Do Neurotypicals Have Intact Moral Agency?



Do autistics have intact moral agency? A claim forwarded in Deborah Barnbaum’s book The Ethics of Autism (and echoed by several other philosophers and psychologists) is that we don’t. On this analysis, neurotypicals are presumed to have intact moral agency.  By contrast, it is argued that autistics are comparatively less capable of ethical comportment and decision making, and thus that we aren’t full moral agents.

While there’s a few variations of this argument, the basic reasoning typically goes something like this:

1)     autistic individuals have an empathy deficit

2)     empathy is a necessary component of moral agency

3)     therefore, autistic individuals have deficient moral agency

To give a bit more detail, the first premise is based on the notion that autism can be defined via a deficit in what is variously called Theory of Mind or cognitive empathy. This regards the cognitive module taken to be necessary for processing the social world, including for understanding the minds of others. On a medical deficit model autism has often been associated with a broken empathising module, meaning that autistics individuals struggle to understand other minds.

In turn, the second premise is based on a long tradition in moral philosophy (dating back to David Hume in the 18th Century) which holds that our capacity for being moral agents is based in significant part on our ability to empathise or sympathise with others. For, it is argued, we need to understand others to know what is good for them, and in turn act on this.

If we accept both of these premises, then its easy to see why philosophers often think that autistics won’t have fully intact moral agency – to some extent at least, and depending on the level of impairment. According to Barnbaum, who forwards the most extreme version of this argument, autistic individuals wholly lack moral capacity, to the point where we are excluded from the moral community of humanity. And even on far less extreme analyses such the that offered by Nathan Stout, it is still claimed that autistic individuals struggle with the “fine-grained features of moral judgment” at least. Trawl the philosophical literature on autism and its easy to find many variations of this argument.

But things aren’t this simple. One huge problem with this is that the evidence for the empathy deficit hypothesis is both shaky and rooted in ableist assumptions. Hence any reasoning based on this hypothesis will also rely on the same flaws. In turn, a more interesting problem regards how this argument overlooks the way in which problems in social understanding are actually a two way street between autistics and neurotypicals. This has been explored, most notably, by autistic sociologist Damian Milton, who refers to this as the “double empathy problem” – thereby stressing that is isn’t simply a matter of autistic deficit but rather a relational dysfunction that arises when the divide is crossed.

Building on this, in a 2019 article I hypothesised that its not just that neurotypicals struggle to empathise with autistics; its also the case that many autistics often can fluently empathise with other autistics. This has since been supported by various studies that have precisely found that autistic people do seem to have be better at socialising with other autistics than neurotypicals are with autistics (see, e.g. here or here). Once we take this into account, I think there’s room for reversing the traditional analysis – up to a point.

My hunch is that, there’s good reason to think that if autistics do have some kind of limitation as moral agents, then it’s also likely the case that neurotypicals have the same kind of limitation. Yet vitally, each will mainly be present for the other, rather than it being the case that these are somehow fixed deficits that apply irrespective of context. In other words, in so far as there’s a double empathy problem, and in so far as moral agency does require the ability to empathise, its likely that there’s also a double moral agency problem between autistics and neurotypicals.

If anything, there’s stronger reason to think that neurotypicals have limited ability for moral agency when it comes to how to treat autistics than the other way around. The reason for this is that we live in a world structured by ableism and disableism, with neurotypicals occupying a comparatively privileged and enabled position in contrast to comparatively disabled and devalued autistics. Because of this, most neurotypicals don’t have to think about autistic needs: doing so is not part of the social role of the neurotypical. And since autistic needs are routinely overlooked in society more generally, its likely that neurotypical individuals will have limited epistemic access to the needs of autistic individuals. But this kind of additional epistemic limitation will arise for socio-political more than biologically-based reasons.

In support of this, there’s plenty of evidence that autistics are not given due moral recognition in a predominantly neurotypical world. For instance, autistics are routinely discriminated against and abused.  Terrifyingly, when neurotypical parents kill their autistic children, they often encounter sympathy for doing so once it becomes know that their child was autistic. This has become so systemic that the Autistic Self Advocacy Network has for some years helped organise an annual vigil for disabled children murdered by their parents. Indeed, when Barnbaum wrote her book on the ethics of autism,  and argued that all autistic foetuses should be terminated, the book won awards from neurotypical organsiations instead of being condemned. While all this is linked by the ableist power structures, part of the explanation for each individual case may regard the limited ability of neurotypicals to empathise with autistics, thus diminishing the moral agency of the former when it comes to dealings with the latter.

Overall, its far from clear that autistics do lack moral empathy in the way philosophers routinely claim. But there is some reason to think that autistics and neurotypicals may have limited moral agency when to comes to recognising the moral dignity and worth of the other – and in this specific regard, there’s reason to think that neurotypicals are more deeply disabled than autistics.

One thought on “Do Neurotypicals Have Intact Moral Agency?

  1. Thanks for this excellent post. I think there are a couple of ways to spin this argument in somewhat different directions. I’ve been toying with something similar for a while – it’s a pretty natural response to want to point out how the shoe is on the other foot to philosophers like Barnbaum and Shoemaker when one is autistic and/or familiar with the work of folks like Milton and Sinclair*. Some of them are already implicit in what you’ve written, and others I expect you have likely considered. I’d be interested in to hear your thoughts on them!

    One way to develop the argument is to frame it partly in terms of autistic empathic advantage. This could be approached in two ways: at the social level (emphasized in your post) or at the psychological level. The way your argument is developed emphasizes social epistemic disadvantages. One could here draw on arguments from the epistemic injustice literature (which I am sure you had in mind) that marginalized communities may in fact have certain epistemic advantages (José Medina’s book on the epistemology of resistance is a recent example). It’s possible that one could argue that autistics bear similar advantages inasmuch as they are unable to occupy the privileged position that lets neurotypicals largely ignore neurominorities. Certainly, there is a sense in which this is already implied by your argument: relative to the disadvantage allistics face, autistics will have advantage.

    Another approach would emphasize the psychological dimension. If the accuracy of empathic judgments as normally exercised partly depends on psychological similarity (Shannon Spaulding’s work on efficiency-oriented empathy supports this, and it’s of course going to come along with simulation theories), then the double empathy problem can partly be explained by the success of normally exercised empathy among those with substantial enough psychological overlap and the failure of it across psychological divides. But crucially, it also raises the question of what empathic mechanisms can help produce accurate judgments in situations of psychological difference. The mechanisms may very well be different from the usual models of empathy which are typically derived from considering the successful exercise of empathy among psychologically similar people. Furthermore, there is a reasonable possibility that people who have to frequently exercise empathy across psychological divides are likely to be more adept at it. I think one could plausibly argue that autistics, due to their social position, are more likely to exercise this type of empathy. Thus, it might be fruitful to look at the way empathy is exercised by autistics when trying to understand and navigate allistic social norms as exemplary of empathy exercised with psychological others (inverting the usual framing as a kind of makeshift compensation for intrinsic empathic deficits). Thinking about it this way, I think, also leads to the second way of developing the kind of argument you’ve described in your post.

    The second way it to start thinking about the lines between failures of moral agency resulting from empathic limitation and resulting from culpable failures to exercise moral agency. If empathy is an important part of moral agency, some failures of empathy may be involuntary and caused by epistemic disadvantages resulting from social facts, and so may be best thought of as an empathic disadvantage or impairment of some kind. But many failures are surely not involuntary in this way, and may be better understood as moral failings rather than limitations of ability. Considering mechanisms whereby empathy *could* be exercised despite social and (relational) psychological limitations helps provide footing to start thinking about what *can* be done and therefore what is and isn’t *being* done. And this provides the framing to start exploring the reasons why the moral labor autistic people often put in trying to bridge the empathic gap is not met by equivalent moral labor from allistics.** This will naturally connect back to the sorts of power structures you discuss, albeit from a different angle.

    * – Can we talk about the baffling trend of philosophers writing on autism who have read and quote Jim Sinclair and somehow still seem to miss the point?
    ** – Usual caveat that that this is not intended to be universally true. Many autistic people refuse the moral labor of empathy and instead view allistics dismissively as ultimately incomprehensible b/c irrational, overly sensitive, socially obsessed etc… and many allistics, (often those who have autistic loved ones) do put in serious moral work.


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