Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 15, Issue 3, pp 403–419 | Cite as

Empathy, Shared Intentionality, and Motivation by Moral Reasons



Internalists about reasons generally insist that if a putative reason, R, is to count as a genuine normative reason for a particular agent to do something, then R must make a rational connection to some desire or interest of the agent in question. If internalism is true, but moral reasons purport to apply to agents independently of the particular desires, interests, and commitments they have, then we may be forced to conclude that moral reasons are incoherent. Richard Joyce (2001) develops an argument along these lines. Against this view, I argue that we can make sense of moral reasons as reasons that apply to, and are capable of motivating, agents independently of their prior interests and desires. More specifically, I argue that moral agents, in virtue of their capacities for empathy and shared intentionality, are sensitive to reasons that do not directly link up with their pre-existing ends. In particular, they are sensitive to, and hence can be motivated by, reasons grounded in the desires, projects, commitments, concerns, and interests of others. Moral reasons are a subset of this class of reasons to which moral agents are sensitive. Thus, moral agents can be motivated by moral reasons, even where such reasons fail to link up to their own pre-existing ends.


Empathy Shared intentionality Moral reasons Moral motivation Internalism Externalism 


  1. Arpaly N (2003) Unprincipled virtue. New York, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  2. Blair RJ (1995) A cognitive developmental approach to morality: investigating the psychopath. Cognition 57(1):1–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Blair RJR (2008) Fine cuts of empathy and the amygdala: dissociable deficits in psychopathy and autism. Q J Exp Psychol 61(1):157–170CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Darwall S (1983) Impartial reason. Cornell, IthacaGoogle Scholar
  5. De Waal FBM (2008) Putting the altruism back into altruism: the evolution of empathy. Annu Rev Psychol 59:279–300CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Dolan M, Fullam R (2004) Theory of mind and mentalizing ability in antisocial personality disorders with and without psychopathy. Psychol Med 34:1093–1102CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Finlay S (2006) The reasons that matter. Australas J Philos 84:1–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Gewirth A (1978) Reason and morality. Chicago University Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  9. Gibbard A (1990) Wise choices, apt feelings: a theory of normative judgment. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  10. Gilbert M (1989) On social facts. Routledge, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  11. Goldman AH (2005) Reasons internalism. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 71(3): 505–532Google Scholar
  12. Haidt J, Kesebir S (2010) Morality. In: Fiske S, Gilbert D, Lindzey G (eds) Handbook of social psychology, 5th edn. Wiley, Hoboken, pp 797–832Google Scholar
  13. Hoffman M (2000) Empathy and moral development: implications for justice and caring. Cambridge University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  14. Hourdequin M (2005) Nature and normativity: biology, culture, and the evolution of ethical norms. Dissertation, Duke UniversityGoogle Scholar
  15. Joyce R (2001) The myth of morality. Cambridge University Press, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Kennett J (2002) Autism, empathy, and moral agency. Phil Q 52(208):340–357CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Krahn T, Fenton A (2009) Autism, empathy, and questions of moral agency. J Theor Soc Behav 39(2):145–166CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Mackie JL (1991) Ethics: inventing right and wrong. Penguin, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  19. McDowell J (1998) Might there be external reasons? In: Mind, value, and reality. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.Google Scholar
  20. Nagel T (1970) The possibility of altruism. Clarendon, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  21. Schmid B (2005) Beyond self-goal choice: Amartya Sen’s analysis of the structure of commitment and the role of shared desires. Econ Philos 21:51–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Searle J (1995) The construction of social reality. Free Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  23. Sen A (1985) Goals, commitment, and identity. J Law Econ Org 1(2):341–355Google Scholar
  24. Sen A (1997) Maximization and the act of choice. Econometrica 65(4):745–779CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Sen A (2005) Why exactly is commitment important for rationality? Econ Philos 21:5–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Slote M (2007) The ethics of care and empathy. Routledge, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  27. Tomasello M (2001) The cultural origins of human cognition. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  28. Tomasello M (2008) Origins of human communication. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  29. Tomasello M, Carpenter M (2007) Shared intentionality. Dev Sci 10:121–125CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Tomasello M, Rakoczy H (2003) What makes human cognition unique? From individual to shared to collective intentionality. Mind Lang 18(2):121–147Google Scholar
  31. Tomasello M, Carpenter M, Call J, Behne T, Moll H (2005) Understanding and sharing of intentions: the origins of cultural cognition. Behav Brain Sci 68:675–735Google Scholar
  32. Vaish A, Carpenter M, Tomasello M (2010) Young children selectively avoid helping people with harmful intentions. Child Dev. 81(6):1661–1669Google Scholar
  33. Williams B (1981) Internal and external reasons. In: Moral luck. Cambridge, New York.Google Scholar
  34. Wong D (2006) Moral reasons internal and external. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 72(3):536–558CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Wong D (2007) Natural moralities: a defense of pluralistic relativism. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  36. Wong D (2008) Constructing normative objectivity in ethics. Soc Philos Pol 25(1):237–266Google Scholar
  37. Wong D (2009) Emotion and the cognition of moral reasons. Philos Issues 19(1):343–367CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyColorado CollegeColorado SpringsUSA

Personalised recommendations