Moral circle expansion
How do values change over time and can we create a more compassionate future?

Interested in working on this research direction? Apply for our coaching



Start here for an introduction to prioritisation research

This profile is tailored towards students studying history, sociology and psychology, however we expect there to be valuable open research questions that could be pursued by students in other disciplines.

Why is this a pressing problem?

Many attempts at improving the world aim to expand humanity’s moral circle – the circle of sentient beings considered morally important. Movements such as anti-slavery, feminism, and animal rights all involve attempting to expand this circle. Understanding how moral circle expansion occurs, how tractable it is, and to what extent changes persist could be important for improving the welfare of a huge number of present and future beings. Many (plausibly) sentient beings are not considered morally important, or not sufficiently important to prevent great harm potentially occurring to them. Wild animals, insects, and future artificial intelligences are examples of beings whose suffering could be particularly overlooked.

Explore existing research

 

See also this blog post series on the tractability of changing the course of history, and this and this blog post for examples of informal debate about the value of working on moral circle expansion.

The Sentience Institute is a think tank researching long-term social and technological change, particularly moral circle expansion.

Find a thesis topic

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, below are some ideas on what would be valuable to explore further. If you want help refining your research ideas, apply for our coaching!

You could explore the topics and questions listed below from the Sentience Institute. If you’re interested in working on any of these questions, they encourage you to reach out, or apply for coaching and your coach can connect you.

 

You could also look into questions such as:

  • Over time, have people come to extend their concerns and caring to an ever broader range of groups (that is, have we seen a trend towards what philosophers cause moral circle expansion)? If so, what has caused these sorts of expansions of concern?
  • What has been the rate of change in values throughout history? Is the rate of change increasing?
  • What factors have tended to drive changes that we would judge as moral regression (e.g. an increase in repression).
  • What role (if any) has moral philosophy played in past moral changes? What role have social movements played? What role has been played by changes in underlying economic or political considerations?

You could explore the questions below from the Sentience Institute. If you’re interested in working on any of these questions, they encourage you to reach out, or apply for coaching and your coach can connect you.

Other ideas are suggested in this post.

The research agenda ‘Psychology for Effectively Improving the Future‘ suggests many research questions related to moral circle expansion.

You could also explore the questions below from the Sentience Institute. If you’re interested in working on any of these questions, they encourage you to reach out, or apply for coaching and we can connect you.

 

Many suggested research questions on the inclusion of artificial sentience in the moral circle can be found here.

You could also explore the ideas listed here, such as:

  • How does discussing the concept of a moral circle affect someone’s moral circle?
  • How does discussing speciesism affect someone’s speciesism?
  • How does compassion for other humans correlate with and relate to compassion for nonhumans?
  • How do changes in attitudes towards farmed animals affect attitudes towards other entities?
  • Which messages (e.g. texts, video) most effectively encourage moral consideration of farmed animals, wild animals, and artificial sentience?

     

Other ideas are suggested in this post.

Further resources

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, apply for our coaching and we can connect you with researchers already working in this space, who can help you refine your research ideas.

You can also apply to join our community if you’re interested in peer connections with others working in this area.

Apply for our database of potential supervisors if you’re looking for formal supervision and take a look at our advice on finding a great supervisor for further ideas.

Sign up for our newsletter to hear about opportunities such as funding, internships and research roles.

Our funding database can help you find potential sources of funding if you’re a PhD student interested in this research direction.

If you’re interested in exploring how values change over time, you could also explore our profiles on historical persistence and contingency and the most important historical trends.

Our profiles on wild animal welfare and AI sentience, moral status and rights may also be relevant.

Contributors

This profile was last significantly updated 01/09/2022. Thanks to Matti Wilks and Thomas Moynihan for helpful feedback on this profile. All mistakes remain our own.

Subscribe to the Future Researchers Newsletter

Subscribe to our Future Researchers Newsletter for key concepts, resources and news related to changing the world with your thesis and long-term research career.

Explore all our recommended research directions

Search for profiles that are tailored specifically to your degree or discipline using the menu below. If you’re searching for thesis topics, or considering a research career which allows you to make a significant positive impact in the world, we advise you to go through these research directions and learn more about those that seem impactful or interesting to you.

If you are interested in a profile that isn’t listed under your discipline, we still encourage you to explore it if you think you could make progress in this direction. You can also explore all our recommended research directions organised by theme.

See here for a visual map of all our research directions