Empathy, Morality, and Autism

While I generally disagree with those who claim that people with autism do not have empathy, when it comes to moral decision-making, empathy not only may not be necessary but, according to Jesse Prinz, may in fact get in the way.

I have read in various places that people on the spectrum tend to be very moral. At the same time, people have tended to think of empathy and morality as being closely related. How can one be highly moral and have low empathy? That was the conundrum those who argued that autistic have low empathy had to try to work out.

While I do not agree that people with autism lack empathy, I would agree that we/they have impaired empathy. Why that is is up for debate, though I’m of the opinion that a too-intense feeling drives us away from people, impairing its proper development. It may also be possible that we engage in some degree of avoidance so we are not overwhelmed by others’ feelings.

But if Jesse Prinz is right, we might have an explanation for why it is people on the spectrum tend to be extremely moral in their actions. If empathy is not getting in the way of our moral decision-making, that would make our decisions more moral.

Of course, this separation between empathy and moral decision-making is likely to be read as cold. But if the highly empathetic morality of the inquisitioners is any indication, perhaps we need more cold morality and less warm morality in the world.

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2 thoughts on “Empathy, Morality, and Autism

  1. I’ve found that my morality can be a bit atypical because I rely on my personal beliefs, rather than the morality of society, so empathy only comes into play occasionally. If you’re interested, The Science of Evil, by Simon Baron-Cohen, is a really interesting read on different presentations of empathy.

    Liked by 1 person

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