Neurotypicality and Ethics

Neurotypicality and Ethics

Empathy and morality

It was with great interest that I read an article in the New York Review of Books, Psychologists Take Power (February 24, 2016), which discussed morality and empathy in psychological terms. As a high-functioning visual autistic I have an atypical take on these intersecting topics. For me morality is a transactional social construct – relative, fluid and changeable, dependent on the match (mismatch) of human capacity and available resources, and also on circumstances like proximity and number. Morality simply encodes the balance a society idealizes between freedoms from and freedoms to. Not a spiritual reckoning, but a contract made after assessment of personal and aggregate capacity in facing survival challenges. The author and I are in agreement that moral principles – minimal or otherwise – should not be presumed by scientists. But I think he discounts psychological science too much. Morality is a frame appropriate for study by psychologists, and also by neuroscientists, given the innate differences I represent.

In my opinion moral codes exist on a spectrum between strictly and rigidly communal options for associations with the most challenged members, and libertarian characteristics for those having the greatest capacity. These two end-member contracts are equally benign, for the interdependence of those with commensurate capacity puts no one at a disadvantage. Conflicts arise, however, when capacities differ and there is no mutually advantageous balance, no easy win-win. What benefits low capacity costs high, and vice versa. Moral discussions are simply political discussions then, and concepts like empathy and compassion political weapons, as are the ideas of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility.

Empathy and compassion are tools useful for navigating societies composed of individuals very dependent on each other and consequently very tightly bound – they mediate the proximity required for survival and facilitate cooperation. But if you need others hardly at all, and can abstract mutually beneficial functionality to commercial and governmental exchanges, empathy is vestigial. Here etiquette codes suffice to maintain balanced give and take.

In environments of unequal capacity challenged individuals (and their advocates) must sweeten the pot for high capacity individuals in order to induce their participation in a disadvantageous contract. One strategy is to reframe unequal exchange in terms of enlightened self-interest. This scaling up of benefit assignment is often reasonable, and can result in mature political associations as in the democratic welfare states of Scandanavia.

Two other strategies are the normalization of low-capacity values, and the proffer of compensation. General evidence for the first is the community meme enmeshed in public life, and the academic flattery paid to the lifestyles of the poor and unknown (extending even to particulars like diet). The second strategy includes bestowed intangibles like grace, afterlives or other eternal rewards, and more real currencies – status and acceptance, for example – that are awarded for self-sacrifice and authenticated by a bedazzling variety of badges.

For me, meritocratic, irreligious, and rational by temperament and neurobiology, mostly indifferent to association, and empathetic mainly with children and animals, these charms have no appeal or merit. Any behavior that requires persuasion, needs trumpeting or a stamp of approval is suspect to a critical thinker. ‘Spiritual’ enticements are nothing more than the siren calls of advertisers, who wish me to act against my interest. Caveat emptor!

Of course, my take on these issues is nothing if not rational, and so in no small way presumes my values. But I am not arguing here for the greater validity of my preferred code, rather that the differences between me and neurotypicals are real, and extend to the moral sphere. They beg questions. Why do people value dependency rather than capacity? Why are some people persuaded and others not? Why are some religious and others not? What makes people prefer hierarchy or nepotism to meritocracy? Why do people switch/change moral codes? Why do people act against their own interests? Who needs outside validation, and why? Investigations into these differences are worthy, for everyone’s sake. Not because they can ascertain appropriate moral structure, but because they can provide a foundation for those discussions.
With more knowledge, better politics.


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