Nichols is arguing that none of the prevailing opinions regarding altruism in mindreading is accurate. He is purposing that altruistic motivation depends on a basic affective system, a ‘Concern Mechanism’, which requires only a minimal capacity for mindreading. This is different than the typical belief that the extent to which the capacity for altruism depends on the capacity for understanding other minds, or that the capacity for altruism depends on fairly sophisticated mindreading skills.
The last century had philosophers and psychologists trying to explain humans moral psychology by using and comparing our capacity for mindreading, or understanding other people’s minds. The last twenty years, however, have seen much conceptual and hard data progress in the research of mindreading. Moral psychology has looked at the nature and development of both the capacity for altruistic motivation and the capacity for attributing mental states to others and predicting their behaviour.
Nichols purposes that it is time that the two different examinations of mindreading be brought together and that the relationships between them start to be charted and examined. He also states that the research pool on altruism is huge, and that he draws from all the different areas of research in his paper, but he is trying to restrict this paper specifically to addressing and determining the cognitive mechanisms that underlay basic altruistic motivation.
Nichols states ‘that altruistic motivation depends on the minimal mindreading capacity to attribute negative affective or hedonic states to others.’ This means that a person is able to have the altruistic motivation capacity even when they don’t have the opportunity to, or use the ability to imagine themselves in the other person’s shoes. The person must still have the ability to attribute negative affective states and conditions to the other, though. This leads him into his argument for perspective when considering Batson’s evidence. Nichols flat-out states that ‘Batson’s experiments cannot be decisive evidence for the perspective-taking account.’ This is in reference to the range of empathy-provoking experiments that Nichols discussed earlier, such as where there were people that had to walk past a room where a man (one of the experimenters) was being put into some distress from a possible electric shock. It was then observed if the person walking past would offer assistance or not, and it was found that most of the time they would. Nichols argues that if the cost of helping had not been being shocked, then there would have been even more people that would have stopped to help, however, he also states that it makes some sense as to why higher empathy subjects have a higher altruistic motivational rate.
Nichols concludes this article with a compelling argument that the Concern Mechanism, which he believes is responsible for altruistic motivation, is present not only in humans, but also in non-human animals. This means that there is a small ability for mindreading in these animals, and that humans would have developed this to a greater extent over the evolutionary process. Further, Nichols effectively showed the mental states and stresses that affect people and produce altruistic motivation when activating on an affective system such as the Concern Mechanism. This all lends credence to his statement that the Concern Mechanism coupled with minimal mindreading capacity results in humans ability for altruistic motivation.
Nichols, S. (2001) ‘Mindreading and the Cognitive Architecture underlying Altruistic Motivation’ in Mind & Language, 16, pp. 425-455.