Motivation and Emotion

, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 151–172

Empathy and justice motivation

  • Martin L. Hoffman


Empathic distress is defined as an aversive feeling contingent on another's physical, emotional, or economic distress. The paper (1) summarizes a developmental scheme consisting of four stages of empathic distress; (2) suggests that causal attributions may partly transform empathic distress into sympathy, empathic anger, feeling of injustice, and guilt feeling; (3) notes the evidence that these empathic affects often serve to motivate moral behavior, and therefore that they qualify as moral motives; (4) points up limitations of these affects/motives and the need to embed them in justice principles; (5) discusses links between empathic affects/motives and principles of distributive justice/ (6) argues that Rawls' theory of justice, which excludes empathy, may nevertheless require it for the “difference principle” to influence behavior in real life; (7) hypothesizes a functional equivalence between empathy and the “veil of ignorance”; and (8) speculates that the conjunction of empathic affect and justice-principle thinking — in life and in abstract didactic contexts like Rawls' “original position” — may produce a principle having the motivational and stabilizing properties of a “hot cognition.”


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Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • Martin L. Hoffman
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyNew York UniversityNew York

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