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Abstract

Empathy shapes the landscape of our social lives. It motivates prosocial and caregiving behaviors, plays a role in inhibiting aggression, and facilitates cooperation between members of a similar social group. Thus, empathy is often conceived as a driving motivation of moral behavior and justice, and, as such, everyone would think that it should be cultivated. However, the relationships between empathy, morality, and justice are complex. We begin by explaining what the notion of empathy encompasses and then argue how sensitivity to others' needs has evolved in the context of parental care and group living. Next, we examine the multiple physiological, hormonal, and neural systems supporting empathy and its functions. One troubling but important corollary of this neuro-evolutionary model is that empathy produces social preferences that can conflict with fairness and justice. An understanding of the factors that mold our emotional response and caring motivation for others helps provide organizational principles and ultimately guides decision making in medical ethics.
Target Article
Empathy, Justice, and Moral Behavior
Jean Decety, University of Chicago and University of Chicago Medicine
Jason M. Cowell, University of Chicago
Empathy shapes the landscape of our social lives. It motivates prosocial and caregiving behaviors, plays a role in inhibiting
aggression, and facilitates cooperation between members of a similar social group. Thus, empathy is often conceived as a
driving motivation of moral behavior and justice, and, as such, everyone would think that it should be cultivated. However, the
relationships between empathy, morality, and justice are complex. We begin by explaining what the notion of empathy
encompasses and then argue how sensitivity to others’ needs has evolved in the context of parental care and group living. Next,
we examine the multiple physiological, hormonal, and neural systems supporting empathy and its functions. One troubling but
important corollary of this neuro-evolutionary model is that empathy produces social preferences that can conflict with fairness
and justice. An understanding of the factors that mold our emotional response and caring motivation for others helps provide
organizational principles and ultimately guides decision making in medical ethics.
Keywords: decision making, empathy, fairness, group biases, justice, morality, social neuroscience
Empathy is everywhere in both the popular and academic
arenas including medicine, law, and economics. However,
not everyone agrees with the idea that empathy is a good
thing, from a moral point of view, or that it is something
we should cultivate because it makes us better people.
Recall, for instance, the visceral responses from conserva-
tive pundits when President Obama, speaking of his
choice to nominate a new Supreme Court Justice, said, “I
will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about
some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook; it is
also about how laws affect the daily realities of people’s
lives.” That kind of judge, Obama explained, will have
empathy: “I view the quality of empathy, of understanding
and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles as an
essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and out-
comes.” Obama spoke at length about the “empathy defi-
cit” in a January 20, 2008, campaign speech in Atlanta:
“I’m talking about an inability to recognize ourselves in
another; to understand our brother’s keeper; we are our
sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all
tied together in a single garment of destiny.” President
Obama considers principles like freedom and fairness, not
just for ourselves but for everyone, to be products of our
care for others. This agrees with his invocations of empa-
thy combined with concern for the less advantaged. How-
ever, legal and just do not always go together, nor does
empathy systematically lead to moral decisions.
The relationships between empathy, morality, and jus-
tice are indeed complex. For instance, regardless of
whether one considers that the law should be a self-
referring construct of “pure geometry,” that is, absent
social or environmental context considerations, or a “social
process that deals with human activity, with cause and
effect, with the past and the future” (Cohen 1935), one can
argue that law and morality are two distinct domains and
that a system of law can rest on an immoral foundation,
like the apartheid in South Africa between 1948 until
1994. Do we need judges who have the empathy to recog-
nize what is like to be a young teenage mom or to under-
stand what it’s like to be poor, African American, or gay?
Do we need medical ethicists to have empathy when
examining cost-effectiveness or resource allocation in
medical care?
The purpose of this article is to examine the intersection
of neuroscience and psychology on the study of empathy
and moral decision making.
1
Substantial progress has
1. Morality encompasses notions of justice, fairness, and rights, as well as maxims regarding interpersonal relations. Another theoretical
view contends that morality includes the full array of psychological mechanisms that are active in the moral lives of people across cul-
tures. Rather than stating the content of moral issues (e.g., justice and welfare), this definition specifies the function of moral systems as
an interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, and identities that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make
cooperative social life possible. What seems clear is that, regardless of the definition, a central focus of morality is the judgment of the
rightness or wrongness of acts or behaviors that knowingly cause harm to people.
Address correspondence to Jean Decety, Child Neurosuite—Department of Psychology and Psychiatry, University of Chicago, 5848 S.
University Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637, USA. E-mail: decety@uchicago.edu
Color versions of one or more of the figures in this article can be found online at www.tandfonline.com/uabn
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Copyright ©Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
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DOI: 10.1080/21507740.2015.1047055
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been made in recent years toward a comprehensive under-
standing of the evolutionary processes that have favored the
development of complex social behaviors in humans, along
with the brain architecture that supports them. In particular,
research in social neuroscience, relying on multilevel integra-
tive analysis studies (from genes to social interactions), pro-
vides a mechanistic comprehension of empathy and caring
for others. Drawing from theoretical and empirical work in
developmental science, social psychology, and affective neu-
roscience, we argue that empathy should be regarded with
caution and is not enough to serve as a central motivation in
driving moral judgment and decision making. The evidence
supports a more moderate view of the role of empathy in
morality.Cognitive reasoning is equally important for moral
reasoning and justice. Understanding the role of empathy in
morality requires a precise description of what the concept
empathy embodies.
THE TOO MANY MEANINGS OF EMPATHY
One reason that the notion of empathy has become so pop-
ular in academia as well as to the lay public is that this con-
cept is used to refer to a heterogeneous collection of related
phenomena. However, careful analysis shows that they are
not aspects or facets of a single thing, as one might say that
an attitude has cognitive, affective, and behavioral compo-
nents (Batson 2009). Empathy is such an unwieldy concept
that any academic book on the topic usually includes a
whole chapter to define exactly what empathy is. Keeping
track of these different conceptualizations is important
because they refer to distinct psychological processes that
vary, sometimes widely, in their function, phenomenol-
ogy, mechanisms, and effects (Coplan 2011).
Furthermore, given that empathy encompasses so
many different facets, it should not come as a surprise
that there is no single measure to reliably assess this dis-
position. All self-report questionnaires parse empathy
into a number of dimensions, such as personal distress,
perspective taking, and empathic concern, or at least cog-
nitive and emotional empathy. But these dispositional
measures do not consistently relate to specific neural
mechanisms. For instance, a developmental study with
participants aged between 4 and 17 years reported that
while females scored higher than males on an empathy
questionnaire, a difference that increased with age, no
change was detected in the pattern of the neural response
measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging
(MRI) when participants viewed stimuli depicting indi-
viduals being physically hurt (Michalska, Kinzler, and
Decety 2013).
Despite such diverse understandings of empathy,
recent research in developmental and social neuroscience
has narrowed down its scope such that that it involves
three dissociable components that are not completely over-
lapping in functions and mechanisms, but yet can interact
(Decety 2011; Decety and Jackson 2004). These components
include:
1. Affective sharing, which reflects the natural capacity to
become affectively aroused by others’ emotions.
2. Empathic concern, which corresponds to the motivation
of caring for another’s welfare.
3. Perspective taking, which is the ability to consciously
put oneself into the mind of another individual and
imagine what that person is thinking or feeling.
Each of these emotional, motivational, and cognitive
facets of empathy emerges from specific neurobiological
processes and reflects evolved functions that allow
humans to thrive by detecting and responding to signifi-
cant social events necessary for surviving, reproducing,
and maintaining well-being.
NEUROBIOLOGICAL MECHANISMS UNDERLYING
EMPATHY
While it is important to consider the broad range of spe-
cies-specific behaviors when dealing with motivated
behaviors, there is a clear evolutionary continuity in paren-
tal care and the underlying physiological mechanisms
across mammalian species. In humans, the evolutionary
emergence of higher level neural structures occurred with-
out the replacement of more primitive neural systems.
Rather, the human brain is organized so that the same
inputs are parallel processed at multiple levels, with the
responses orchestrated at lower levels of the central ner-
vous system elaborated on and modulated by higher levels
of the neuraxis (Decety, Norman, Berntson, and Cacioppo
2012). It is worth noting that the representation of function
across the neuraxis does not entail that lower level struc-
tures are entirely subject to commands from higher level.
In fact, a large percentage of neural processes occur with-
out the engagement of neocortical structures. Indeed,
higher level cortical processing may be necessary only in
situations with high ambiguity and low predictability.
This framework applies to affective sharing and empathic
concern, which are present in nonhuman animals,
although perspective taking (or cognitive empathy) is
arguably specific to our species (see Figure 1 for the multi-
ple neural systems involved in empathy).
AFFECTIVE SHARING
One primary facet of empathy, affective or emotional shar-
ing, is essential in generating the motivation to care for
others and is relatively independent of mindreading and
perspective-taking capacities. It is often viewed as the sim-
plest form of empathy and can be observed across a multi-
tude of species from birds to rodents and humans (Edgar
et al. 2012), andit appears very early in ontogeny (Cheng,
Chen, and Decety 2014). Often, affective sharing is synony-
mous with emotional contagion. However, the latter con-
cept has a much greater scope than the former.
Specifically, emotional contagion usually refers to the ten-
dency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial
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expressions, vocalizations, and postures with those of
another individual to converge emotionally. Affective
sharing, as used here, is not necessarily an automatic pro-
cess and does not entail convergence of emotion; rather, it
is the detection of another’s motivational and emotional
states that can elicit an adaptive response (such as caring
or helping) from the observer. For instance, a mother rat
who detects signals from her pup expressing hunger will
experience affective sharing without feeling hungry her-
self, as would be implied by emotional contagion.
Nonhuman animals show preference toward in-group
members in detection and reaction to the distress of others.
For instance, rodents are discriminant in their reactions to
others in distress. In one study, a female mouse moving
toward a dyad member in physical pain led to a decrease
in the physical symptoms of pain (less writhing) in the
dyad member only when the mouse was a cage mate of
the mouse in pain, not when they were strangers (Lang-
ford et al. 2010). Similarly, female mice exhibit higher fear
responses when exposed to the pain of a close relative
than when exposed to the pain of a more distant relative
(Jeon et al. 2010). Importantly, it is not necessarily genetic
affiliation that solely facilitates assistive behaviors. Rats
fostered from birth with another strain have been shown
to help strangers of the fostering strain but not rats of
their own strain (Ben-Ami Bartal et al. 2014). Thus, strain
familiarity, even to one’s own strain, seems required for
the expression of prosocial behavior in rodents.
Studies using electroencephalography (EEG) in chil-
dren and adults viewing stimuli depicting conspecifics in
physical pain have documented specific event-related
potentials (ERPs) components. These include an early
automatic attentional salience (N2) and late positive poten-
tials (LPP) associated with affective arousal and affective
appraisal of the stimuli, respectively, which are detectable
as of 3 years of age (Cheng et al. 2014; Cheng, Hung, and
Decety 2012; Sheng and Han 2012). Numerous functional
magnetic resonance imaging studies (fMRI) with both
children (Decety and Michalska 2010) and adults (Lamm,
Decety, and Singer 2011) have reliably demonstrated that
when participants watch (or even imagine) another person
experiencing pain, sadness, or emotional distress, brain
regions involved in the firsthand physical pain are acti-
vated. These regions include the ACC, anterior insula
(aINS), supplementary motor area (SMA), amygdala,
somatosensory cortex, and periaqueductal gray area
(PAG). Thus, observing another individual in distress
induces a visceral arousal in the perceiver by eliciting neu-
ral response in regions known to be involved in the first-
hand experience of pain (also known as the pain matrix), a
network also implicated in salience processing that relates
to interoceptive-autonomic processing (Seeley et al. 2007).
Figure 1. Empathy is implemented by a complex network of distributed, often recursively connected, interacting
neural regions including the brainstem, amygdala, hypothalamus, striatum, insula, anterior cingulate cortex, and
orbitofrontal cortex. The experience of empathy also involves the autonomic nervous system (parasympathetic and
sympathetic branches, which represent antagonist and coordinated regulation of internal states), and neuroendocrine
processes implicated in social behaviors and emotional states. Thus empathy and motivation to care for others emerge
from the interaction of multiple areas and circuits in conjunction with the autonomic nervous system and
the neuroendocrine system.
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Interestingly, the neural response elicited by the per-
ception of others in distress is either strengthened or weak-
ened by interpersonal relationships, implicit attitudes, and
group preferences. Activity in the neural network includ-
ing the ACC, aINS, and PAG is significantly enhanced
when individuals view their loved ones in physical pain as
compared to strangers (Cheng et al. 2010). A priori,
implicit, value-based attitudes toward conspecifics also
modulate the response. For example, study participants
were significantly more sensitive to the pain of individuals
who had contracted AIDS as the result of a blood transfu-
sion as compared to individuals who had contracted AIDS
as the result of their illicit drug addiction, as evidenced by
higher subjective ratings of pain and greater neuro-hemo-
dynamic activity in the ACC, aINS, and PAG, although the
actual intensity of the facial expressions that they viewed
was strictly similar across all videos clips (Decety, Echols,
and Correll 2009). Another fMRI study found modulation
of empathic neural responses by racial group membership
(Xu et al. 2009). Notably, the response in the ACC to view-
ing others in pain decreased remarkably when participants
viewed faces of racial out-group members relative to racial
in-group members. This effect was comparable in Cauca-
sian and Chinese subjects and suggests that modulations
of empathic neural responses by racial group membership
are similar in different ethnic groups. Another study dem-
onstrated that the failures of an in-group member are pain-
ful, whereas those of a rival out-group member give
pleasure—a feeling that may motivate harming rivals
(Cikara, Botvinick, and Fiske 2011). In that study, partici-
pants who reported greater rival-specific aggression not
only reported more pleasure, but also exhibited greater
activity in the ventral striatum (a subcortical region
involved in reward and pleasure) in response to watching
rivals fail, even against a third party.
SHARING THE PAIN OF OTHERS OR SIMPLY
ATTENTION TO SALIENT INFORMATION?
The overlap in activation in between viewing others in pain
and experiencing pain oneself is often interpreted in favor of
shared neural representations between self and others,
which is the fuel of resonance-based, mirroring, social cogni-
tion. The idea is deceptively simple: Shared representations
or resonance mechanisms (including mirror neurons) under-
lie our ability to read intentions and emotions in to the
behavior of other people.
2
Unsurprisingly, shared neural
representations for felt pain and perceived pain in others
seem to fit perfectly with this implicit simulation interpreta-
tion. However, fine-grain data analyses of fMRI data demon-
strate that the activation in the ACC in the firsthand
experience of pain and the perception of pain in others are
neither necessarily coincident nor coextensive (Morrison
and Downing 2007). In addition, vicariously instigated acti-
vations in this neural network are not necessarily specific to
the emotional experience of pain. Rather they reflect more
general processes such as negative stimulus evaluation,
attention to noxious stimuli, somatic monitoring, and the
selection of appropriate skeletomuscular defensive move-
ments (Decety 2011). In support of this interpretation, one
study reported that perceiving a hated person’s face, com-
pared with that of a neutral person, elicited increased activ-
ity in the insula and ACC, and activity in these regions was
correlated to the subjective rating of hate participants felt for
the hated people (Zeki and Romaya 2008). Another fMRI
study found greater activity in this pain network, including
the aINS, ACC, and somatosensory cortex, when Jewish par-
ticipants viewed hateful (anti-Semitic) individuals com-
pared with likable targets in pain (Fox, Sobhani, and Aziz-
Zadeh 2013). Together, these studies demonstrate that
increased activity in this pain network seems to be more
related to increased salience and relevance of the pain-
related cues rather than to increased empathy-related proc-
essing per se. Thus, activation of shared neural representa-
tions in the affective-motivational regions of the pain matrix
are not specific to the sensory qualities of pain, but instead
are associated with more general survival mechanisms such
as attention to highly salient cues, and aversion and with-
drawal when exposed to danger and threat.
Empathic Concern
Empathic concern refers to other-oriented emotion elicited
by and congruent with the perceived welfare of a person
in need. This motivation is a product of (a) perception of
another as in need and (b) intrinsic valuing of that other’s
welfare (Batson 2009), and has evolved with generalized
parental nurturance. All mammals depend on other con-
specifics for survival and reproduction. Caring for the
needs of others is thus a vital product of our evolution,
particularly parental care, which is necessary for infant
survival and development (Decety et al. 2012). Depending
on each species, the level of care varies, but the underlying
neural circuitry for responding to infants (especially sig-
nals of vulnerability and need) is universally present and
highly conserved across mammalian species (Numan and
Insel 2003. Animal research demonstrates that being
affected by others’ emotional states, an ability integral to
maintaining the social relationships important for survival,
is organized by basic neural, autonomic, and neuroendo-
crine systems subserving attachment-related processes,
which are implemented in the brainstem, preoptic area of
the thalamus, basal ganglia, and paralimbic areas, as well
as the autonomic nervous system (Panksepp 1998).
2. Due to space constraint, we cannot elaborate on the validity of
the resonance/mirror neurons account of social cognition and the
unprecedented enthusiasm that has captivated so many scholars
across disciplines. See Hickok (2014) for a debunking of all the
grandiose claims that have been made on behalf of mirror neu-
rons. Sophisticated analyses of fMRI data using multivoxel pattern
analysis show that while perception, execution, and imagination
of simple actions such as grasping overlap in several cortical
regions, patterns of activation within these commonly activated
regions are actually distinct (Filimon et al., 2014).
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Converging evidence from animal behavior, neuroimag-
ing studies in healthy individuals, and lesion studies in neu-
rological patients demonstrates that caring for others
employs a large array of systems neural mechanisms, extend-
ing beyond the cortex, including the amygdala, brainstem,
hypothalamus, insula, ACC, and orbitofrontal cortex (Preston
2013). It also involves the autonomic nervous system, hypo-
thalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, and endocrine and hor-
monal systems that regulate bodily states, emotion, and
social sensitivity. In particular, oxytocin, a neuropeptide with
widespread targets in both the brain and periphery, has been
implicated in the regulation of various social behaviors rang-
ing from social bonding, attachment, and parental care. A
number of studies have found that individuals carrying a G
allele for the rs53576 variant of the oxytocin receptor gene
exhibit higher levels of empathic concern and prosocial
behaviors (Smith et al. 2014).
This motivation to care for others is deeply rooted in
our biology, is very flexible, and arises early in ontogeny.
Children’s capacities to respond emotionally to the joys
and sorrows of others and to express empathic concern are
present during the first year of life (Davidov et al. 2013).
People can feel empathic concern for a wide range of tar-
gets when cues of vulnerability and need are highly salient,
including nonhumans, and in Western culture particularly
domestic animals like puppies (Batson 2012). Neural
regions involved in perceiving the distress of other humans
are similarly recruited when witnessing the distress of
domesticated animals (Franklin et al. 2013). Furthermore,
the motivation of caring for others is associated with posi-
tive feelings, which reinforce this behavior. Behavioral and
functional neuroimaging studies demonstrate that being
nice and caring for others make us feel good by the release
of dopamine through the projection of neural pathways
from the brainstem to the nucleus accumbens. The fronto-
mesolimbic reward network is engaged to the same extent
when individuals receive monetary rewards and when
they freely choose to donate money to charitable organiza-
tions (Moll et al. 2006). Another fMRI study found that
participants who showed sympathetic behavior by tossing
a ball to the isolated player (in a computer simulation)
reported enhancement of self-positive feelings and antici-
pation of feeling improvements of the isolated player, as
well as increased activity in the striatum (Kawamichi et al.
2013). Additional support for a link between positive
arousal and generosity comes from an fMRI study that
demonstrated that increased activity in the ventral striatum
predicted increased subjects’ donations to orphans
depicted in photographs (Genevsky et al. 2013).
Finally, research shows that empathic concern reduces
cortisol activity in stressful situations for participants who
gave social support to a partner during the experiment
(Smith et al. 2009). In mothers who are asked to make
caregiving decisions to meet the needs of children,
dispositional empathic concern is associated with ventral
striatum, ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, and SMA activa-
tion (Ho et al. 2014).
Overall, the subcortical and cortical circuits that
developed originally in service of parental nurturance in
mammalian species continued to evolve in humans,
accompanied by an increase in the plasticity and flexibility
provided by the prefrontal cortex, which led to a height-
ened capacity for learning. In this way, these circuits began
to operate at the level of the social group and cultural level.
Importantly, the biological mechanisms underpinning
empathic concern are distinct from those involved in affec-
tive sharing.
Perspective Taking
Perspective taking or cognitive empathy refers to the abil-
ity to consciously put oneself into the mind of another
individual to understand what that person is thinking or
feeling. This “putting oneself in another’s skin” is achieved
through a variety of strategies, each of which is argued to
relate to emotional and cognitive outcomes (Myers,
Laurent, and Hodges 2013). Perspective taking has been
linked to the recognition of one’s uniqueness in the face of
others, as well as the appreciation of other’s independent
experiences and emotional states (Gilin et al. 2013).
Accordingly, the neural network recruited by affective per-
spective taking partly overlaps with that underlying theory
of mind and comprises the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex
(dmPFC) and posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS),
as well as amygdala, aINS, and ACC (Schnell et al. 2011).
Cognitive empathy has been linked to social compe-
tence and social reasoning, and a substantial body of
behavioral studies has documented that affective perspec-
tive taking is a powerful way to elicit empathy and concern
for others, including for out-group members (Batson 2012).
For instance, taking the perspective of an out-group mem-
ber decreases the use of explicit and implicit stereotypes
for that individual, and leads to more positive evaluations
of that group as a whole (Galinsky and Moskowitz 2001).
Assuming the perspective of another brings about changes
in the way we see the other, and these changes generalize
to people similar to that other, notably, members of the
same social groups to which they belong (Kidd and
Castano 2013). Some studies have documented long-last-
ing effects of such interventions. For instance, Sri Lankan
Singhalese participants expressed enhanced empathy
toward Tamils even a year after participating in a 4-day
intergroup workshop (Malhotra and Liyanage 2005).
Adopting the perspective of another person, in partic-
ular someone from another social group, is cognitively
demanding and hence requires additional attentional
resources and working memory, which tax executive
function abilities. Cognitive neuroscience research dem-
onstrates that when individuals adopt the perspective of
another, neural circuits common to the ones underlying
first-person experiences are activated as well (Lamm,
Meltzoff, and Decety 2009). However, taking the perspec-
tive of another produces increased activation in regions
of the prefrontal cortex subserving executive function
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(working memory, attention, and inhibitory control). In
another fMRI study, participants viewed video clips fea-
turing patients undergoing a painful medical intervention
and were asked either to put themselves in the shoes of
the patient (imagine self perspective) or to focus on the
patient’s feelings and affective expressions (imagine other
perspective) (Lamm, Batson, and Decety 2007). Explicitly
projecting oneself into the patient’s situation led to higher
levels of personal distress, and was associated with
enhanced activation in the amygdala and ACC. Imagining
the other’s perspective was accompanied by higher
empathic concern, lower personal distress, increased
activity in the executive attention network and vmPFC,
and reduced the amygdala response.
Thus, affective perspective taking simultaneously
engages neural regions associated with theory of mind,
executive functions, and limbic areas involved in the
experience of emotion. Interestingly, burgeoning work in
social neuroscience provides support for a primary role of
cognitive empathy (and not emotional empathy) in
explaining individual differences in individuals’ concern
for justice. Two neuroimaging studies, one using func-
tional MRI (Yoder and Decety 2014b) and another one
using high-density EEG (Yoder and Decety 2014a),
showed that justice sensitivity not only predicted behav-
ioral ratings of praise and blame when participants evalu-
ate morally laden behavior, but also modulated the online
neural response and functional connectivity between the
pSTS and prefrontal cortex. Justice sensitivity modulates
activity across several domain-general systems, particu-
larly in regions of the prefrontal cortex involved in inten-
tion, understanding, and goal representations in service
of moral decision making, and importantly does not influ-
ence the salience network involved in affective appraisal.
These findings are also supported by a study that exam-
ined the association between individual differences in dif-
ferent facets of empathy (affective, motivational, and
cognitive), justice sensitivity, and psychopathy (Decety and
Yoder 2015). Participants rated the permissibility of every-
day moral conflict in situations that pit personal benefit
against moral standards of justice. Contrary to common
sense, affective empathy (emotional sharing) was not associ-
ated with sensitivity to justice for others. Rather, cognitive
empathy and concern predicted sensitivity to justice for
others, as well as endorsing moral rules. It may then be
more effective to focus on utilizing perspective taking to
elicit empathic concern for others, rather than emphasizing
emotional sharing.
EMPATHY CAN LEAD TO PAROCHIAL MORAL
BEHAVIOR
Empathy has some unfortunate features that can conflict
with moral behavior. Individuals who identify and coop-
erate with in-group members enjoy numerous benefits,
including the fulfillment of many basic psychological
needs (Cikara and Van Bavel 2014). The value humans
place on group membership is exemplified by the ease
with which humans form groups and favor in-group
members, across cultures and from a very early age.
However, the functional benefits of group membership
notwithstanding, group life is also a source of prejudice,
biases, and of social strife.
Several aspects of empathy, such as accuracy and con-
cern for others, as well as generosity and other-oriented
behavior, are influenced by social status. Social class seems
to shape not only people’s values and behavior but also
their affective responses that relate to sensitivity to the
welfare of others. Research shows that lower class individ-
uals, relative to their upper class counterparts, score higher
on a measure of empathic accuracy, and judge the emo-
tions of a stranger more accurately (Kraus, C^
ot
e, and Kelt-
ner 2010). Another set of studies indicates that relative to
upper class people, lower class individuals exhibited more
generosity, more support for charity, more trust behavior
toward a stranger, and more helping behavior toward a
person in distress (Piff et al. 2010). Despite their reduced
resources and subordinate rank, lower class individuals
are more willing than their upper class counterparts to
increase another’s welfare, even when doing so is costly to
the self. The authors speculated that, relative to upper class
individuals, lower class individuals construe themselves
more in terms of their relationships to others, and this
self–other overlap facilitates their sensitivity to other peo-
ple’s welfare. Moreover, such acts of generosity and proso-
ciality among lower class people play a critical role in
cultivating relationships and strengthen social bonds.
Even assigning individuals to arbitrary groups readily
elicits evaluative preferences for in-group relative to out-
group members, and this can affect empathetic respond-
ing. In one such study, participants were assigned to arti-
ficial groups and then asked to perform pain intensity
evaluations of pictures depicting bodily injuries from self,
in-group, or out-group perspectives. Participants rated
the stimuli as more painful when they had to adopt the
perspective of an in-group member as compared to their
own perspective, while the out-group perspective did not
induce different responses to the painful stimuli as com-
pared to the self perspective (Montalan, Lelard, Godefroy,
and Mouras 2012). Moreover, the ratings differences
between the painful and nonpainful pictures were more
important in the in-group perspective than in the out-
group perspective. In an fMRI study, participants were
scanned while viewing in-group or out-group perpetra-
tors intentionally harming in-group or out-group mem-
bers. Participants showed greatest empathic sadness and
anger for an in-group victim harmed by a member of the
out-group (Molenberghs et al. 2014). In support of this
finding, there was increased activity in the orbitofrontal
cortex when viewing in-group members being harmed by
out-group individuals.
IN-GROUP MORALITY, OXYTOCIN, AND CHILDREN
The moral problem of group biases can be detected at the
neurohormonal level as well. For instance, oxytocin, which
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is often naively described as the “moral” hormone, in fact
promotes human ethnocentrism, that is, the tendency to
view one’s group as superior to other group, fueling preju-
dice and xenophobia. A series of experiments showed that
oxytocin administration creates intergroup bias because it
motivates in-group favoritism and, in some cases, out-
group derogation. These findings provide evidence for the
idea that neurobiological mechanisms in general, and
oxytocinergic systems in particular, evolved to sustain and
facilitate within-group coordination and cooperation
(De Dreu et al. 2011). The authors concluded that, rather
than making humans prosocial, oxytocin functions to
strengthen an evolved, functional tendency to discriminate
between in-group and out-group, as well as to give mem-
bers of one’s own group preferential treatment. Thus,
again oxytocin should not be construed of as a panacea for
moral behavior. Indeed, it can facilitate just the opposite
behavior.
While empathic concern is one of the earliest social
emotional competencies that develop (Davidov et al.
2013), children do not display empathy and concern
toward all people equally. Instead they show bias toward
individuals and members of groups with which they iden-
tify. For instance, children at 2 years of age display more
empathy-related behaviors toward their mother than
toward an unfamiliar individual. In line with the in-group
hypothesis, 8-year-old children were more likely to be
emotionally reactive toward their in-group members com-
pared with members of the out-group, and dispositional
empathy (as well as social anxiety) was positively corre-
lated with group identification (Masten, Gillen-O’Neel,
and Brown 2010). Moreover, children (aged 3–9 years)
view social categories as marking patterns of intrinsic
interpersonal obligations; that is, they view people as
intrinsically obligated only to their own group members,
and consider within-group harm as wrong regardless of
explicit rules, but they view the wrongness of between-
group harm as contingent on the presence of such rules
(Rhodes and Chalik 2013).
Straightforward predictions between empathic concern
and morality are highly influenced by context. For
instance, in one study, when individuals viewed the Brit-
ish and African nations as two separate races, they felt
greater guilt over historic transgressions and had lesser
expectations of forgiveness for atrocities committed than
when they viewed individual nations as part of a greater
whole (Morton and Postmes 2011). Moreover, in another
study, upper class individuals were more likely to make
calculated, dispassionate moral judgments in dilemmas in
which utilitarian choices were at odds with visceral moral
intuitions (C^
ot
e, Piff, and Willer 2013). In this way, the
lowered concern of upper class individuals ironically led
them to make moral decisions that were more likely to
maximize the greatest good for the greatest number.
Further evidence from studies with adults suggests
that while empathic concern does not necessarily change
notions of fairness (e.g., what is the just action in a certain
situation), it does change the decision an individual will
make. In one such study (Batson et al. 1995), college
students required to assign a good task and a bad task
to two individuals overwhelmingly endorsed random
assignment (i.e., a coin flip) as the most fair means for
deciding who would be assigned with the bad task. How-
ever, when asked to consider the feelings of a worker who
had recently suffered hardship, students readily offered
the good task to the worker, rather than using random
assignment.
All these behavioral, developmental, and functional
neuroimaging studies clearly demonstrate that distinct
components of empathy are influenced by many aspects of
social categorizations. They are by-products of living in
social groups and they shape in fundamental ways how
people perceive their social environment, experience
empathy, and behave prosocially toward others.
EMPATHY AND DECISION MAKING
Empathy, whether in the form of affective sharing or
empathic concern elicited by cues of vulnerability, can have
important consequences for decision making. For instance,
people can be moved to help identifiable others. This pref-
erence for giving to single vivid individuals over less iden-
tifiable others has been called the “identifiable victim
effect.” The identifiable victim effect resists explanation by
normative economic models, since identifiable stimuli add
no objective value or relevant information. In one series of
experiments, participants’ greater willingness to help iden-
tified victims, relative to nonidentified ones, was examined
by varying the singularity of the victim (single vs. a group
of eight individuals) and the availability of individually
identifying information (the main difference being the
inclusion of a picture in the “identified” versions) (Kogut
and Ritov 2005). The results support the proposal that the
“identified victim effect” is largely restricted to situations
with a single victim: The identified single victim elicited
considerably more contributions than the nonidentified sin-
gle victim, while the identification of the individual group
members had essentially no effect on willingness to contrib-
ute. Importantly, participants also reported experiencing
empathic distress when there is a single, identified victim
more than in any other condition. Hence, the empathetic
reaction to the victims appears to be a major source of the
effect rather than an objective decisional process.
While the precise ways in which empathy contributes
to moral judgment remain debated, in addition to influ-
encing moral evaluation, it may also play an important
developmental role. This may lead to the aversion of vio-
lent actions without necessarily empathizing with the vic-
tims of such actions (Miller, Hannikainen, and Cushman
2014). One paradigm often used in psychological and
some neuroscience studies of moral judgment is a thought
experiment borrowed from philosophy, the Trolley
Dilemma, but the utility of this paradigm in assessing
everyday moral judgment has recently been subject of
great debate (Rosas and Koenigs 2014). This classic
thought problem, comparing impersonal and personal
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moral decision making has led to a great deal of inquiry
about the nature of individuals who will push the large
man in front of the trolley.
Are individuals who make utilitarian judgments in per-
sonal situations more rational and calculating, or are they
simply colder and less averse to harming others? Support for
a link between empathy and moral reasoning is given by
studies demonstrating that low levels of dispositional
empathic concern predict utilitarian moral judgment in
some situations (Gleichgerrcht and Young 2013). A func-
tional neuroimaging study recently examined the neural
basis of such indifference to harming while participants
were engaged in moral dilemmas (Wiech et al. 2013). A ten-
dency toward counterintuitive impersonal utilitarian judg-
ment was associated both with “psychoticism” (or
psychopathy), a trait linked with a lack of empathic concern
and antisocial tendencies, and with “need for cognition,” a
trait reflecting preference for effortful cognition. Impor-
tantly, only psychoticism was also negatively correlated
with activation in the vmPFC during counterintuitive utili-
tarian judgments. These findings suggest that when individ-
uals reach highly counterintuitive utilitarian conclusions, it
does not need to reflect greater engagement in explicit moral
deliberation. It may rather reveal a lack of empathic concern,
and diminished aversion to harming others. Lesions of the
orbitofrontal cortex (including the vmPFC) have been associ-
ated with increased utilitarian choices in highly conflicting
moral dilemmas more often than control subjects, opting to
sacrifice one person’s life to save a number of other individu-
als (Young and Dungan 2012).
REASON PROVIDES THE LEASH TO USE EMPATHY
WISELY
Across both popular press and academic research, the use
of empathy has become pervasive to the point of clich
e,
possibly because of the generally admitted idea that
empathy plays a central role in smooth social interaction
and moral behavior. However, a critical analysis of the
work in social neuroscience calls for a more cautious
understanding of the functions of empathy in moral deci-
sion making.
Empathy does play an important function in motivat-
ing caring for others and in guiding moral judgment in
various forms, but this is far from being systematic or irre-
spective to the social identity of the targets, interpersonal
relationships, and social context. Its role in shaping peo-
ple’s understanding of why harming others is wrong and
in producing the relevant motivation is, however, more
limited than people think. This is because social forces that
unite and divide groups affect empathy, moral reasoning,
and prosocial behavior. Both behavioral and social neuro-
science studies have reliably demonstrated that empathy
(affective sharing and concern) is experienced more read-
ily for in-group members, and found that people show
diminished neural responses when witnessing an out-
group relative to an in-group member in distress and emo-
tional pain, or out-group derogation. The other side of the
coin is that empathic concern, because it evolved to favor
kin and members of one own social group, can bias deci-
sion making by valuing one single individual over a group
of others, and this can frontally conflict with fairness and
justice: for instance, spending millions of dollars to
develop a drug for a very limited number of patients suf-
fering from an orphan disease at the expense of a much
larger group of people in need. Similarly, empathy can
impair our capacity for justice and consequentialist action.
Empathic concern reduces our willingness to sacrifice indi-
viduals for the good of the many, as in the classic trolley
moral dilemmas, or makes us respond more to humanitar-
ian crises when there are individuals to identify with than
when they impact tens of thousands of people. Cues of
vulnerability, like baby faces, are powerful motivators of
empathy and have evolved to facilitate parental care. The
same cues in a criminal, however, may elicit lighter sen-
tence from jurors. It may be disturbing to recognize that
sometimes psychopaths “get it right” by making conse-
quentialist judgments, to benefit the many at the expense
of the few, precisely because they are less swayed by
empathy (Paytas 2014).
Clearly, empathic reactions are inherently linked to
partiality. And this partiality requires a framework of jus-
tice principles to counter its biasing effects and keep
social allocation behaviors in check (Blader and Tyler
2002). This idea is not new. Mill (1875) warned us about
people who may be amiable to those with whom they
sympathize, and grossly unjust and unfeeling to the rest
of the world.
3
These parochial tendencies need to be rationally regu-
lated and guided. This is especially important when one
strives to uphold general principles of justice and fairness
and it obviously has clear implications in social policy and
law. For instance, in Sweden, a closely patrolled pro-
immigration consensus has sustained extraordinarily lib-
eral policies while placing a virtual taboo on questions
about the social and economic costs. In neighboring Nor-
way, however, a strong tradition of free speech and effi-
cient administration has produced a hard-nosed approach
about which and how many refugees to take in. The Nor-
wegian Foreign Ministry has imposed a much stricter pol-
icy than Sweden’s, due to careful calculations of all the
social, health, housing, and welfare benefits mandated by
the state. Those calculations indicated that supporting a
single refuge would cost $120,000, which would be
enough to support 26 Syrians in a Jordanian refugee camp
(Eakin 2014). Therefore, the Norwegian government chose
to send money to support the Jordanian refugee camps
rather than accepting immigrants.
Skeptics may argue that reason cannot lead us in
directions that are good, just, or moral. It can deliver a
3. Another example is John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” as a
method to defend against the motivational force of empathy for
oneself or others by a procedure that minimizes the influences of
one’s emotion (Rawls, 1971).
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roadmap to peace if the peace is the goal, but it can also
provide a path to conflict if conflict is desired. Reason
may help to convince the most selfish and skeptical of us
to make sound decisions for himself as well as for the
many. Everyone cares about his or her well-being, yet
because we live in a global community we can interact
and comprehend each other’s perspectives. For instance,
if we ensure a sustainable system of energy and health
care, providing a basic standard of living for everyone,
then even in times of hardship, we will never be too
badly off. If we guarantee that all people are educated,
then that will lead to increased reasoning, science, and
art, ultimately resulting in more chances to benefit from
the harvest of the educated, well-fed minds we have
helped to cultivate.
WHEN REASON AND EMPATHY WORK TOGETHER
It has been argued that human rights, in the aftermath of
the Second World War, were created as a social response to
human suffering. While the concept of human rights can be
explained by the need to protect vulnerable human beings,
vulnerability is a condition, not the ground of human
rights. Vulnerability only became relevant for human rights
after it was assumed that every human being has intrinsic
dignity. Thus, human rights result as a confluence of both
factors: one normative (the recognition of intrinsic worthi-
ness of every individual), and one factual (the observation
that human beings are vulnerable, fragile, and exposed to
suffering) (Andorno and Baffone 2014). We are indeed both
capable of great empathy and generosity for the distress of
members of both our own species and other animals, and
indifferent or callous toward suffering of others. Empathy
alone is powerless in the face of rationalization and denial.
But reasoning and empathy can achieve great things.
Finally, acknowledging our evolved tendencies and
biases for caring or intervene to help our relatives and less
so for strangers does not mean that we should see our-
selves as marionettes dancing on the strings of evolution,
nor that what is found in nature is good.
4
Yes, certain
aspects of our behavior may be genetically guided, instilled
by natural selection in our savanna-dwelling ancestors. But
genes aren’t destiny. Genetic does not mean unchangeable.
All sorts of environmental factors can affect the expression
of genes. Likewise, we can use reason to curtail our incli-
nation to categorize ourselves and others in terms of social
group membership, whether this is based on race, tribe,
socioeconomic status (SES), or nationality.
Thus empathy influences many facets of our social
relations with others and is clearly an essential input into
decision making, but not necessarily for the best.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The writing of this article was supported by grants from
the John Templeton Foundation (Wisdom Research at the
University of Chicago) and from the National Institutes of
Health (R01 MH087525; R01 MH084934).
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... Several studies point to perspective-taking exercises as one of the best ways to foster empathy. This approach enables people to understand the other person's internal states by cognitively placing themselves in their perspective (Decety et al., 2012;Decety and Cowell, 2015;Christofi and Michael-Grigoriou, 2017;Bertrand et al., 2018;Loon et al., 2018). The basis of this method is to allow the participant to use their imagination to try to understand someone's perspective. ...
... Given its importance and its positive effects on social relationships in promoting the wellbeing of others, the development of altruistic behavior, perspective-taking, and prosocial behaviors, researchers have been trying to find new ways to increase empathy (Decety, 2010;Dunfield, 2014;Decety and Cowell, 2015;Decety et al., 2016). There are several ways to apply the method of perspective-taking, such as role-playing, mental simulations, narrative constructions, and videogames, among others (Rueda and Lara, 2020). ...
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... Históricamente, los seres humanos hemos activado diferentes mecanismos para responder a personas que no son parte de nuestro grupo. Según el neurobiólogo de origen francés Jean Decety (2015), las neuronas en el cerebro humano trabajan intensamente para codificar las decisiones del otro, así como sus intenciones. Por eso, en un primer encuentro entre personas, la mente hace una lectura rápida y determina si la otra persona es amigable o no y si es seguro acercarse a ella. ...
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... Recent studies have shown that several factors may have a modulating effect on an individual's empathic experience including apriori attitudes, stereotypes, group preferences, and group membership (4)(5)(6). Similarly, another study has shown how individuals raised within a lower socioeconomic background tended to show a greater frequency of empathic attitudes as compared to participants from the higher socioeconomic background (7). In medicine, factors such as age and gender have been shown to have a modulating effect on one's clinical empathic experience (8). ...
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Empathy is a construct applied to various phenomena that cover a broad spectrum ranging from experiencing emotions that match another individual's emotions, to feelings of concern for other people, to knowing what the other is thinking or feeling. Human empathy has deep evolutionary, biochemical, and neurological underpinnings and is mediated and moderated by multiple physiological and brain systems that have evolved from the neurobehavioral systems associated with social attachment and parental care. Sensitivity to signs of distress is processed by a network that partly overlaps with neural circuits involved in physical pain, including brain-stem regions, amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, insula, and orbitofrontal cortex.
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If happiness –understood as deep existential fulfillment– is the ultimate goal of life, then suffering contradicts in the most direct manner this basic aspiration of every individual. Suffering is the most painful and annihilating condition in human existence; it invades every corner of our being, tends to destroy any hope, and puts at risk our sense of integrity. Accordingly, suffering has been defined as " the state of severe distress associated with events that threaten the intactness of the person. " 1 Although suffering may overlap with physical pain, it extends beyond the bodily domain. Certainly, physical pain, at least when it rises above a certain level of intensity and duration, usually entails suffering, but both notions are not synonymous. First, there are other sources and varieties of suffering besides physical pain (e.g. moral suffering resulting from severe humiliation, injustice, discrimination, the breakdown of one's family, the death of a loved one, and solitude; metaphysical or existential suffering, which is caused by the loss of meaning in a person's life); second, a person's degree of suffering is not always directly correlated with the intensity of her pain. 2 Several factors that affect the perception of somebody's pain can amplify or diminish the person's suffering. These factors include whether the pain is perceived as of short duration, or, on the contrary, as a condition that the person will endure for a long period of time or even until the end of her days; whether the pain is regarded as absurd and meaningless, especially if it is the result of the malevolent will of other people (e.g. torture, inhuman punishment), or, on the contrary, as the result of an act of heroism or personal accomplishment (e.g. the pain suffered by the fireman who succeeds in saving other people's lives, or by the mother at childbirth). Assuming that the first moral principle, from which all others are derived, is that good is to be done and evil avoided, and admitting that suffering is an intrinsic evil, it is reasonable to conclude that there is a moral duty to prevent human suffering. This duty is however not absolute, as it can be overridden or trumped by higher moral considerations. Using W. D. 183 Ross's terminology, it can be said that the duty to prevent suffering is a 'prima facie duty', 3 as it is not absolute but can be overridden, for instance, by the duty not to kill. A terminal and seriously ill man could indeed be relieved from his suffering by being killed, but such a killing might still be wrong because of the intrinsic value that we attach to human life. This is precisely the reason why active euthanasia is legally forbidden in virtually all countries, and instead it is recommended to facilitate access to palliative care to address this terminal distress. The duty to prevent suffering can also be overridden, not by a rival duty, but by a rival permission. 4 For instance, a sentence to a long-term imprisonment as the result of a serious crime is usually a source of deep suffering for the convicted individual, but this inevitable distress can be justified by a requirement of justice (the punishment of crime and the prevention of further crimes). The scope of this chapter is, first, to explore to what extent human rights can be conceptualized as a social response to human suffering; second, to investigate whether suffering could be regarded as the foundation of human rights; and finally to analyze how three concrete forms of human suffering are addressed by human rights instruments: torture, starvation, and terminal illness.
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We review emerging research on the psychological and biological factors that underlie social group formation, cooperation, and conflict in humans. Our aim is to integrate the intergroup neuroscience literature with classic theories of group processes and intergroup relations in an effort to move beyond merely describing the effects of specific social out-groups on the brain and behavior. Instead, we emphasize the underlying psychological processes that govern intergroup interactions more generally: forming and updating our representations of "us" and "them" via social identification and functional relations between groups. This approach highlights the dynamic nature of social identity and the context-dependent nature of intergroup relations. We argue that this theoretical integration can help reconcile seemingly discrepant findings in the literature, provide organizational principles for understanding the core elements of intergroup dynamics, and highlight several exciting directions for future research at the interface of intergroup relations and neuroscience. © The Author(s) 2014.
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Why do people tend to care for upholding principles of justice? This study examined the association between individual differences in the affective, motivational and cognitive components of empathy, sensitivity to justice, and psychopathy in participants (N 265) who were also asked to rate the permissibility of everyday moral situations that pit personal benefit against moral standards of justice. Counter to commonsense, emotional empathy was not associated with sensitivity to injustice for others. Rather, individual differences in cognitive empathy and empathic concern predicted sensitivity to justice for others, as well as the endorsement of moral rules. Psychopathy coldheartedness scores were inversely associated with motivation for justice. Moreover, hierarchical multiple linear regression analysis revealed that self-focused and other-focused orientations toward justice had opposing influences on the permissibility of moral judgments. High scores on psychopathy were associated with less moral condemnation of immoral behavior. Together, these results contribute to a better understanding of the information processing mechanisms underlying justice motivation, and may guide interventions designed to foster justice and moral behavior. In order to promote justice motivation, it may be more effective to encourage perspective taking and reasoning to induce concern for others than emphasizing emotional sharing with the misfortune of others.