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Public Lecture - Empathy and morality: An interdisciplinary perspective

Professor Jean Decety

14 March 2018, Macquarie University, Sydney


2.00-4.00 pm followed by light refreshments


Australian Hearing Hub
Level 1 Lecture Theatre
Macquarie University


Empathy, the ability to perceive and be sensitive to the emotional states of others, motivates prosocial and caregiving behaviors, plays a role in inhibiting aggression, and facilitates cooperation between members of a similar social group. This is probably why empathy is often and wrongly confused with morality, which refers to prescriptive norms regarding how people should treat one another, including concepts of justice, fairness, and rights. Drawing on empirical research and theory from evolutionary biology, psychology and social neuroscience, I will argue that our sensitivity to others' needs has been selected in the context of parental care and group living. One corollary of this evolutionary model is that empathy produces social preferences that can conflict with morality. This claim is supported by a wealth of empirical findings in neuroscience and behavioral economics documenting a complex and equivocal relation between empathy, morality and justice. Empathy alone is powerless in the face of rationalization and denial. It is reason that provides the push to widen the circle of empathy from the family and the tribe to humanity as a whole.


Jean Decety is a French-American neuroscientist. He is the Irving B. Harris Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago and its College, USA. He is the Director of the Child Neurosuite and the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory. Decety is a leading scholar on the social neuroscience of empathy, morality and prosocial behavior, as well as other topics related to the neurobiology of social cognition. His work has led to new understandings of socio-affective processes and moral decision-making in typically developing children and adults as well as criminal psychopaths. His research uses neuroimaging techniques (functional MRI and high-density EEG) and behavioral economics to examine how biological and social factors interact in contributing to social-decision making and the motivation to care for the well-being of others.

Decety has been on the University of Chicago faculty since 2006. Prior to that, he was at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA, and Director of Research at the National Medical Research Institute in Lyon, France. He received his PhD in Neurobiology from the Université Claude Bernard in Lyon, France in 1989, followed by a postdoc at the Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm (Departments of Neuroradiology and Neurophysiology), Sweden.


Robin Blumfield
Tel: +612 9850 4127

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