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.