The Inner Moral Circle and the deaths in Brazil

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"You are now on inside what I like to call the Burns family circle of trust…. If I can't trust you, I have no choice but to put you right back outside the circle, and once you’re out, you’re out. There’s no coming back. ”  -- Robert de Niro, Meet the Parents

 These lines exemplify a topic that, in philosophy and psychology, we call “Moral Circles”. They constitute the limits that define who are worthy of moral consideration. You can imagine it as several concentric circles. The smaller one being you and your immediate family, the second your extended family, the third your friends, and so on. Larger circles encompass the world, the universe, and, at its limits, all things in existence. The smaller the inner circle, the fewer more restricted number of people we will care about and ultimately take care of. But what happens when a President of a country has a small extension of his inner moral circles?

 The inner moral circle seems small in the President of Brazil, and this has real consequences for life and death. For example, after being asked about the high number of deaths by COVID19 in Brazil, the President Jair Bolsonaro answered: “And so what?”. What this sentence makes it evident is that his inner moral circle is extremely restricted; so restricted that it prevents him from sympathizing with the pain of most of the Brazilians. So restricted, that in a moment of crisis like the current one, its main focus is on defending his personal interests and its closest ingroup: his own family.

 These consequences of the President’s small inner moral circle are dire for Brazilians in the middle of a pandemic. Socioeconomic inequality in Brazil is among the ten largest in the world (Gini index) and, with this, the need for physical isolation that this pandemic imposes on us dramatically impacts the most vulnerable. To answer this, direct actions by the State are essential in order to guarantee a minimum income that enables the most vulnerable to both survive and follow isolation recommendations. This type of emergency aid is also essential for micro-enterprises, which often do not have funds to endure a period without financial income. The solution has its origin in the classic idea of a welfare state; i.e. people do not have to decide between protecting themselves or taking to the streets to earn a living in the middle of a pandemic, as there would be a safety net guaranteed by the state.

Contrary to this idea, the President says: “Whoever stays at home will die of hunger, we cannot be hibernating at home.” As a result, he does not assume his commitment as President to his citizens and, much worse, puts them in a serious fallacious moral dilemma. Pressures from different sectors of the Society managed to get an emergency income approved. However, the President's stance delayed its implementation, increasing the negative consequences both financially and in adhering to the guidelines for physical distance. The growth curve of cases and deaths in recent weeks reflects this. His actions due to his own interests peaked in the first week of June: the information on infected people and number of deaths is no longer available on the Ministry of Health's website. How to get out of this crisis as the only country in the world where data disclosure is lacking? 

 What can explain why Brazil is this way? What does that tell us about our own human nature?  Humans are social beings and one of our basic social needs is the feeling of belonging, i.e. we urge and value to pertain and be accepted by a group. But not with any group. In general, we establish social bonds with those who are similar to us - something known as homophily. As the metaphor “birds of a feather flock together”, we bond together with those that have similar interests – from fans of the same soccer team to members of a religious community. Indeed, neuroscience researchers have even found that people who are more similar to us, such as our friends, show similar neural activity when viewing emotional stimuli. In a way, this shows that not only do we gather with people who look like us, but we neurologically process and perceive the world in a similar way. Our moral circles are much constructed by these common perspectives of the world.

 From an evolutionary point of view, this was essential. The similar perception among members of a certain group results in an increase in the cohesion of that group. This cohesion can result in what is called ingroup love, that is, ingroup members establish very strong bonds between themselves. In relation to the other groups, if they are constituted as resource competitive groups, we observe the so-called outgroup hate, often culminating in discrimination and violence. Brain structures that make up our reward system reinforce cooperative and altruistic behaviors between members of the same group. This reinforces the bonds and behaviors to help others. Interestingly, this same reward system is also recruited when we see members of the other competitive group suffering some harm - a kind of pleasure in the pain of the other, something called Schadenfreude. In this case, actions against other groups (often minority groups) and / or failure to understand the pain of the other are reinforced and, consequently, results in the absence of prosocial actions to different others. Racial segregation, conflicts between religions and so many other intergroup movements are based on this categorization of the world between Us and Them and, as seen, with underlying elements such as the similar perception of the world and the reinforcement of prosocial actions between members of the ingroup as opposed to members of other competitive groups.

 How does understanding our innate human desire to connect with, and care for, those similar to us bear on the current crisis in Brazil? Understanding these mechanisms helps us to understand why what we call empathy touches on in some settings, but not in others. Our concern for the well-being of the other human being depends on the degree of bonding or identification that we have with that other. On the other hand, we know that it is possible to expand our ingroup and, with that, extend our empathic concern and subsequent altruistic behaviors to other distant ones. In crisis situations like the current pandemic, it is common to see that members of different groups put their differences in search of a Greater Good. For this, we made our moral groups more flexible and created new categories of ingroup, that is, we created superordinate categories. This expanded categorization can be (and should be) fostered by national leaders so that in a crisis like COVID19 we have cooperative and coordinated actions in different sectors of society regardless of our political and social perspectives. But for that happens it is essential for leaders to see beyond their circles. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Brazil.

 At this point, it is inevitable to ask: is it possible to promote the well-being of a nation with a leader who does not perceive the pain of others beyond his visual reach? Exactly one year ago, I warned in an article published in Nature Human Behavior about the need for Science and Education in the promotion of well-being in Brazil and how these very important areas were being attacked by the newly installed government. After a year, what was a warning, became reality. We have a country endowed with great technical and intellectual capacity, but a leader who has a restricted moral circle. Fearful times in Brazil and there is no easy solution. Bolsonaro's words and behavior generate outrage. And perhaps this outrage might be the common element to unite society for the greater good. The channeling of moral outrage by different sectors of the Society can promote collective responses and coordinated actions. Moral outrage can be the basis for the creation of an extended moral circle in which, regardless of their ingroup of origin, different actors in society come together in actions to protect and promote social well-being and guarantee social justice.

(Poster image: Pixabay)

Suggested Readings

1. Bavel, J. J. V. et al. Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response. Nat. Hum. Behav. 4, 460–471 (2020).

2. Bavel, J. J. V. & Pereira, A. The Partisan Brain: An Identity-Based Model of Political Belief. Trends Cogn. Sci. 22, 213–224 (2018).

3. Boggio, P. S. Science and education are essential to Brazil’s well-being. Nat. Hum. Behav. 3, 648–649 (2019).

4. Nussbaum, M. C.  The monarchy of fear: A philosopher looks at our political crisis. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2018. 

5. Spring, V. L., Cameron, C. D. & Cikara, M. The Upside of Outrage. Trends Cogn. Sci. 22, 1067–1069 (2018).

6. Parkinson, C., Kleinbaum, A. M. & Wheatley, T. Similar neural responses predict friendship. Nat. Commun. 9, 332 (2018).

Go to the profile of Paulo Boggio

Paulo Boggio

Professor, Social and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Mackenzie Presbyterian University

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