those we are naturally inclined to be kind and helpful toward. Hence, morality is not a matter of reason pitted against our passions and instincts; it is a matter of reason expanding some of our instincts beyond the range of their natural inclinations.

There is much for theologians to think about here. Let me drop a few hints. If Ronald Green's extension of Rawls' principle of impartiality into religious ethics is valid (see his Religious Reason), then Singer may give us some ideas for bringing together the resources of sociobiology and religious ethics.

Yet Singer's book is not without its faults. Even though he is aware of other excellent statements on the relation of sociobiology and ethics, such as Mary Midgley's Beast and Man, he does not develop her perspective. Midgley believes that sociobiology can help uncover some of the central tendencies of humans. It is precisely the task of ethics to mediate between conflicting tendencies when they arise. Although knowledge of these tendencies does not give us our ethical norms, knowledge of these tendencies, wants, and needs gives ethical rationality important information in its attempt to mediate precisely and fairly. This is an important perspective that Singer hints at but does not develop.


Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'The Expanding Circle', reviewed by Don Browning