In the various threads on hugging and the like, Autistic Spectrum Disorders are being brought up a lot. And as seems to be the case, people are reacting rather angrily to the suggesting that people with an ASD don’t have empathy. This was also mentioned in a comment on my essay about morality, psychopath and autistics. However, that essay clearly establishes that science says that, yes, they do have problems with empathy, and yet the whole point of my discussions in that essay was to demonstrate that autistics can still be fully and properly moral, which while some deny there are many others who do not deny that. So, then, what is there to get upset about?
It seems to me that too many people confuse knowing what other people are thinking and feeling with caring about what other people are thinking and feeling. Empathy is simply knowing what other people are feeling. As I argued in the essay, psychopaths certainly seem to know what other people are feeling and how they will feel if they take a certain action, because psychopaths tend to be excellent manipulators, and good manipulation requires manipulating emotions. Psychopaths, however, simply don’t care about what other people feel, in the sense that the feelings of others don’t generally impact their actions; they will take those actions regardless of how the other people will feel at the end of it all.
Autistics, on the other hand, have problems knowing what other people are feeling. But, as was established in the paper and is a constant theme in Temple Grandin’s work, autistics care about what other people are thinking and feeling. They want to fit in. They want people to like them. They want to make people happy. Generally, at least (there can, of course, be jerk autistics). So their impairment is in their ability to figure out what people are feeling, not in their ability to take it into account when deciding how they should act. Psychopaths are the exact opposite.
This is why autistics tend to be rule-obsessed. They want the rules and to do the analysis so that they can figure out how to act so as to take the feelings of others into account, because that knowledge doesn’t come naturally to them. If the rules don’t work, they have nothing to fall back on and so act in ways that don’t conform to social standards. They are, simply, trying to replace knowledge, knowledge that is normally gained by what we call empathy.
This conflation, I think, is critically important to discussions of autistics and morality in general. We cannot conflate knowing what other people are feeling and caring about what other people are feeling or else we make really bad statements like arguing that empathy is the key to morality when we really mean that caring about other people is, no matter how one gets that.