Why we developed ethics: a half-baked, more-of-a-thought-than-but-I’ll-still-call-it-a theory

I have a small theory about why we developed ethics. I am sure this has been brought up and developed somewhere by people far smarter than me (the connection between the two has been explored quite a bit), but I thought it worth writing out here. (I mean, what is a blog for if not a space to write out mundane thoughts that are by no means original, a space to put my thoughts to keep them from rattling around in my brain space at night?)

I bet if we were able to trace either in human history and psychology, we would see that the development of The Theory of Mind (as experienced by humans, not the development of the theory itself) runs in parallel with the development of ethics (again, ethics as lived, not as developed into an articulated theory).

The Theory of Mind is the rather technical term for the ability of neurotypical people to ascribe, assume, or recognize cognitive states like beliefs, desires, intentions, and emotions to other people. Basically, it’s our ability to recognize other people as people, people like the people we recognize ourselves as being. It could be described as our capacity for empathy, (though I don’t think that’s QUITE precise enough to be a satisfying explanation).

I think humans are ethical, in part, because we have capacity to “access” other minds. In seeing other people as beings affected psychologically by events in the world in the same way we’re affected, with a complex set of desires/thoughts/beliefs/intentions, our experience is not the only experience we have access to. We are able to see not just how we feel about a situation, but about how others feel.

For those who have a healthy empathic capacity, our Theory of Mind means that any experience is no longer just our own isolated experience but an experience of others’ emotional and psychological experiences, as well (at least, it includes an experience of what we think and imagine others are going through).

The way humans thus thought about the goodness or badness of situations became not just about how it affects them as individuals, but was balanced by the way it affected others, as well, once they were psychologically evolved enough to have a Theory of Mind. I wonder if it is the accounting for and working out of that balance that led to us developing ethics – rules (stated or no) for living well towards and with others.

Without the theory of mind, without an accompanying empathy, we wouldn’t have ethics. Famously, people without empathy (sociopaths and psychopaths) lack what we generally consider to be a moral code. They pursue only the benefit that accrues to them, however small, refusing to sacrifice anything of theirs for the good and benefit of others.

I think there’s an interesting anthropological, historical connection to be made between our capacity for ethical thinking and behavior and our capacity to “access” other minds and ascribe to others the same capacity for and tendency towards rationality and feeling that we have. In a way, I imagine the development of ethics tracked early humans’ realization that “holy crap, the other beings around me are as complicated and as weakened as I am! Maybe we should set some rules around these parts.” AND THE SPARK OF ETHICS WAS LIT TO BE FANNED TO FLAME.

Love me some Peter Singer. He makes for some stellar poolside reading.


  1. When I read, “…“holy crap, the other beings around me are as complicated and as weakened as I am! Maybe we should set some rules around these parts.” AND THE SPARK OF ETHICS WAS LIT TO BE FANNED TO FLAME” I instantly thought you meant beings *other* than humans or protohumans or semi-hoomans.

    Next, I thought, “Didn’t stop us from killing them willy nilly, tho.”

    Next, I thought, “Hasn’t stopped us from killing each other willy nilly, tho.”

    Next, I thought, “The non-humans are more empathetic than we are.”

    And that was it. I had no more thoughts left to give. I’m thoughtless.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahaha! I have a feeling those thoughts were just the start of your thoughts (you, of all people I know, can NEVER be described as thoughtless!). And when you put it like that…. 😦 Isn’t wild how non-empathetic we humans are, considering that is an emotion we are particularly built for?! Like, it takes TRAINING to get that out of us.


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