Empathy and Reasons
January 13, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Categorical Imperative, Ethics, Ethics, Immanuel Kant, Kant, Moral Philosophy, Stuart Mirsky, Valuing, Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein, emotions, moral valuing

Wittgenstein pointed out that the search for justifications, for reasons, ultimately comes to an end. We can only dig so deeply and then, as he put it, our spade is turned. We can go no further. But valuing is a reason-giving game since in making any ascription of value we do so with reasons in mind. Not to have reasons leaves us without a basis for valuing the thing at all – in which case, even if our spade is turned at some point, it cannot be turned here, within the valuing game itself, or that game must collapse. Without the reasons we give others and ourselves – which reflect comparisons of different things, of different options, of different possibilities – value cannot be ascribed. Reasons are the explanations we give ourselves and others when called upon to justify what we do.

Understood in this way, valuing is the capacity to make such comparative assessments and report them as our reasons for acting, and this is fundamental to how we operate in the world as human beings – for we could not do so if we could not compare and contrast our options and choose from among them. And yet valuing is not basic in the way feelings and needs, and the beliefs and thoughts we have about these and about the world at large (which seem to underlie every value claim), are.

To the extent that valuing depends on these other features, it is part of our mental life, too, of course. That is, it’s one of the many things we do “in our heads” – even though it’s not as basic as feelings, needs, beliefs, thoughts, etc. That is, valuing depends on them, but they do not depend on our ability to value for we can have any of them without having the capacity to ascribe value just as many of the other creatures with which we share this planet do.

But we don’t only value “in our heads” for every action we take, which is the result of thought and deliberation at some level, expresses some valuation we have placed on something. In an important sense there is continuity between the thought, as desire, need or decision to act, on the one hand, and the performance of the action, on the other. The action expresses the thoughts which may be understood as the intentions that underlie it.


Many animal species have the basics of a mental life that we claim for ourselves, i.e., feelings and needs and experiences of things in their world. In many cases, even if only in a more limited sense, we can speak of at least some other animals as having beliefs, too. The monkey in the lab may believe its reward lies behind one barrier when, perhaps, it’s really behind another. Beliefs are not knowledge but things we think are the case and even many lower animals can have expectations about things that can be right or wrong, that is they have this primitive capacity to think.

On discovering that it has been fooled, the monkey may express its dismay in examples of very human-like behavior such as frustration. It may not have been able to say to others or itself that ‘that morsel I wanted was there and not here’ but its behavior evidences that it had held a belief about the missing morsel. Arguably many creatures have thoughts in a more general sense, too – particularly to the extent that all we mean by “thoughts” is the state or condition of having awareness of things. But having a mental life in this sense is not enough to constitute valuing.

Why don’t we say of such creatures that they also have values as we do? Why don’t they have the ability to assess value, put value on the things they’re aware of? It’s rather like Wittgenstein’s question about the dog and its master, isn’t it? “Why can’t a dog expect his master on Wednesday?” Wittgenstein asked, reminding us that the dog cannot even have a concept of Wednesday as opposed to any other day, cannot make distinctions between days at all as we do. A dog has no grasp of its world in such terms.

What the dog and most other animals lack, despite possessing awareness of the world around them (a level of awareness we also share, of course), is the ability to picture that world beyond the present moment and beyond the immediate environment in which they find themselves as we can. We typically think of the environment in which we find ourselves as part of larger spatial scenarios (our office is in a building which is in a place, like a town, and a still larger domain, perhaps a state or country which is, itself, situated on a continent or island somewhere on this planet. And the planet has a place in the solar system which is placed in a galaxy, a universe and so forth. Similarly, we think of this moment in which we are now placed as part of a stream of many moments reaching backwards and forwards from now into both past and future. We see our world, not merely in the raw immediacy of this moment as most animals experience it, but as part of a larger whole, reflecting our capacity to think in far more complex ways than the dog and all other animals we currently have knowledge of. We have the capacity to hold in our heads pictures of things that are not here, right now, before us, but are supposedly elsewhere or of moments that no longer are or are yet to be.

Of course, a great many of our fellow creatures are capable of acting as agents, if to act thus only means to act to satisfy some need or want, i.e., to initiate behavior based on some internal demand. But in addition to acting on this relatively limited level, we, perhaps uniquely in the animal kingdom (at least as far as we currently know), can and do act on the much larger stages of town and world and universe, of now and then. And so, unlike most of our fellow creatures, we have the ability to think about actions we’ve taken, or may yet take, in places we are not yet in, or can expect to be, or had once been in – and so we act in ways that will have an impact on, or be impacted by, factors outside the immediate environment and moment in which we find ourselves.


It’s this possibility of recognizing that we can be affected by elements of a far wider world, and that we can affect them, which obliges us to do more than just seek to satisfy momentary wants and needs. The need or want of the moment, as it occurs to us, is not seen by us as occurring in isolation but in terms of the implications which acting in accord with it, to satisfy it, will have on our past and present selves.

It’s precisely because we can visualize a wider world that we also find and realize ourselves within that world and so think about what actions we have taken or may take – and their implications. In this we move away from simple cause and effect explanations of behavior (the animal is stimulated thusly and responds thusly!) into the realm of reasons, of thinking about, and of choosing from an array of options – and reporting these choices to others and ourselves, i.e., to giving reasons.


Valuing is a relational exercise of placing things we can think about on various scales of measurement so that we may decide between them. Because we live in this wider world, we place value on the acts we may perform in it just as we value the things our acts may secure for us. Valuing is finally about choosing between different possibilities and acting upon them. But the actions we undertake are just as much things we can think about, and so ascribe value to, as are the things we take action to secure. Hence: the possibility of valuing actions as well as the things the actions are intended to secure.

Actions which are the result of deliberation and choice make manifest, in their occurrence, the values we ascribe to things and so, in a very real sense, may be understood as expressing those value decisions, as expressions of the values themselves.

But valuing, whatever else it is, isn’t a basic function of mental life in the way wanting, desiring and thinking about things are, for there can be mental life – the condition of having perceptions, feelings, needs, wants, etc. – without there also being the capacity to measure them along various comparative scales. Valuing requires these other, more basic features of mental life as its raw material to be sure. But, to the extent it consists of arranging this raw material into more complex mental features which we recognize as intentions, i.e., the motives which prompt our behaviors, it requires the capacity to organize the information in our head. The reasons which we give to others (or ourselves) about our actions are reports of these, our intentional thoughts.


Do we speak of a thing as good? Then what we are saying about it is that there’s something it has (some feature or element of which we are aware) which we also take as a reason to seek (and, if possible) obtain (or achieve) it. A value claim stands finally on the reasons we give for taking the action that expresses it. But the reasons we give will differ according to the things we are considering.

Sometimes our reasons may be as simple as an expression of a need or want. But sometimes, at some level of consideration, more will be required:

I’m hungry and want to eat and so, given the possibility to do so, I will. Asked why, my reason need be no more than reference to that state of hunger which I had been in. But sometimes reasons can be more complex, reflecting the broader picture of the world that our particular mental capacities enable in us.

Sometimes the felt need to assuage a feeling of hunger must be put on hold for a time, delayed or disregarded because of other considerations, and sometimes how I satisfy my hunger will require consideration of a series of different possible actions, and/or the use of different possible instruments available to me. And these, too, may involve broader considerations in terms of time and place, their impacts on myself and others and so on. Satisfying a need as simple as assuaging one’s hunger can, and often will, include a much wider range of considerations. When it does, moral questions, considerations about the quality of the act itself and not just about the object of acquisition (the food to be eaten) or the means to acquire and eat it, may kick in.


Moral valuing considers the acts we take in their entirety and not merely in the more limited fashion which looks at the act for its capacity to secure a particular objective alone, or as proxy for the desirable status of the objective we have in mind by undertaking the act in question. Considerations which only consist of the desirability of an object or objective, or the selection of the best way of realizing it, can represent part of the act in question only since they take no account of the intent which motivates it.

That is to say, a decision to eat because one is hungry will not be, in itself, subject to value considerations in the simple case where there are no other implications beyond the satisfaction of the manifest need. But in more complex cases – when our capacity to think ahead and backwards, to think about the “here” and the “there,” play a role – it can be.

When any potential act is considered in terms of a more complex set of objectives (will eating something on offer now have implications beyond the momentary removal of my present feeling of hunger, my need to eat?), we must have ways to negotiate the differences and determine the best course of action before us. If the question is one of choosing the right food or the right time and place to eat or whether eating or self-denial is the more sensible course and so forth, then the value concerns are more complex because the objectives before us are more layered and linked in many different ways in our way of thinking about them.

And now we have a broad array of other concerns, from the practical such as health matters (is the food in question good for us or potentially harmful?), to resource sharing (what if the food is needed to keep others in my group alive as well?), to ensuring longer term viability (perhaps eating the seeds in the bag I possess today will ruin my chance to grow more food in the future). But these, still largely practical, considerations do not exhaust the concerns made possible by the complexity that arises from the extended and expanded view of time and place which we, alone among our fellow creatures on the planet, appear to be capable of.


There are also questions of whose benefit should matter (as suggested by the case above re: individual vs. group survival). We seem to have a certain, genetically predetermined inclination for group identification, for instance, as can be seen when considering the similarities between ourselves and our nearest primate relatives, and this commitment to one’s group requires certain behavioral dispositions like sharing and protecting. Nor are these behaviors limited to primates only, for such behaviors are widespread in the mammalian world. To the extent that behaviors are functions of brains (which certainly seems to be the case!), we must suppose that our brains are hardwired in such a way as to run these behaviors in appropriate circumstances.

When they run in ourselves, we discover that they are not simply blindly performed (at least most of the time) but are accompanied by, indeed they seem to be prompted by, certain kinds of thoughts and feelings we have. A primate mother’s concern for her offspring evidences many of the same behavioral mechanisms as a human mother’s so why should we suppose the primate mom does not have some of the same emotions as well? Certainly one can look into many primate faces or observe their comportment and particular gestures and so forth and recognize certain human expressions, such as of grief, love, concern and so forth. It’s hard, looking at a creature which is so similar in form and behavior to ourselves, to imagine she lacks the experiences we have when we evidence similar behaviors. But if the primate mother has such feelings as expressed in the relevant behaviors, then perhaps many other mammalian mothers will have something similar at some level, too, even if their behaviors are less recognizable to us than the primate’s.

Primates evidence a wide array of familiar behaviors from expressions of affection for others in their group (e.g., grooming), to anger, aggression, protective behaviors, etc. While the broader awareness had by humans, because of our greater capacity to picture the world and ourselves within it, implies more complexity to our feelings (because we can grieve or rejoice over anticipated future events or feel sorrow or joy for things past or things imagined), it’s unlikely humans will be found to have a total monopoly on feelings. And if behavior is any evidence, as indeed it must be, feelings must appear to be a part of the makeup of members of our species precisely because they are visible in the behaviors of primates which are creatures very much like ourselves.

Of course, the lower down one goes on the hierarchy of brain complexity, the simpler the observed behaviors become in terms of responses and flexibility and so, we may assume, the underlying mental life of the organism will also lose something accordingly. But if human mothers feel explicit love for their offspring, as manifested in the degree and kinds of attention they pay to them and in the things they think may about them (‘little Johnny is so cute, so clever, etc., etc.’) why should we think non-human mothers, particularly among the primates who are so close in type to ourselves, should not experience some of the same – even if they lack the ability to put names to their young, or to imagine them grown, earning medical degrees, etc.? If behaviors occur in association with the elements of a mental life in us, should we not also grant that others with similar behavioral capacities have mental lives, too, even if we assume them to be less complex and sophisticated than our own? And, of course, we do, in a sense, for we’re geared to recognizing certain kinds of behaviors as manifesting a mental life. The closer the observed behaviors appear to be to that which we find in our own kind, the more we identify with them, the more we see something of ourselves in them.


Empathy is the capacity to identify with the other and seems to be built into creatures like ourselves. But it’s not an absolute, trumping everything else. It must co-exist with a great many other built-ins that we have inherited from our mammalian ancestors. Moreover, the degree to which we feel empathy, the degree to which we have it, is subject to change based on how we think about things.

If we look at chimpanzees and see only hairy beasts that cannot speak or compete with us at our level of operation, we may choose to disregard the similarities in their behaviors which, if observed in creatures like ourselves, would prompt us to feel empathy toward them. If we look at other humans and see only their differences with us, we can often disregard the elements we have in common with them as well. That we have the capacity for empathy is no guarantee that we will show it or feel it or that it will be felt in every case of contact with another.

Denying the humanity of others enables us to treat them differently than we treat ourselves – and our own. So the fact that, as a species, we seem to have been provided with mechanisms for empathy is not enough to assure that those mechanisms will be exercised in all cases in which exercising them may be a possibility.


Deciding when feeling empathetic is relevant is a function of valuation, too. Choosing our actions is a complex activity because our world is big and complex in a way that it’s not for other creatures on the planet. Our choices must not only take account of what is here and there, what is before and after – they must also consider our place in all of these instances. We not only consider our environments in terms of the times and places that we can think about but also in terms of the actor we are in those environments.

To the extent that every action is a choice made by a self, and the self is a function of the continuum of those actions, the self is a part of every picture, every scenario in which a decision is made or can be projected.

Actions, seen this way, express values but they also express something more. They manifest the organism’s mental life.

Because we can think about our actions in situations, they are an integral part of each scenario we can think about. Choosing an action we intend to take in terms of particular scenarios involves contemplating outcomes and selecting from among them. Outcomes, insofar as they are intended, and so conceived of (and expected in the event the action is taken), are part of our mental lives, too. As such, as the intentions which lie behind every selected action, they are expressions of the agents who act – of the selves they are. The self is the sum total of his or her intentions at any point in time and intentions are that aggregate of mental features which form the basis for the choices we make.


To the extent that moral valuing involves consideration of the act in its entirety, it does not limit the scope of the act to the thing or state the act is directed at securing – or to the efficacy of the act or the instruments that are applied to securing it. It also and necessarily considers the reason for the act, i.e., the intentions that generate it.

In this sense, every agential action, all those behaviors which are intended by a thinking agent (those acts performed deliberately and for a reason), can be valued not merely as physical phenomena, understood as the physical aspects of the act itself, but in total, as the expression of the mental state of the actor. Even acts which express valuations of more limited scope, such as a decision to have one’s dinner when one feels hungry, will be seen to be susceptible to just this sort of consideration – for every agential act, at whatever level of value it expresses, will have an intentional dimension.


It’s not hard then to understand why appeals to moral standards strike us as more important, more profound, than other value appeals for all other instances of value ascription are seen to be subject to moral considerations as well (to evaluation in terms of their intent – which all agential actions will have). But the reverse is not the case. That is, we cannot judge an action’s intent in terms of its ability to satisfy some immediate need or want which happens to stand in need of satisfaction, but we can judge that want or need and the actions that express it according to whether or not those action(s) are consistent with a particular intent. The potency of moral claims lie, then, in their special role as arbiter of the other choices we make. Whatever factors render an intention better or worse will then be relevant to the consideration of the value of the action that expresses it. The issue is what special elements can be discovered which can make an intention better or worse?


Intentions do not exist per se, as we have seen, but only as an array of more basic mental features which come together to motivate agential behavior. Considering intentions is not, therefore, a matter of picking out particular mental phenomena or features but of identifying and addressing a complex array of mental features. But, to the extent that no mental feature is itself a distinct and distinguishable phenomenon, to look at intentions can be no more than to look at the agent him or herself, for the intention is just the tip of the iceberg that is the person who acts.

It cannot be enough, for determining the value basis of intentions, then, to think we can make such a value claim upon the same basis that we value good food or the acquisition of money. The first takes its value from its presumed ability to satisfy our hunger or taste buds, which is discoverable in particular features of the item in question, while the second takes its value from the features of the world or the act which provide us with the ability to purchase the meal in question (or otherwise obtain it) and thus facilitate the satisfaction of our feeling of hunger.

In both of the foregoing cases what’s at issue is the capacity of the actions envisioned to accomplish objectives that will satisfy the need, and so the interest, of the actor in question and this will be determined by particular features discoverable by us in the world. But if we want to consider the value of the intentional aspect of the act in question, we have to look at the underlying mental state, the occurrence of various mental features in the agent him or herself. What is the agent thinking about when he or she acts? What does he want to bring about? Why? What does he feel? Need? Care about?

And now we wonder how to distinguish these elements, what are the particular features which differentiate one mental element from another? And there is a second problem that occurs when we shift from considering valuing things in the world to the agents themselves, i.e., how can an agent set a value upon him or herself?


To the extent that every need, every want of the agent, is, itself, an aspect of that agent, an expression of its current state, an element in the ongoing stream of needs and wants that are part of that agent’s mental life (and so part of the agent him or herself), the agent cannot be expected to judge those needs and wants in separation from him or herself except, perhaps, in terms that are already influenced and driven by them.

Otherwise the agent would be in the strange position of considering his or her inclinations to act in terms of his or her inclinations to act! If an inclination to lie or steal, for instance, expresses the sort of person inclined to do so, then the agent can find no standard outside him herself by which to measure that inclination.

And yet we do think agents can value or disvalue things about themselves.

We often seek to change, and so improve, ourselves by exercise and physical conditioning, for instance, or by study and practice in order to acquire various skills, or by applying makeup or undergoing cosmetic surgery or changing our mode of dress to enhance our appearance, or by acquiring wealth to enhance our status among peers or our power, or even by public relations initiatives intended to change others’ opinions of us. Self-improvement is certainly not outside the realm of what we believe agents capable of, for agents can look at themselves and value or disvalue what they “see.” But, of course, it is not these aspects of agents that are at issue here.

When speaking of the agent as valuer, it’s not the physical persona that matters, not the physical presence of the agent, or his or her possessions, but the agent’s mental life, the state of his or her self. To the extent that we grant agents a mental life, and how can we not if we’re to acknowledge a moral dimension to behavior, it must be something else that stands in need of attention, in this case, the very features which constitute the agent as a valuing entity and which form the basis of his or her valuing activities.

It’s this subjective aspect of the agent that’s liable to valuation when we look at actions in their entirety (from intention to that which we intend). But it’s precisely this aspect of what we mean by “self” that seems impervious to valuation since it is mental, ephemeral, and so not amenable to description in terms of observable features and characteristics. We can look at actions as wholly physical events, with discrete elements observable and recognizable, but as soon as we try to look at actions in their totality, as expressions of agential intent, we must find and value the intention, too, and we have already seen that there are no such discrete objects as these.


Historically and globally (across cultures) certain commonalities in moral practices and prescriptions suggest that at least one “good” feature which human beings can be said to have, or urged to strive for, are behaviors which reflect the recognition of themselves in their fellows, i.e, acting in ways that treat others as themselves. This prescription has been expressed in a variety of ways, from urging others to refrain from harming the interests of their fellows to urging that they affirmatively seek to assist others in achieving those interests. A great number of cultures offer the general rule that we should treat others in a way that’s consistent with how we would wish to be treated, a standard that can be seen to support and even explain any number of more particular prescriptions for dealing with others (e.g., refraining from taking others’ lives unjustly, from lying or stealing, from causing others pain or anguish without good cause, etc.).

The most general rule underlying these variously more specific prescriptions is expressed in a number of different ways but it can be seen to boil down to a prescription to treat others with empathy, i.e., to adopt a stance toward our fellows in which we are as sensitive to their needs as to our own. But the role of sensitivity here, of the emotion of feeling empathetic towards the other, has not always been granted primacy in applying this principle.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant disregarded the role of the emotional appeal to empathy in favor of asserting that we have what he characterized as a rational obligation to act as empathy would prompt us – whether we feel empathetic or not! His basic claim was that reason showed that only those actions which could be universalized in principle should be performed and that those which could not, should not be.

Whatever we choose to do, he thought, should be such that, if it were done by everyone, it would not undermine the very rules and standards by which we define ourselves. Thus, if we were to treat others as objects only (in the way we treat the physical things of the world), useful only insofar as they meet our needs and without regard to their own (for how can mere physical objects have needs of their own?), then we would, ourselves, lose our uniqueness as subjects. Were treatment of other subjects as objects to become the general practice, a general rule of behavior, then we should be the recipients of that rule, too.

On this view, to act in a way that denies the fundamental elements of humanity, which we believe inhere in ourselves, would be to undermine those very elements because it would amount to denying them. If others lack them, then on what grounds can we suppose we do not?

Even if we were to have the power to treat others as objects rather than subjects like ourselves, while preventing them from treating us in the same way, we would, on Kant’s view, be no better off for this would still contradict our own claim to subjectness. Given a purely rational picture of the world, the elimination of the subjectness of others can only deny all subjectness, including our own. This is so, not because we may actually be treated thus, but because we would fatally undermine the very notion of subjectness by adopting this as our standard.

Thus, on this Kantian view, it’s rational to act in ways that preserve what is essential and integral to our humanity, in this case the condition of being subjects in the world, and not merely because of the consequences – for, even if we could avoid being treated as objects when treating others in this way, it is still inherently self-contradictory to what we are and how we exist in the world.

This view has some appeal on an intellectual level but it’s doubtful that anyone ever engages in these kinds of considerations when deciding on the right things to do. Such thinking is complex and abstruse. If moral judgments depended on such efforts to reach morally sound conclusions, only a very few individuals would ever be fully capable of making such judgments in which case moral valuing would be a great rarity and of very limited use in the various pursuits of our daily lives. And yet it is precisely there that we must look to find the efficacy and, indeed, the point of moral valuing.

Moreover, to rely on a Kantian imperative based on rationality one must already have a sense of others as subjects, as like ourselves, that is, one must have the basis of empathizing with others in order to recognize them as subjects worthy of the treatment we wish to have accorded to ourselves in the first place. If there is a logical argument for treating others empathetically it must arise not from the abstruse claim that universalizability is implied by reason alone but from the very nature of what it means to recognize the subjectivity of another. Thus, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, the claim that acting in the right way hinges on acting in ways that preserve the essential distinctions we make with regard to ourselves, cannot suffice to serve as a basis for moral valuation in general, whatever its claim to logical soundness.


Wherever the appeal to treat others essentially as ourselves arises in human culture, we typically find the appeal to feeling which Kant rejects, i.e., to a sense of empathy with the other, to the emotional recognition of the other’s felt condition as the justification invoked. ‘Treat others as ourselves’ calls on us to think of the other as ourselves, for we could not treat them thus if we could not think of them in this way, too.

Acting empathetically toward another, if it were only a matter of going through the motions, might seem satisfactory to an outside observer who, himself, feels empathy and so approves of apparent instances of such treatment of the other. But satisfying another’s moral sense cannot be a basis for one’s own decision to act since an appeal to the good opinion of others hinges on the very self-interest that the idea of moral valuing seems to demand we reject. To act in a moral way to please another or gain their praise or some other reward fatally undermines the moral quality we want to ascribe to the act.

As with all cases of valuing, we need a reason to act, including to act morally and if we do not have the feeling of empathy that makes the other’s interests our own, we cannot act morally for plainly non-moral reasons and still claim the act as a moral one (whatever its appearance to another).

If we want to find a basis for supposing that the moral valuation that counts is the one that admonishes us to sensitivity to the other’s condition, we have to look for a reason that would support that admonition to see ourselves in the other’s shoes. What reason or reasons could be given to feel empathetic towards others then – and why and when would such feelings be the ones we should choose?


If actions can only be fully evaluated in terms of all three of the vectors on which they can be measured (from intention to effectiveness to outcome) and intentions can be seen to control the other two vectors of value on which actions may be viewed (because intentions contain the other two), and yet intentions are no more than aspects of the agential self, then we cannot avoid moral valuation at some point, no matter what action we are concerned about. Intentions are a part of all actions, all agential behavior, by definition – and every action of this sort must, therefore, be evaluatable in terms which include the intentions behind it.

If we lacked the potential to look at and evaluate an action in its entirety, if all we could do was value outcomes (what we need or desire) and efforts (what it takes to satisfy them), we would be left with a critical gap in the world because a key element of our world would not be susceptible to judgment. The world is not only what we find in it, both in terms of what we would take from it and what we would use to take it. It is also our contribution to it by our intervention in it. Our presence in it is as significant for the world, because of our ability to interact with it, as is the presence of those things with which we interact. Actions are the means by which we interact with our world and so we cannot disregard this dimension of valuation whether we would like to or not.

It’s not enough to recognize that valuing involves more than just valuing things we may want, for various reasons, or the things we may do or seize upon to realize our ambitions to secure what we want. We must also recognize that the very things we do to seize upon and secure our desired objectives are part of the same world and so subject to the same processes of consideration and evaluation. But what’s needed when we turn to the evaluation of an act in its entirety is a capacity to assess the seemingly hidden element, the mental part of the act, which we must grant is present but which we cannot single out or discern in a way that enables evaluation according to the parameters applied to other aspects of the action.


If acts consistent with empathy are only a matter of having the right feeling(s), then we cannot be praised for having such feelings – or blamed for their absence. Feelings, after all, are states or conditions we find ourselves in and which impel us to behave in certain ways. But the states or conditions are not the behaviors per se. We can act mechanically or falsely, too. Still, if moral judgment is the activity of valuing actions in their entirety, from feelings and beliefs to the outcomes that result, then we must have a way to value the underlying feelings, too, in order to praise or condemn, recommend or discommend, the acts taken.

Moral judgments, like all value judgments, imply the ability to choose and, if this is the case with empathy, then we must be able to praise or blame others, and ourselves, for behaving in accord with this way of relating to others, or not. At least this is so if empathy is to be understood as a key underpinning of moral behaviors. But how can we praise or blame others or ourselves for empathetic behaviors, or their lack, if such behaviors are a function of particular feelings only? Perhaps there is not so great a divide between feeling and choosing as we might at first think. Perhaps what’s going on subjectively whenever an agent acts is not as radically divorced from the observed behaviors of the agent as the subject-object distinction seems to suggest.

To take an empathetic stance towards others, as with taking Daniel Dennett’s “intentional stance,” amounts to acting in certain ways towards something, treating it in certain ways. But to treat it in this fashion is also to view it in the appropriate way, i.e., to see it as behaviors of a being much like ourselves since the behaviors that constitute taking the intentional stance will be unmotivated (and so without meaning) or false if the recognition of the designing capacity of the other is absent.

If we have evolved to think of others behaving in certain fashions as having design capacities like our own, as Dennett suggests, then we have evolved to have the sort of mental life that consists of having such thoughts. Thus, we have the sort of emotional reactions to others which recognize the self within, i.e., we can experience their pleasures and pains, their anguish and joy, vicariously, based on recognizing the behaviors which manifest these. Empathy arises in creatures like ourselves as a concomitant of the capacity to recognize intentionality – as the necessary capacity to seeing subjectness in certain objects.

But just having the capacity to be empathetic is not enough, nor is the fact that we have evolved the capacity to recognize intentionality in others, of which empathetic feelings seem to be part. For empathy can be limited and even non-existent in some cases and it is always only one of our possible responses to a given situation. Sometimes, for instance, the impulse toward empathy will be overshadowed by a stronger impulse, say for self-preservation, or for the satisfaction of some stronger personal need, or by anger or hatred, etc. We have these innate capacities, too.

The issue is thus not whether we have the capacity for empathy. Most of us (perhaps all) arguably do. Nor is the issue simply about whether empathy asserts itself as a primary motivating factor in some instances because we already know it does.

What’s at issue, if we’re to fully understand how moral valuing works, is the role empathy plays in this particular valuing exercise and whether or not it can be argued for at all. To suppose we can argue for it is to suppose that we can choose to be empathetic in some cases if not in others where argument provides the basis, the reasons, we can give for making the decision to choose empathy over other modes of relating to others.


Intentions are not physical things, as we have seen, nor are they events; they are best understood as elements of the various mental states in which we find ourselves at any given moment, configurations of other, more basic mental occurrences which we have and which we find, at moments of introspection, in ourselves. As such they are not discrete things but aspects of what we, ourselves, are at any given moment.

To value intentions (and so determine the most encompassing kind of value that’s appropriate to the action and to the thing the action is aimed at achieving), we must consider the whole self then, of which the intention is only a part.

In most cases in which value is ascribed, we value things in terms of how they relate to our own interests as agents. But in the case of moral valuation – which is about valuing actions in accord with their intentions – we seem to have a case where the basis for asserting value, the valuer’s want or need, is precisely what we wish to value. How can something we like or dislike, want or don’t want, be nothing other than the very selves we are? If it’s the state of our self at any given moment that determines these wants and needs how can that state also be the thing we hope to value? Can a self deny itself? Change itself? Be other than it is? Can a self value something other than itself as itself?

Does it even make sense to use a term like “self” in this way? Do we have such “selves” at all? Certainly we often speak of ourselves to others and only mean by this that person who is before them at that very moment, or the one bearing such and such a name who has done such and such things, etc. We speak of others in this way, too. But we don’t disregard the notion that we or they have a mental life alongside our everyday behavior in doing so. Indeed, that is assumed as part of our way of being in, and relating to the things of, our world. We recognize ourselves as subjects and to the extent we see others in this way, we recognize their subjectivity, too. But the mental lives, consisting of the ongoing subjective state or states of the persons we are, aren’t what we mean most of the time by the designation “self.”

And yet, when we turn to the question of moral valuing and how it works, it seems we cannot dispense with that very notion.


If moral valuing is to be made intelligible by explanation, we must be able to speak about how this kind of valuing works, what it amounts to, and we have already seen that the focus of moral valuing is on the intention which underlies the action, which motivates it. Moral judgment is not just applied to the observed or observable physical events of which the action seems to consist. Without consideration of the intentional dimension, we cannot value any act in a moral way. To the extent that the relevant feature of any action, at the moral level, is the intention underlying it (what the act in question aims to accomplish and why), and the intention is only fully comprehensible as a snapshot or slice of the ongoing mental life of the entity in question (the subjective aspect of any individual), we have to look to that to find both the relevant feature in any ascription of moral value and the basis for asserting that kind of value. But if the feature in question is nothing less than the entity’s ongoing mental life, and so is that entity’s thinking/feeling self, we find that we cannot easily differentiate between the valuer and the valued. And this leaves us in a conundrum. How can a valuer value itself? Every other form of valuation involves pursuit and acquisition of something for the self, a satisfaction of some want or need which is part of the agent’s self-interest. But in this case the self is both acquirer and acquired, which seems to fly in the face of logic. Reasons without logic cannot work anymore than valuing without reasons can.


To the extent that moral valuation can be seen to be focused on intentions, and intentions can be understood as no more than a snapshot, in time, of an individual’s momentary mental state or condition, we must be able to differentiate, at least for purposes of reference, between the self as valuer and the self as that which is to be valued.

This separation of referents can be accomplished simply by refusing to embrace the self-as-entity model which sometimes seems to force itself upon us. Just as we have previously rejected the notion that any mental feature has entity-like qualities, we can and must reject the notion that it is some entity we are referring to when we speak of the valuing self. Just as the various mental features that make up any intention are without form or distinction, except to the extent that we use words to identify them in discourse, so, too, is the mind per se, and the self which identifies with it, without distinct form or entity-like status.

The self of the moment is not the self but only a momentary glimpse of what it has been and will be. The intention-as-snapshot is not the whole self because nothing is a whole self. The self is only an ongoing occurrence, a construct we speak of in the way we speak of intentions and thoughts, beliefs and feelings, of wants and desires and needs; it has no form or extent. It’s only a way of referring to an ever changing state. As such, to assess it today, or as it occurred in the past, is to consider not what it is but what it continues to be, i.e., what it can become. Looked at in this way, there is no impediment to treating the self at this moment as an object of consideration by the self-in-process, the self that is continuously occurring. And so we can look at any isolated aspect of ourselves, or others, both for what it will be and for what it momentarily is. The state of self which any act expresses is therefore evaluatable by the self that is perpetually in the process of unfolding. It is this latter self which is positioned to judge the momentary one.

There is no reason to expect the self, in this sense, which is an ongoing array of mental features that bleed into one another over time, to operate or be assessable in just the way particular physical things or events are. But because it is the self of the mental life, not the physical features seen by others or by ourselves, by gazing at a mirror or a photograph, that engages in valuing, we must acknowledge its reality despite its differences from the things in the world which it experiences.

And if it’s real in this sense, it’s real enough to be an object of valuation, too, because, like every other object of valuation, it can be singled out, described, designated and so forth. Only the singling out, the describing, the designating involve citing different criteria, in this case behavioral manifestations, for we never see inside others’ heads and, indeed, never look inside our own either for the idea of introspection is only analogous with the idea of looking at things.

We cannot and should not expect to see in that “self” the physical characteristics, or even physical-like characteristics, that we find in the vast majority of other things we typically think of as objects of reference. But failing to find those characteristics isn’t enough to strip the self of distinctness. It just renders it a different sort of referential object.


How then do we arrive at a decision re: ascriptions of value to this notion of the self? What are the features we want to find in the “good” self but which are thought lacking in the “bad” and whose absence denies the attribution of goodness?

Here it pays to step back and look again at the kinds of things we tend to think of as having moral worth in a more or less universal way. The very broad behavioral maxim that is commended across a wide swath of human cultures, and that seems to most generally reflect many far more specific maxims and precepts, is the prescription to behave in a way that is empathetic toward others, i.e., a way that recognizes that they’re like us with the same sorts of interests, needs, desires, etc., a way that recognizes their comparable subjectness by treating them as ourselves.

Being capable of intentions in the way we are, others like us (i.e., those which share our capacity for intentionality) are also deemed capable of seeing intentions in us just as we, being capable of intentions, can see that in them. Intentional beings, by their nature, recognize one another and acknowledge, in doing so, their common condition when the evidence is there. Part of being intentional is recognizing intentionality in others and recognizing as well that, in having intentionality themselves, they also recognize it in us.

But even such a recognition does not, in and of itself, seem to oblige us to treat them like ourselves. We can recognize the shared state of intentionality and still disregard their interests, can’t we? Yet the moral choice, stated in its most general terms, seems to boil down to putting the interests of others ahead of ours in certain cases. If we are sometimes moved to do that out of a deep-seated sense of shared interests with some others, because we happen to identify with them, this can be explained as a genetic inheritance within our species or even as inculcated behavior. But if we lack it, or lack enough of it, who can condemn us, or urge us to act otherwise?

This is where the notion of the judged self comes in. If the point of moral valuation is to identify and recommend certain intentions, and hence certain choices over others, to choose one type of behaviors over another for the intentions they express, then the issue becomes which choices (which intentions acted upon) will be the better ones?

Why should the judging self care?

Because assessing and ascribing moral value to any action is not done by the self of the moment but by the occurring self, the self who stands outside of momentary time and in the stream of unfolding time. It is that self, the thinking, rational self, which chooses each momentary self by determining its value in each and every moment. The occurring self is what becomes of the momentary self which is only a fleeting object of reference for it. And so we can, as beings in unfolding time, concern ourselves with each and every state which is an aspect of ourselves. And here we want to ask whether it is better to be a self that recognizes itself in others of comparable capacities or not?

If the nature of what we are includes having intentionality, and having that means recognizing intentionality in others when like behaviors are recognizably present in them, which includes the realization of their recognition of the same in ourselves, then being empathetic is not merely a function of certain emotional predispositions (having feelings of empathy with which we have been programmed by nature). Just as the intentions that underlie actions are not discrete mental features but complex arrangements of other, more basic mental features, so the emotions we speak of as empathy need not be assumed to be discretely distinct feelings (are any of our feelings like that?) but an array of feelings which arise in us as part of certain kinds of interactions we have with others. That is, we could not be fully intentional without the capacity to recognize that characteristic in others when it is present. Attendant with that sort of recognition are certain mental features that manifest as emotional responses in us.

The emotional response we call “empathy” is no more simple a thing, no more discrete a phenomenon, than any other mental feature we find in ourselves. It’s just the configuration of emotional experiences we learn when we encounter intentionality in others, an intentionality we’re programmed to recognize but which we experience uniquely in relation to the particular conditions in which the encounters take place. Such feelings may be positive or negative, inspiring a sense of joy or aversion in us, depending on the kinds of experience our encounters consist of, the kind of stimuli and feedback associated with the learning experiences in which we gain the capacity inherent in us that we call “empathy.”

Having empathy on this view is a natural outcome of being the sort of entities we are – but the nature of that outcome, the thoughts and memories it inspires in us and which will re-occur and come to characterize our recognition of others’ intentionality, is a function of the quality of the experiences which particular instances of recognizing intentionality in others leave us with. It is these experiences, this residue of past encounters, which combine to provide us with a basis for feeling, and so expressing, empathy in the future. Negative experiences (instances of pain or distress) may remain with us and serve to suppress, through feelings of aversion, the tendency to recognize the intentional condition of others like ourselves, or they may teach us to react adversely to that condition when we recognize it.


The argument for moral action begins, then, with the premise that we are intentional creatures and that intentionality implies reciprocity, i.e., that recognizing intentionality in another also means recognizing that the other sees it in us. This recognition is not, at bottom, emotional but a function of our way of being in, and so relating to, the world. The emotional component of it is just the coloration of our experiences with regard to the instances in which we learn to apply our recognizing capacity to others and which are called up, as thought and emotional recollection, whenever reciprocal recognition of intentionality occurs.

To most fully realize this reciprocity of recognition one must eliminate impediments to it, such as those emotional barriers that obstruct its fullest exercise, i.e., which limit, curtail or suppress the recognition of the self in the other.

We do this by adopting ways of relating to others which bypass or discard emotional impediments to the reciprocal appreciation of others that we have learned, either incidentally or explicitly from being taught. Here actions provide the framework in which thoughts and feelings can arise and so we favor actions, at this level, to shape our thoughts and feelings over actions driven by belief and feeling alone.

Moral actions are thus those which are seen to be consistent with, or which serve to foster, the state of self that is most open to (because it’s free of the barriers that impede) the condition of the self that is maximally attuned to recognizing the intentionality of another. That state of self is the one that has empathy for others because it consists of behaviors that express empathy and the emotional features which accompany and prompt those behaviors. On this view, moral valuation is just that value we ascribe to the actions of certain entities when these approach the fullest realization of reciprocity which being intentional implies.

Acts deemed morally good, then, are those through which the agent not only sees, but grants, the subjectness of others like itself.

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