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A number of scholars have offered behavioral and physiological arguments in favor of the existence of empathy in other species (see Bekoff & Pierce 2009, Flack & de Waal 2000, Plutchik 1987). While the evidence is compelling, claims about empathy in nonhuman apes face two different challenges. The first challenge comes from a set of empirical findings that suggest great apes are not able to think about other’s beliefs. The argument here is based on a view that empathy is associated with folk psychological understanding of others’ mental states, or mindreading, and the existence of mindreading among the other apes is a matter of some dispute. The second worry comes from a host of recent experiments suggesting that nonhuman great ape communities lack certain social norms that we might expect empathic creatures to have, namely cooperation norms, norms of fairness, and punishment in response to violations of norms (especially third party punishment). If apes are empathetic, yet they do not use this capacity to help or punish, what is the role of empathy? We think that both these challenges can be answered by getting clearer about what empathy is and how it functions as well as considering the nature of empathic societies. We also believe that this analysis will clarify the relationship between being empathetic and being ethical.


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