In this article Nichols makes an exploration of altruistic moral behaviour to determine the reason for its motivation. Firstly, he explores the available theories of the ‘moral mind’ and then sets out reasons for their acceptance or dismissal. Secondly, he explores what evidence there is for an emotional account being the motivating factor for moral behaviour. Finally, he determines that there is an affective system which is triggered by an emotional reaction and creates specific altruistic behaviour. This system he terms the ‘Concern Mechanism’. Nicholas concludes that the ‘Concern Mechanism’ is an affective system that is activated by an individual’s emotional or sympathetic response that recognises distress in others while only relying upon minimal mindreading ability (2001:425).

In his argument Nichols addresses two questions: one of which explores what mechanism actually initiates the motivational altruistic state itself. The other question seeks to find out which mindreading mechanism is required for such a purpose (Nichols, 2001:426). Nichols argues against there being no mindreading involved in altruistic action but contends that there is only a minimal requirement of the ability to attribute distress to another. He cites (2001, 427) cases of very young children practising helping behaviours from a study by the philosopher Lawrence Blum (1994). He (2001:429) concentrates on a young child’s ability to comfort or help someone in distress to establish a cognitive theory of altruism.

Nichols (2001:431) cites a hypothesis by Sober and Wilson (1998) that sympathy and empathy initiate altruism and that emotional contagion and mindreading are not used whatsoever. They maintain that there is a difference between sympathy and empathy, in that sympathy is an emotion of feeling concerned about distress of others whereas empathy is to understand or experience their distress. Nichols argues that very young children can exhibit sympathetic behaviour after the age of one and that they also have basic mind reading skills at this stage, although not enough for empathy. Therefore, the capacity for exhibiting sympathy may require some mind reading skills (2001:432) but this still does not give an adequate explanation of altruistic motivation ( 2001:433).

The attribution of distress triggers an affective response that generates the motivation to help the person in distress (Nichols, 2001:444). Some of these affective responses can be reactive to another’s facial expression, self-report or physiological behaviour ( 2001:445). Nichols terms this sympathetic behaviour as the ‘Concern Mechanism’ and states that altruistic behaviour in very young children show that they have a functioning Concern Mechanism (2001:447). However, Nichols also states that the Concern Mechanism is operable before children have developed the ability to take account of another’s perspective, which suggests that the Concern Mechanism does not need such an ability to engage a mind in altruistic behaviour. This conclusion is supported by autistic children exhibiting altruistic behaviour but who have a severely restricted capacity for perspective-taking ( 2001:448) and, on the other hand, psychopaths only having the ability to perspective-take without exhibiting any altruistic behaviour, suggesting that their Concern Mechanism is defective ( 2001:449).

Nichols’ careful argument for the role of sympathy, and a minimal mind reading requirement, as being the motivator for altruistic behaviour is very compelling. Through his focus on children and their capacity for comforting behaviours at a very early stage, he seems able to verify his conclusion that moral cognition is initiated by an input representation that activates a simple emotional response in the recipient and has an outcome of altruistic behaviour.



Blum, L. 1994: Moral development and conceptions of morality. In Moral Perception

and Particularity. Cambridge University Press.

Nichols, Shaun. “Mindreading and the cognitive architecture underlying altruistic motivation” Mind and Language , 16:4 , 2001 , 425-455


Sober, E. and Wilson, D. 1998: Unto Others. Harvard University Press.