Morality and Empathy


What grounds our obligation to treat each other well? What, if anything, can provide an objective justification for basic moral principles like 'treat others as you would like them to treat you?' My second book, currently under contract, is an attempt to address this very old question in a novel way by drawng on recent debates in cognitive science about what is sometimes called empathy: the process of understanding other minds by imaginatively recreating their perspectives. I think the right understanding of empathy can effect a productive synthesis of sentimentalism (the idea that morality comes from our capacity for feeling with others) and rationalism (the idea that morality comes from our capacity to reason about things), because empathy is a way of reasoning with feelings to understand conscious beings from the inside.

  • Empathic Reason: Imagination, Morality, and the Minds of Others. Oxford University Press. (draft materials available on request; slides from a 2018 presentation summarising the project here)

This project has close connections both to my work on philosophy of imagination (since I analyse empathy as a form of imaginative simulation) as well as to my work on AI Ethics and consciousness in nature (since Empathic Reason supports a 'sentientist' moral theory, where conscious experience is central to moral status).

Some other work related to this project:

  • “Imagine if they did that to you!” (2021, In Epistemic Uses of Imagination, edited by Amy Kind and Christopher Badura. Routledge: 279-297; ideas previously presented in 2019 talks at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum and NYU)

This paper seeks to untangle the sense in which empathy is about the other person, and the sense in which it’s about how you yourself would feel in their situation. I argue that imagining self-involving hypotheticals is useful insofar as the mental models they prompt you to create are then repurposed to represent actual other people.

My review of an excellent book pursuing a very similar project. Although we reach similar conclusion, I put the analysis of the imagination at the centre of my project while Marshall, prefers analysing compassion as analogous to a sort of direct perception.

  • “Knowing How It Feels and Feeling It: Compassion, Empathy, and Epistemology.” The Science of Consciousness, Interlaken (2019), Colloquium Talk, University of Osnabrück (2019) (slides here)

A survey of three recent philosophers (Zahavi, Smith, and Marshall) who agree that something like 'empathy' gives us a special sort of understanding of another person, but disagree about what 'empathy' is and what sort of understanding it gives us.

A lot of my work has clustered around analysing how our minds go about understanding others, and in particular the ways that imaginative simulations can be built into perceptual experiences and social interactions:

A paper about the idea that we can directly perceive other’s mental states, which is often presented as an alternative to thinking that I have to infer or imagine them. I argue that we do perceive mental states but that this is compatible with thinking that we do so through incorporating an inferential structure into perceptual experience, and that this inferential structure may be implemented by imagination.

  • "We-First: Knowing and Perceiving Interactions from Within." (in progress; draft available on request)

A paper about the phenomenology of social interaction, and the possibility that we might have an awareness of the interaction as such (partly introspective and partly perceptual) that’s prior to distinct awareness of either our own contribution or the other’s. (This links up with my work on collective intentionality.)

  • “Mind-Reading, Behaviour-Reading, and Something In-Between.” (in progress, presented in 2019 talk at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum; slides available on request)

A paper about animal theory of mind: there's debate about whether animals like chimps and parrots can attribute mental states to each other, or simpy notice patterns in each other's behaviour. I argue that this a bad dichotomy: it obscures the likelihood that some animals attribute mental-states-in-behaviour, without being able to represent either mental states or behaviour by themselves.

  • “Low-level simulation, unconscious inference, and implicit belief: how can mental-state types cross levels?” (a 2018 at Rutgers; slides here)

A talk about the sorts of objections that often attend postulation of 'unconscious', 'implicit', or 'low-level' versions of familiar mental states, and some of the options for responding to such objections.

  • “Extended Simulation and Gender-Subjectivity.” (in progress, for Interpersonal Understanding: Transcending Boundaries?, a special issue of Philosophical Explorations, eds. K. Sodoma, E. Ventham, and C. Werner)

A paper analysing the different sorts of obstacles to accurately empathising with people of different gender identities, and some of the tools and techniques that can help us overcome those obstacles. (This links up with my work on gender)