Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 30, Issue 5, pp 671–690 | Cite as

Empathy and morality in behaviour readers

  • Susana MonsóEmail author


It is tempting to assume that being a moral creature requires the capacity to attribute mental states to others, because a creature cannot be moral unless she is capable of comprehending how her actions can have an impact on the well-being of those around her. If this assumption were true, then mere behaviour readers could never qualify as moral, for they are incapable of conceptualising mental states and attributing them to others. In this paper, I argue against such an assumption by discussing the specific case of empathy. I present a characterisation of empathy that would not require an ability to attribute mental states to others, but would nevertheless allow the creature who possessed it to qualify as a moral being. Provided certain conditions are met, a behaviour reader could be motivated to act by this form of empathy, and this means that behaviour readers could be moral. The case for animal morality, I shall argue, is therefore independent of the case for animal mindreading.


Empathy Morality Moral emotions Nonhuman animals Behaviour reading Mindreading/theory of mind 



This work was supported by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, under Grants BES-2012-052504 and FFI2011-23267. I would also like to thank Kristin Andrews, Álex Díaz, José A. Gascón, Javier González de Prado, Mark Rowlands, Cristian Saborido, Kim Sterelny, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions. Additionally, this material benefitted from discussion at the 2013 SEFA and SIFA meetings, as well as the IV PBCS workshop.


  1. Andrews K (2005) Chimpanzee theory of mind: looking in all the wrong places? Mind Lang 20(5):521–536. doi: 10.1111/j.0268-1064.2005.00298.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Andrews K (2012) Do apes read minds? Toward a new folk psychology. The MIT Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  3. Andrews K (2013) Great ape mindreading: what’s at stake? In: Lanjouw A, Corbey R (eds) Humans and other animals: rethinking the species interface. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 115–125Google Scholar
  4. Batson CD (2009) These things called empathy: eight related but distinct phenomena. In: Decety J, Ickes W (eds) The social neuroscience of empathy. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 3–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bekoff M (2008) The emotional lives of animals: a leading scientist explores animal joy, sorrow, and empathy—and why they matter (First Trade Paper Edition). New World Library, NovatoGoogle Scholar
  6. Bekoff M, Pierce J (2010) Wild justice: the moral lives of animals. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  7. Blackburn S (1993) Essays in quasi-realism. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  8. Buckner C (2014) The semantic problem(s) with research on animal mindreading. Mind Lang 29(5):566–589CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Call J, Tomasello M (2008) Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? 30 years later. Trends Cognit Sci 12(5):187–192. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2008.02.010 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Carr L, Iacoboni M, Dubeau M-C, Mazziotta JC, Lenzi GL (2003) Neural mechanisms of empathy in humans: a relay from neural systems for imitation to limbic areas. Proc Natl Acad Sci 100(9):5497–5502. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0935845100 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Dapretto M, Davies MS, Pfeifer JH, Scott AA, Sigman M, Bookheimer SY, Iacoboni M (2006) Understanding emotions in others: mirror neuron dysfunction in children with autism spectrum disorders. Nat Neurosci 9(1):28–30. doi: 10.1038/nn1611 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Davidson D (2001) Rational Animals. Oxford University Press, In Subjective, Intersubjective, ObjectiveCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. De Vignemont F, Jacob P (2012) What is it like to feel another’s pain? Philos Sci 79(2):295–316. doi: 10.1086/664742 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. De Vignemont F, Singer T (2006) The empathic brain: how, when and why? Trends Cognit Sci 10(10):435–441. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2006.08.008 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. De Waal FBM (2006) Morally evolved: primate social instincts, human morality, and the rise and fall of “veneer theory”. In: Ober J, Macedo S (eds) Primates and philosophers: how morality evolved. Princeton University Press, Princeton, pp 1–82Google Scholar
  16. De Waal FBM (2008) Putting the altruism back into altruism: the evolution of empathy. Annu Rev Psychol 59:279–300. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093625 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. DeGrazia D (1996) Taking animals seriously: mental life and moral status. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Di Pellegrino G, Fadiga L, Fogassi L, Gallese V, Rizzolatti G (1992) Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study. Exp Brain Res 91(1):176–180CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Dixon BA (2008) Animals, emotion & morality: marking the boundary. Prometheus Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  20. Gallagher S, Povinelli DJ (2012) Enactive and behavioral abstraction accounts of social understanding in chimpanzees, infants, and adults. Rev Philos Psychol 3(1):145–169CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Goldman AI (2006) Simulating minds: the philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of mindreading, 1st edn. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hauser M (2001) Wild minds: what animals really think, New Ed edn. Penguin Books, LondonGoogle Scholar
  23. Heyes C (1998) Theory of mind in nonhuman primates. Behav Brain Sci 21(1):101–114; discussion 115–148Google Scholar
  24. Jabbi M, Swart M, Keysers C (2007) Empathy for positive and negative emotions in the gustatory cortex. NeuroImage 34(4):1744–1753. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2006.10.032 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kennett J (2002) Autism, empathy and moral agency. Philos Q 52(208):340–357. doi: 10.1111/1467-9213.00272 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Korsgaard CM (2004) Fellow creatures: Kantian ethics and our duties to animals. In: Peterson G (ed) Tanner lectures on human values, vol 25/26. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake CityGoogle Scholar
  27. Korsgaard CM (2006) Morality and the distinctiveness of human action. In: Macedo S, Ober J (eds) Primates and philosophers: how morality evolved. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  28. Lurz RW (2009) If chimpanzees are mindreaders, could behavioral science tell? Toward a solution of the logical problem. Philos Psychol 22(3):305–328. doi: 10.1080/09515080902970673 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Lurz RW (2011) Mindreading animals: the debate over what animals know about other minds. MIT Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Maibom HL (2009) Feeling for others: empathy, sympathy, and morality. Inquiry 52(5):483–499CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Masserman J, Wechkin S, Terris W (1964) “Altruistic” behaviour in rhesus monkeys. Am J Psychiatry 121(6):584–585CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Michael J (2014) Towards a consensus about the role of empathy in interpersonal understanding. Topoi 33(1):157–172. doi: 10.1007/s11245-013-9204-9 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. O’Connell SM (1995) Empathy in chimpanzees: evidence for theory of mind? Primates 36(3):397–410. doi: 10.1007/BF02382862 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Panksepp J (2004) Affective neuroscience: the foundations of human and animal emotions, 1st edn. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  35. Penn DC, Povinelli DJ (2007) On the lack of evidence that non-human animals possess anything remotely resembling a “theory of mind”. Philos Trans R Soc Lond Ser B Biol Sci 362(1480):731–744. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2006.2023 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Penn DC, Povinelli DJ (2013) The comparative delusion: the “behavioristic”/“mentalistic” dichotomy in comparative theory of mind research. In: Terrace HA, Metcalfe J (eds) Agency and joint attention. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 62–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Penn DC, Holyoak KJ, Povinelli DJ (2008) Darwin’s mistake: explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. Behav Brain Sci 31(2):109–130; discussion 130–178. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X08003543
  38. Povinelli DJ (1998) Can animals empathize? Maybe not. Sci Am 9:67–75Google Scholar
  39. Povinelli DJ, Vonk J (2003) Chimpanzee minds: suspiciously human? Trends Cognit Sci 7(4):157–160CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Povinelli DJ, Vonk J (2004) We don’t need a microscope to explore the chimpanzee’s mind. Mind Lang 19(1):1–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Preston SD, de Waal FBM (2002) Empathy: its ultimate and proximate bases. Behav Brain Sci 25(1):1–20; discussion 20–71Google Scholar
  42. Prinz J (2011) Is empathy necessary for morality? In: Coplan A, Goldie P (eds) Empathy: philosophical and psychological perspectives. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 211–229CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Regan T (2004) The case for animal rights. University of California Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  44. Rizzolatti G, Craighero L (2004) The mirror-neuron system. Annu Rev Neurosci 27:169–192. doi: 10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144230 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Rowlands M (2002) Animals like us, 1st edn. Verso, LondonGoogle Scholar
  46. Rowlands M (2009) Animal rights: moral theory and practice, 2nd edn. Palgrave Macmillan, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  47. Rowlands M (2012) Can animals be moral?. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Stich SP (1979) Do animals have beliefs? Australas J Philos 57:15–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Tschudin A (2006) Dumb animals, deaf humans? In: Hurley S, Nudds M (eds) Rational animals?. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 413–438CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Wechkin S, Masserman J, Terris W (1964) Shock to a conspecific as an aversive stimulus. Psychon Sci 1:17–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Wispé L (1986) The distinction between sympathy and empathy: to call forth a concept, a word is needed. J Pers Soc Psychol 50(2):314–321. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.50.2.314
  52. Zahavi D, Overgaard S (2012) Empathy without isomorphism: a phenomenological account. In: Decety J (ed) Empathy: from bench to bedside. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 3–20Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Logic, History and Philosophy of ScienceUniversidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED)MadridSpain

Personalised recommendations