Helping one's family rather than one's neighbours does not shock anyone, similarly helping one's compatriots preferentially over foreigners is often accepted. We provide expensive help to people local to us with relatively minor problems, but in some cases not even life-preserving help like food and water to people with much bigger problems in distant places. An example might be medical funding for minor or lifestyle illnesses, while a vaccine against river-blindness caused by onchocerciasis parasite is barely researched (none currently exists, similarly to a malaria vaccine).

Another recent example, is European countries being relatively far more welcoming of Ukrainian refugees (European/Slav) than they have been of Syrian ones (Middle Eastern/Arab), as has been the case especially in Britain despite direct involvement of the British state in the rise of Daesh/Islamic State.

Ethical theories usually universalise, talking about what are moral actions in all cases, without discriminating between people in those cases based on where they live, or how like us they are.

Are there theories of moral philosophy that can help us explain and understand this?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 19, 2022 at 7:00
  • 1
    Just to be clear: There are enough descriptive ethical theories out there which affirm the described phenomenon of the extent of ethical practice being correlated with the degree of personal relatedness. This could be contrasted with more normative approaches in an answer. Basically, it comes down to empirical psychology vs. moral theory.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 19, 2022 at 7:11

3 Answers 3


Assuming it was somehow natural or accepted for humans to favor certain humans over others, it would be the is-ought gap fallacy to argue that this is therefore moral behavior.

Such ethical problems are considered in variants of the trolley problem, or the lifeboat dilemma https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lifeboat_ethics or similar issues around triaging a group of patients where only a limited number can be saved.

Ethically it is not allowed to restrict or extend the rights of people based on gender, race, age, religion, and so on. It is also illegal in many countries for organizations of the state to explicitly discriminate that way. Typically it is viable to triage in such a way to maximize something like the number of people saved, or eliminate wasted efforts.

However, nations and organizations can to some degree still act that way when preferring to help some nationals more than other nationals in trade contracts, cooperations or economic aids. This is still immoral, but much harder to decide, control and fix.

However in psychology it is known that humans feel stronger bonds to people with whom they share some properties, and so we "understand" if people make such choices to some degree, even if it remains immoral or illegal. Philosophically there are no reasons why such psychological tendencies should impact moral judgement.

  • "Legally and morally it is not allowed" Many legal systems have discriminated, Nazism, Apartheid, Jim Crow laws. Many still do, explicitly or tacitly. Specific countries have arrived at specific provisions for specific reasons, & appealing to the places you know as normative doesn't make a case .
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 20, 2022 at 3:09
  • @CriglCragl: Fair enough, I should qualify. I was not trying to use legal systems as normative for morality, but I admit the way I wrote can make it look like that.
    – tkruse
    Mar 20, 2022 at 5:54

It isn't necessarily discrimination to have a preference for those closer to you or that you know better. Racism would require say not helping African immigrants in your own country, or those of African descent. Also, you could compare whether white people not in Europe, are being treated differently, identifying whether differential treatment is about relative locality.

Peter Singer works through many relevant thought-experiments in his book The Life You Can Save, like the drowning child in a pond example. He arrives at the idea everyone should give 1% of income to charity, and use impartial criteria yo direct this as effectively as possible. This basically amounts to the school of thought Bill Gates and others subscribe to, Effective Altruism. There are many criticisms of this approach as oversimplifying, for instance it basically says everyone should give money toward eliminating malaria because it's such a big killer, but we need a mix of strategies and some kind of coordination. And, those we understand better we can judge how to help better - tacit knowledge is crucial, and like say in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria and Libya without it attempts to 'help' can be worse than useless.

Singer in his book The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology, more convincingly makes the case moral progress has been a process of expanding our concern for the wellbeing of others. The case against racial and gender inequality was not just about the wellbeing of those impacted by say unequal laws, but about the effects of enacting and believing in those laws on those in power upholding them. We understand those who treat others fairly, eg based on evidence rather than prejudice, as more moral. And, we seem to find a society of people who choose that direction coincidentally is more creative and productive, as people with talents and ideas get to work on developing them regardless of birth. Singer makes the case that expanding moral concern to animals based on their capacities rather than prejudgement, is also moral progress. And he successfully campaigned for enhanced rights for dolphins and chimps. Exactly why this model of 'moral progress' is appealing is more complex, I think.

Rawls' theory of justice works from imagining all human situations are shuffled behind 'a veil of ignorance', and we should structure society imagining we can't know who's circumstance we would be born into. In this way of thinking, society is the transpersonal thing alloting situations, and each and every person has a deep human similarity at birth, in which they find themselves encountering society's decisions. Too late for most of us, we see how we could restructure siciety to be more just, to better serve future babies that are emerging from a true 'veil of ignorance', and by believing in justice ourselves they will hopefully have a better time, after our reforms.

I link together these ideas, of expanding our circle of concern, and creating a more just world, with our conceptual thinking being underpinned by intersubjectivity, here: Is the Categorical Imperative Simply Bad Math? :) That is, the mechanism of the appeal of Singer & Rawls theories, and of justice itself, is I think in facilitating a world in which we readily invite each other, into each others minds and situations, and so expand our minds, and our shared reality.

So that all sounds great (I hope!), we can see what justice is. Should we just overturn all previous history and accept fraternity with all humans and animals? Unfortunately, it can't be that simple.

We emerged from genes, from the replication of replicators, and they have different concerns from our minds, our meme-machines. Justice is a meme, or a meme-complex. Social insects and slime-moulds helped us to understand that kin-selection, helping closely related others even at cost of individual reproduction, can point a direction away from only genes being the unit of selection. Multi-level selection, in which both individual and group selection come to be important, can be understood as potentially leading to eusociality, a set of traits that lead to prioritising hive or pack well-being, and encompasses both social insects and hominid development. That is, it points from genes towards genes+memes.

But even including this group selection (while not discounting gene selection), that still involves a fitness landscape that chooses between groups for groups to get better. If all the ants just accept universal brotherhood, ant evolution ends. And worse, it makes sense in terms of replication of replicators, ie genes, for some ants to benefit from the group, without supporting it. This, is the free-rider problem. And we can understand it in humans, in relation to the idea of the social contract, discussed here: Is the tyrannicide perpetrated by William Tell morally legitimate? We bind together in groups, as tribes, nations, cultures, around a set of values, and there are costs and benefits. People get pretty stressed when new people want the benefits, but refuse the costs - they are being free-riders, and the stress is because they risk destabilising the group.

Sociologist Durkheim provided the first picture of what religious practice is, that could encompass shamanism, Shinto, Vedic Hinduism, Confucianism, Zen, without as had previously been the case just seeing them as faltering steps on the road to Abrahamic faiths. Discussed here: What are the origins and evolution of mythology/religions? In this view sacred values, like say habeus corpus, the right to not be imprisoned without trial, aren't just metaphorically sacred, they are literally sacred, put beyond question, and bind together a community that holds them - challenge the value, challenge the cohesion of the group. There are costs, and benefits: join for the benefits and you have to take the costs, and if those that don't accept the costs aren't rejected or constrained, the coherence of the group risks being lost. Free-riders can be from above or below, governments and authoritarians, or people joining a society on low 'rungs' who refuse to accept defining cultural values.

The examples racists point to are things like wanting to be subject to Sharia law, though it's actually a complex area and there's a long history of Jewish communities working with a hybrid of Jewish courts for civil matters and law-of-the-land in criminal matters. Honour killing is really problematic, and opposed to core values about the sanctity of life, but it is widely condemned as not in accordance with Sharia law.

Less mentioned, but I think recently brought to focus, are the cases of Russia and China and Saudi Arabia not having habeus corpus. It has a hugely corrosive effect, that I think can reasonably be said to challenge coherence of the global community, when developed nations and major economies don't uphold it. The threat of disappearance, or assassination, undermines the whole concept of rule-of-law, of a system in which case-law and precedent can allow dilemmas to be solved progressively better, and with more sophistication as challenges arise. Instead subjects to arbitrary detention have to self-censor, constantly guessing where unwritten lines might be crossed.

That doesn't mean racism doesn't exist, humans have many cognitive biases and a major role for philosophy is to challenge them, especially atavisms like racism. But, we can understand that being more welcoming of people with shared core values, fits with avoiding free-rider problems that can risk destabilising communities, but also note those dangers are very often over-hyped (eg see the Rivers Of Blood speech).

In the international community too, it is essential to be clear core values around rule-of-law and sanctity-of-life, are critical to the 'buy in' of that global community. Making excuses when people are poisoned abroad or disappear by action of these states, because there is money to be made, just stores up trouble, for everyone.


If you're asking reasons on why it is right to do, then I can give a pretty simple answer. It is because often good behavior at an Individual level translates to good behavior for society as a whole in general.

In these days, we live in an interconnected world and we may never know when we need a neighbors or others help. Hence, it's always best to be polite and help.

The question mentions immigration, and usually the people immigrating into the country in some case is a good choice. Consider this talk by Michio Kaku on the American School system and effectiveness of H1B Visa.

One more point I feel worth mentioning is that a state with high social benefits (eg: European countries) depends highly on there being people who can do work. Currently most of their populations are shrinking, so it makes sense for them to immigrate. See this question I asked on politics.

A perhaps controversial angle one could take from biology for the question "who should be helped?" is from the idea of kin selection:

Kin altruism can look like altruistic behaviour whose evolution is driven by kin selection. Kin selection is an instance of inclusive fitness, which combines the number of offspring produced with the number an individual can ensure the production of by supporting others, such as siblings. wiki

  • Might be worth noting this free game which goes over how different approaches to 'trust' survive in face of others [perhaps a bad description]
    – Babu
    Mar 20, 2022 at 10:05

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