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The thing about moral judgment is that it concerns itself with the relative quality of agents – and the place in which it finds such “quality,” or its lack, is the agential self: the person. This is not a “place” in any physical sense, of course, neither “in the head” nor in the brain, but in what we sometimes call, in ordinary language, the mind.

But, it will be objected, minds aren’t real things in the sense that brains and skulls are, for these latter items are found in this or that place, with such and such dimensions, etc., etc., but mind is an abstraction, a way of talking about one’s subjective life, the subjective aspect of one’s experiences. This is certainly so, but the notion that we have minds, and that we recognize them in others, is a fact for us. It’s part of our way of operating in the world.

Taking this tack may leave us open to various fanciful descriptions about what minds are though – souls? spirits? monadic entities? – but none of that is necessary to recognize that we use the word “mind” for the subjective aspect of our lives and for the subjective lives of others. That others have a subjective aspect seems undeniable – unless, of course, you’re a solipsist.

But putting value on such things as minds is not going to be about looking inside another’s head to access his or her mental life, as if there were some physical object to acquire or pursue because what we know of others’ minds is, in fact, known in their behaviors. And that is enough. We certainly don’t need telepathic powers to know what another thinks or wants or believes because they can tell us – or their actions show us. Of course they can deceive us, too, or be confused and so not really know themselves, not clearly anyway. Nevertheless, the capacity to know another’s mind and put some value on it isn’t constrained by questions of access. It’s achieved at least in part, however, by our capacity to conceptualize another’s situation, i.e., know the other’s case, in light of our own. And we do this because we recognize appropriate behaviors and can relate these to ourselves. That’s why it’s important to have a sense of the intentions, the motivations of others when we think about what’s going on with them.


When the infant opens its eyes and sees an adult smile at it, it often happens that it smiles back. How does it know to do that? Does it even have to know in order to do it? It’s how it’s made, after all, how it’s been programmed by genetics to react to certain stimuli in certain ways.

Does it think how happy it is and then decide to smile? Does the adult?

Smiling and a whole host of other behavioral responses are just the sorts of things we do, seemingly programmed into us. Sometimes thoughts will accompany the things we’re doing but not invariably for we can smile unthinkingly, too.

We build a robot with a human face and give it the movement capabilities to smile on appropriate cues. There is no superficial difference between the smiling person and the smiling robot then, assuming the cues are effectively followed and match what we would expect of humans’ actions in the same situations and that the robot in question is operating correctly. The whole effect can be quite convincing. But we still want to say that the infant and the other adult who smile at us have minds (to varying degrees, more so perhaps with the adult than the very young infant), while we would not want to say the same of the robot (at least until we have successfully built artificial brains with which to equip such entities and linked these to the smiling capabilities we have fitted the robot with).

What we readily grant as present in other creatures we recognize as being like ourselves, we will not grant, necessarily, to the strange entity represented by the robot.

We can be fooled by surface similarities in behavior though and, in principle, we can be fooled indefinitely – though this is unlikely, given the way the world is. After all, to match every possible stimulus with the kind of response behaviors other creatures like ourselves are capable of producing would ultimately require either a real person “pulling the strings” behind the scenes (or from somewhere inside the robot) or equipping our robot with programming that’s sufficient to achieve the kinds of things that occur in our mental lives which we find accompanying (and which often seems to prompt) the behavioral responses we make.

In either of these cases the reasonable conclusion would be that we weren’t really being fooled about the presence of mind in the robot after all – just, perhaps its nature because, in the first case we can see that there is, in fact, a mind at work (except that it’s not really a part of the robot) and, in the second, that there is, indeed, a mind though it’s not made of the same stuff as ours.


Empathy, the recognition of the experience of others, as if we ourselves were experiencing it, begins with similarities of behaviors of this sort, similarities sufficient to convince us that we are in the presence of another mind, behaviors which we seem to be “programmed” to recognize and react to. It’s a species tool, one may say, for enabling a certain level of interaction with others of our kind – and, sometimes, beyond our kind.

Many of us feel empathy for other animals (hence vegetarianism and movements against animal cruelty or animal experimentation). For those of us who have, or have kept, pets, feeling empathy for members of another species will not seem strange at all. Likewise, for many among us who will be accustomed to seeing robots cry or anguish in stories or in film – or extraterrestrials suffer. Empathy is not a trait that limits us to recognizing something of ourselves in our own kind only.

All that’s required is sufficient similarity so that the behaviors of the other will be comprehensible to us in terms that resonate in the right way.

An alien or robot that suffers, but which does not express it as we are accustomed to, will hardly prompt empathy in us. Nevertheless, we seem to be hardwired to empathize, to greater or lesser degree, with others, in cases where we can recognize the behaviors as manifesting a subjective life. And here is the issue from a moral perspective.


To the extent empathy is just one of a variety of characteristics and behavioral traits that we happen to inherit from our progenitors, it’s not a given that we all have it, or that we all have it to the same degree. Genes have been known to misfire or even drop out of individual members of a species and so the expressions of them are lost. To the extent empathy, which enables us to identify with others – to put ourselves in their shoes and so feel their pains and joys as if they were our own – is just an inherited trait, it cannot be praised nor, its absence, condemned.

Yet much of what we think of as moral behavior hangs on empathy, on not doing to another what we would not have done to us or, put another and slightly more parochial way, of treating our neighbors as ourselves.

These are useful social injunctions because abiding by them will serve to increase group accord and foster cooperative behavior, both valuable for the success and survival of social groups.

Being social animals our individual survival depends to a significant degree on the social group(s) within which we are enrolled. But empathy, in this sense, doesn’t appear to be something we can argue for, demonstrate that another must have if it turns out that they don’t – and this is damaging to empathy’s status as a basis for any moral standard.


To the extent moral claims are about giving reasons for the values we set on certain behaviors and not others, it’s hard to invoke empathy as a reason because it appears to be something you either have or don’t, but which you cannot be condemned for lacking if, as a matter of fact, you just happen to lack it. Or at least that is the superficial sense we get, at first glance. Empathy is a state in which we may find ourselves, a feeling or feelings we may have in a given situation vis a vis some other entity(ies), but it’s a state over which we appear to have no obvious control. You either have it or you don’t. You feel it or you don’t.

But is that true? And does it matter that something is a given among creatures like ourselves? After all, lots of things are given to us in this way. We also have the tendency to be aggressive in certain situations, the capacity to think conceptually, to calculate, etc., and, to the extent that these traits are hardwired into us, we can hardly be blamed for their lack, if we lack any of them, or if we have them only in limited degrees.

But we are not without the ability to enhance them either, if there are reasons to do so.


Moral judgments, including the claims that issue from them and seem to support them, take a variety of forms. They can be about taboo-like behaviors or about following the rules of a certain community within which we find ourselves. They can be about avoiding censure or something worse, or about seeking approbation. They always seem to be about the behaviors themselves though and not the things the behaviors make happen in the world.

Of course, the behaviors cannot be completely separated from what they happen to bring about. But it’s not in those outcomes that the values we ascribe to actions, the sort we call moral, seem to be found.

Moral value isn’t ascribed to any action based on its usefulness to the agent, even if moral actions can also be seen to be useful in a variety of ways. Usefulness cannot be the basis for the ascription of this kind of value because supporting it in such terms undermines its presumed moral status.


And yet religions often teach that good things will come to those who make the moral choice. We will go to heaven or reach nirvana or win the approval of others (priests? prophets? divinities?) whose approval counts. Such teachings open the possibility that choices which seem, on their face, to be non-moral or even immoral by some standards, may be rendered moral simply by a change of status conferred by a dictum from on high.

If killing or theft are thought morally reprehensible, then a change of mind by an appropriate authority could apparently change their moral status. If tomorrow God announced a change of mind concerning the slaughter of one’s neighbors and now authorized what he had previously condemned, must we now assume that what was once thought a bad thing has now become good?

If different cultures teach different divine viewpoints concerning particular kinds of moral choices, which one is correct? Do they share the same divine source but interpret it differently? Or do they look to conflicting divinities? Can a moral rule be changed on a whim, even if it is the whim of a divine lawgiver? If we are to have beliefs about moral values, must they not be independent of such possibilities? If not, how can moral claims be anything more than arbitrary dicta and so lose their peculiar status as morally good?


A glance at any set of moral rules in a society will often turn up a variety of different types of prescriptions and proscriptions. There are dress codes and various behavioral restrictions but these don’t seem to be of very great concern in and of themselves. While members of a particular community may feel a strong attachment to such taboo-like rules, they are not nearly as universal (appearing across many human moral codes) as the rules which frown on types of killing, theft, lying and so forth.

We justify the acceptance of taboos by subscription to particular cultures and acceptance of their particular narratives and so recognize a certain cultural specificity to these. We don’t expect others who do not subscribe to the same cultural standards, to behave as those who do. So whether a deity desires his adherents to eat certain types of food, or dress in certain ways, or to comport themselves in particular ways at certain times of the day and in certain places, or whether other members of the culture expect it, is not really the sort of question that must concern us.

Such behaviors may be associated with one’s moral beliefs, of course, but they are not of the same type as those which have a more universal standing and involve how we interact with other creatures like ourselves. In that case we do expect others to behave toward their fellows much as we do, despite the difference in cultural backgrounds. Proscriptions on illicit killing, theft, telling falsehoods, betraying a confidence, etc., have a universal patina which we do not find nor do we expect in matters which reflect certain kinds of personal choices.

And in the case of these kinds of universal standards we want to know if there are any reasons we should, in fact, accept them and if we have a right to expect others to do so as well – and, if so, why.


What part then can empathy play in this? As a hardwired trait that most of us (though perhaps not all) have to varying degrees, it seems to offer little in the way of justification for following these seemingly trans-cultural rules of behavior. Yet a close examination of the kinds of rules we’re considering here suggests that it is empathy, or the demand that we have and employ it, that plays a significant role in such behavioral choices.

It frequently happens, when we’re asked to follow such rules, that the reason we’re given for making the decision to do so is a prompt that urges us to think about how we would feel if the thing we’re about to do, or wished to do, were done to us.

Here is the well-known “Golden Rule” of the Bible (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) and its Talmudic predecessor (“Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you”). It’s also a common response we give to children and sometimes to our fellow adults when we suggest they think about how they would feel before acting in certain ways. The ability to imaginatively enter into the other’s situation plays a powerful part in the teaching and rationale for the kinds of behaviors which seem central to the enterprise of moral valuing. It’s the same rule, too, that Kant set out to justify as being rationally inarguable when he proposed that it has the status of a “categorical imperative”, i.e., that it’s inherently rational to think about the universalization of any action we propose to undertake, whether or not, in fact, we actually stand at risk of having what we intend to do, done, at the same time or afterwards, to us.

Fewer than a hundred and fifty years ago Americans fought a ferocious civil war in large part over the continuation of the institution of slavery, an institution which had been in place at the founding of the republic and had been globally accepted for centuries earlier. What heralded the change can be at least partly ascribed to empathy, as those engaged in maintaining the institution of slavery, whether directly or merely indirectly, came increasingly to recognize in the enslaved population, people like themselves. Books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which portrayed the slaves as human beings, who suffered because of their condition, affected how a large part of the American population came to feel about slavery. While there were other factors driving the Civil War, including the economic changes in large parts of the country which rendered slavery less profitable in those sections, it’s certainly arguable that the increasing awareness of the fellow humanity of the slaves themselves, on the part of large segments of the non-slave population, an awareness which arose through decades of close contact between the populations, significantly contributed to the change in attitude which marked the rejection of slavery and which the Civil War was fought, in large part, to effect.

Years later, in the wake of widespread discrimination against the former slave population in parts of the country, the advent of television, which served to humanize the population that suffered from discrimination, while showing the cruelties of the discriminators, again worked to change the overall perception and attitudes of large segments of the American population. Arguments against segregation, just as the ones against slavery, often focused less on appeals to abstract rules or authority and more on the situation of those who were oppressed. Indeed, it was this kind of emotional appeal to empathy that finally seemed to triumph over legalisms and rational arguments since reasons can be, and often are, routinely adduced for both sides of the debate and those on either side could produce enough to rationalize their own positions. Significantly, we remember the powerful emotional appeals of Abraham Lincoln from the time of the Civil War and Martin Luther King in the civil rights struggle of the 1950’s and 60’s as the motivating arguments which ultimately triumphed in both cases.

Moral arguments for or against certain behaviors often do seem to rest, finally, on the injunction to put yourself in the others’ shoes. Empathy plays a powerful role. The question then is whether it’s merely an adjunct to the potency of moral claims we make or whether it finds its place at the very core of those claims.

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