The Cultural Evolution of Extended Benevolence

In Johan De Smedt & Helen De Cruz (eds.), Empirically Engaged Evolutionary Ethics. Cham, Switzerland: pp. 153-177 (2021)
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Abstract In The Descent of Man (1879), Charles Darwin proposed a speculative evolutionary explanation of extended benevolence—a human sympathetic capacity that extends to all nations, races, and even to all sentient beings. This essay draws on twenty-first century social science to show that Darwin’s explanation is correct in its broad outlines. Extended benevolence is manifested in institutions such as legal human rights and democracy, in behaviors such as social movements for human rights and the protection of nonhuman animals, and in normative attitudes such as emancipative values and a commitment to promote the rights or welfare of animals. These phenomena can be substantially explained by cultural evolutionary forces that trace back to three components of what Darwin called the human “moral sense”: (1) sympathy, (2) our disposition to follow community rules or norms, and (3) our capacity to make normative judgments. Extended benevolence likely emerged with “workarounds,” including political ideologies, that established an inclusive sympathetic concern for sentient life. It likely became as widespread as it is now due to recently arisen socio-economic conditions that have created more opportunities for people to have contact with and take the perspective of a broader cross-section of humanity, as well as other species.
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