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Empathy and the Evolutionary Emergence of Guilt

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 April 2022

Grant Ramsey*
Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
Michael J. Deem
Department of Human Genetics, Center for Bioethics & Health Law, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, US
*Corresponding author. Email:


Guilt poses a unique evolutionary problem. Unlike other dysphoric emotions, it is not immediately clear what its adaptive significance is. One can imagine thriving despite or even because of a lack of guilt. In this article, we review solutions offered by Scott James, Richard Joyce, and Robert Frank and show that although their solutions have merit, none adequately solves the puzzle. We offer an alternative solution, one that emphasizes the role of empathy and posttransgression behavior in the evolution of guilt. Our solution, we contend, offers a better account of why guilt evolved to play its distinctive social role.

© The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Philosophy of Science Association

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