Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 30, Issue 4, pp 597–608 | Cite as

Empathy and morality

  • Jessica IsserowEmail author
Review Essay


Many of us will find it intuitive that there exists an important link between the ability to feel for others on the one hand and the ability to care for them and attend to their needs on the other—that is, between a capacity for empathy and a capacity for morality. But spelling out the details is hard to do. Not only must we say something about what having these distinct capacities amounts to; there is also the problem of specifying how precisely empathy enables morality. Does empathy provide cognitive or epistemic support, insofar as it enhances a person’s moral sensibilities? Or does it simply provide motivational support by way of raising the likelihood of morally praiseworthy behaviour? We may also ask questions in the other direction: to what extent (if any) does a capacity for morality implicate or enhance a capacity for empathy?

While empirical research can shed light on these questions, studies to date have been hampered by a theoretical slipperiness in the...



I am very grateful to Victoria McGeer and Edward Elliott for insightful comments on a previous draft of this essay.


  1. Blair R, Colledge E, Mitchell D (2001) Somatic markers and response reversal: is there orbitofrontal cortex dysfunction in boys with psychopathic tendencies? J Abnorm Child Psychol 29:499–511CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Damasio A (1994) Descartes’ error: emotion, rationality and the human brain. Putnam, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  3. de Vignemont F, Frith U (2008) Autism, morality and empathy. In: Sinnott-Armstrong W (ed) Moral psychology, volume 3: The Neuroscience of Morality: emotion, brain disorders, and development. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 281–296Google Scholar
  4. de Waal F (2006) Primates and philosophers: How morality evolved. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  5. Elliott C (1992) Diagnosing blame: responsibility and the psychopath. J Med Philos 17:199–214CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Fine C, Kennett J (2004) Mental impairment, moral understanding and criminal responsibility: psychopathy and the purposes of punishment. Int J Law Psychiatry 27:425–443CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Flack JC, de Waal F (2000) Any animal whatever: darwinian building blocks of morality in monkeys and apes. J Consciousness Stud 7:1–29Google Scholar
  8. Glannon W (1997) Psychopathy and responsibility. J Appl Philos 14:263–275CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Hare R (1993) Without conscience: the disturbing world of psychopaths among us. Pocket Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  10. Joyce R (2006) The evolution of morality. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  11. Kennett J (2002) Autism, empathy and moral agency. Philos Quart 52:340–357CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Kohlberg L (1981) Essays on moral development, Vol. I: The philosophy of moral development. Harper & Row, San FranciscoGoogle Scholar
  13. Korsgaard C (2006) Morality and the distinctiveness of human action. In: Macedo S, Ober J (eds) Primates and philosophers: how morality evolved. Princeton University Press, Princeton, pp 98–119Google Scholar
  14. Maibom H (2005) Moral unreason: the case of psychopathy. Mind Lang 20:237–257CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. McGeer V (2008a) Varieties of moral agency: lessons from autism (and psychopathy). In: Sinnott-Armstrong W (ed) Moral psychology, volume 3: the neuroscience of morality: emotion, brain disorders, and development. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 227–257Google Scholar
  16. McGeer V (2008b) The makings of a moral sensibility: replies to commentaries. In: Sinnott-Armstrong W (ed) Moral psychology, volume 3: The Neuroscience of Morality: emotion, brain disorders, and development. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 281–296Google Scholar
  17. Mei-Tal M (2004) The criminal responsibility of psychopathic offenders. Israel Law Rev 36:103–121Google Scholar
  18. Prinz J (2011) Against empathy. South J Philos 49:214–233CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Smith M (1994) The moral problem. Basil Blackwell, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  20. Williams B (1976) Persons, Character and Morality. Reprinted in B. Williams, Moral Luck. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 1–19Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

Personalised recommendations