The Moral Circle

louseousjapanicasOne day at work I looked out the window to see a customer walking in. The blinds obscure a lot so I couldn’t see them very well, and I cocked my head left and right trying to figure out if it was a man or woman. After a moment a few things went through my mind: What if they don’t identify as male or female? What if they decide to go back to the car and I never find out? Why do I even care?

Evolutionary psychology is mostly educated guessery, but I think this is all part of a human need to assess any new situation. When we see a new person, we want to determine if they’re a threat, a potential ally, and so on. One of the simplest ways to do that is to see how they fit into certain pre-boxed categories, and this tells us what we think we need to know. And if they don’t fit into those categories, that might tell us something too.

When someone has a baby, often the first thing people ask is what sex it is. Because we still live in a world where that answer will tell us a lot about what kind of relationship we’ll have with the child and what kind of life they’re likely to lead.

I’m not completely knocking this. If a person comes into view brandishing a gun, you want to be able to assess the situation pretty quickly. The problem is when we place a lot of importance on categories that don’t tell us anything useful, or more to the point, when we assume a trait means something that it doesn’t mean at all. There’s a point when we start to call that prejudice (literally “pre-judging”).

When that person came into my work (and I’m not going to mention their sex because it really doesn’t matter) I didn’t do anything wrong just because I had that initial thought. But what if I had treated them differently based on their perceived sex or race? Given them better or worse service than someone else or made them feel unwelcome? My ten second curiosity about a person’s sex is small potatoes, but it goes to show how such distinctions are woven into every part of our lives, from the personal to the political.


It’s probably a truism to say that we base our self-identity on our differences from others. Our earliest distinctions are probably me and not-me. Eventually we define ourselves as individuals around things like gender, political orientation, religion, and favored sports teams. We feel kinship with people who have those in common. We generally don’t define our identities based on things that everyone has in common. “Lives on Earth” is not an important part of my identity because I haven’t met anyone not from Earth.

Ok, for those among us who consult with celestial deities and spirits maybe that wasn’t a good example. But people who do those things often have that as part of their identity, because most people do not consciously commune with spirits. We know who we are, at least in part, because we are not everyone else.

This is the philosophical idea of the Other. But in ethics and politics, othering means something more. It happens when we start to view others as Not Like Us and consequently see them as less important, inferior, or even contemptible.

I see this at work in daily life on a small and large scale. How often do we hear “Women are crazy” and “men suck”? I look at our political discourse and see people labeling half the country as morally and intellectually deficient monsters. It’s almost impossible to have a discussion on immigration, for instance, without the distinct flavor of “immigrants are less than us” entering in. And then, after one or both parties has othered immigrants, the arguers other one another. I’ve come to view all disparaging remarks as examples of othering. I don’t know that contempt can occur without some degree of dehumanizing.

Note that not all distinctions are bad. Seeing the difference between my fingers and the carrot I’m chopping is a good thing. And it’s true that not all people have the same level of intelligence or even the same degree of morality (to say nothing of that fact that we all have different ideas of what morality even is). It becomes othering when we say that people who are different from us aren’t people as fully as we are.


I’ve noticed, and I’m certainly not the first to have noticed, a tendency to put the Others into a homogenous group and say they’re all the same. For instance, it’s difficult for many of us to see how turkeys have distinct personalities from one another, both because we don’t spend much time with turkeys but also because we assume turkeys aren’t even capable of personalities. All of their behaviors are merely instincts as far as we are concerned. Turkeys are therefore not only all alike because they lack human reason; they are also more or less identical in personality.

We do this to other humans too, of course. All Muslims believe such-and-such. All Democrats/Republicans have the same (stupid and/or nefarious) reasons for supporting their particular political party.

I think this perceived homogeneity is important because we tend to value complex societies and cultures and devalue the simplistic and brutish. It’s part of why animal rights activists emphasize that animals can have complex social systems and complex emotional lives. It’s so easy to reduce the Other in importance if we first reduce them. You’re not a person if I’ve reduced you to a sound-bite, stereotype, or “just another x, same as all the rest.” It robs people of their individuality. And if you’re not an individual, it’s hard to see you as a person.

Othering, as a way of robbing people of their individuality and importance, is inseparable from moral exclusion.

What is Moral Exclusion?

Othering can make us feel more a part of the groups we identify with, and it makes us feel like our group is singular and special. People say “humans and animals” as though we stand outside the animal kingdom. Untrue. We’re not plants or minerals. What we’ve done is made such a strong distinction between ourselves and the Others that we can’t even recognize ourselves as standing among them anymore.

It’s the same thought process behind American exceptionalism. America is such a great nation that other nations aren’t even really nations when compared to us. Our national borders are extremely important, but we can ignore other borders if we need to. And of course it’s not just Americans; other nations feel the same way about their own status.

These aren’t just inaccurate thoughts. They allow us to do what we want without feeling bad about it. They underlie and reinforce our harmful and selfish behaviors.

When the Nazis committed atrocities upon the Jews, they compared Jews to rats. It didn’t matter what they did because their enemies weren’t fully human. The US also dehumanized the Japanese in propaganda, including comparing them to rats. The Mongols, in the age of Genghis Khan, didn’t view settled peoples as human. It’s a running motif in human history.

Moral exclusion happens when we draw a boundary and say that everyone within that circle deserves rights and consideration, and no one outside does. That circle is called the moral community – those people that are morally important, whom we have to treat morally. Every person and culture draws that boundary differently. Some people draw a larger circle and others a smaller one.

Dehumanizing our enemies helps us to pull the trigger in war, which otherwise is actually quite hard for a soldier to do. In its extremes, viewing some people as unimportant has allowed us to keep slaves, intern people in camps, and exterminate whole peoples. I would argue that almost every infringement on another person happens because at some level, consciously or not, we view them as unimportant. For a sociopath, only oneself exists within the moral community. For others, only wealthy white men deserve full rights. And yet for others, maybe only criminals and traitors exist outside of our circle of concern, so that we can execute them if we find it useful to do so.

Everyone draws some kind of circle. As a vegan I include all human and non-human animals in my circle, but I don’t include plants and rocks. I like to think that this distinction is based in reason, but moral exclusion always seems reasonable to the one doing it. Debate and self-examination are really important to help check our moral math.

The message of othering and moral exclusion is, “You do not matter because you are not fully human.” The concerns of whole swaths of people are made trivial. We will often say not only that our enemies’ suffering is unimportant, but that our enemies are incapable of suffering because they’re not emotionally advanced enough. So the deeper meaning of moral exclusion might be, “You do not matter because you are not as real.”

What does this have to do with activism?

I view moral exclusion as the root of all injustice, or at least the chief obstacle preventing us from seeing our own acts of injustice. I try to direct my efforts there. As a vegan, I try to show people how non-human animals belong in our moral circles. But, of course, that includes all humans too. There are so many ways that we as a society devalue women, LGBTQ people, people of color, and others (no pun intended), and I suppose I could say my strategy is to help people see that these are all people and worthy of respect.

That doesn’t mean we stop demanding justice for crimes, protesting, writing letters to Congress, etc. Problems often have to be approached from multiple directions. While I view these as addressing the symptoms of oppression rather than the cause, it’s the symptoms that are most immediately hurting people. But I think that lasting change requires a true revolution in the way that we view one another.

I’ve gotten into arguments with other activists because I refuse to other those who disagree with me.
If you’ve read my articles on inspiration and cognitive dissonance you might have noticed how I think othering is completely counterproductive. I think it’s also potentially dangerous. Because throwing off yokes of oppression, while still nurturing the kind of moral attitude that causes oppression, is inviting more atrocities down the road. I guess that attitude can seem kumbaya, fluffy, or tolerant of oppression. I’ve seen forgiveness and respect for one’s opponents called assimilationist or as collaboration in injustice. But that’s not the case.

Refusing to morally exclude others doesn’t have to tie our hands. We can still condemn harmful behaviors and the ideologies behind them.

There’s a difference between seeing the need to incarcerate someone and wholly excluding them from moral consideration. “It’s important to try to keep known child molesters away from children” might seem the same as, “We need to keep nasty perverts out of our community,” especially since the former is often said as a euphemism for the latter, but they are very different. One is an attempt to protect people; the other is entirely about disgust with an out-group. It’s not only different in motivation, but makes a huge difference in how we treat people.

Forgiveness and respect doesn’t have to take the fight out of us. It hasn’t for me. It just means that I’m not only fighting for the oppressed, but also fighting to liberate the oppressor from their own closed hearts and minds. If anything, it gives me even more to fight for, and less to fight against. It’s totally changed the flavor of activism for me, and I’m happy for that. It’s become a quest for awakening.

It starts at home, as they say. Ending moral exclusion and othering has to start with an examination of our own thoughts and values. That’s not something that happens once and is done. It happens every time I look out the window and wonder if that’s a man or a woman walking into my store. It happens every time I get mad at someone and realize I’m thinking of them as unworthy because of their behavior. Doesn’t mean I don’t get angry anymore, but instead of letting my anger lead me to despise whoever made me angry, anger has become more like my warning signal that injustice is happening. Well, on a good day.

Because human nature is still there. My brain still wants to categorize and assess. We are a tribal species and us-vs.-them was a matter of survival for most of our evolutionary history. Becoming loving and just doesn’t mean I’ve transcended my humanity. It just means I work with my thoughts in a different way.

Besides self-examination and hashing ideas out with others, the two biggest things I can recommend for moral exclusion are meditation and loving-kindness meditation. Plus it’s good for your health.

But the good news is that humans, if you can believe it, are actually becoming more peaceful. It might not seem so, but that’s because there are more of us around to do terrible things and better technology to do it. We’re also becoming more carnivorous which doesn’t bode well for human or animal rights. But percentage-wise, toward other humans we are less violent than we’ve ever been. The fact that so many people recognize universal human rights is huge, historically. I think we’re seeing ever-widening circles of compassion, and this gives me hope. I try to remember this because it can get damn discouraging.

Further Reading

Dehumanization and the Psychology of killing (Whatever your thoughts on wiki, it’s a good place to start)

Othering 101: What Is “Othering”?

Othering and animals:

Humanity becoming less violent: