Autistics are Kantians; Objectivists are Hobbesian Egoists …

Sam Harris decided to argue for a very radical idea on taxing the rich and ran into some comments from people who seemed to him, at least, to be Rand inspired egoists. He decided to reply to them and made a colossal error in doing so:

The result was Objectivism—a view that makes a religious fetish of selfishness and disposes of altruism and compassion as character flaws. If nothing else, this approach to ethics was a triumph of marketing, as Objectivism is basically autism rebranded.

Now, I’m not going to comment — at least not yet — on taxes and the “rich”. Also, others at Pharyngula have taken on how Harris is basically exploiting an actual mental disorder to make his point, and also how autistics don’t seem to, at least, act as if they are incapable of altruism and compassion. What I’m going to do is focus on the moral aspects here, and how even that’s inaccurate.

As seen in the essay here, people like Heidi Maibom argue that autistics tend to act like Kantians — follow the rules without exceptions — than Humeans — let emotions guide your morality — when it comes to morality. From this, you might get the sense that autistics lack empathy and even, in some cases, compassion. And they at least lack empathy. But that isn’t what Objectivists hold. And you might also argue that autistics have a tendency to be self-absorbed, in the sense that they can be unaware of the world or those that exist outside of their direct experience. But that’s not even “self-interested” as per the Objectivist view, let alone “selfish”.

Objectivists are not Kantians and are not Humeans. They are, in fact, Hobbesian Egoists, arguing that in some sense humans have to — or ought to, at least — act only or primarily in their own self-interest. Thus, they deliberately choose their own interests over those of others, and calculate every interaction on the basis of how it benefits them. (Which, it strikes me, is how a lot of “well-being” advocates argue as well). That’s selfish.

Autistics, on the other hand, act on the basis of rules. They are incapable of acting on natural empathy, and so have to gain any empathy they have from following a set of rules. Even the exceptions, then, have to be rules. But as seen in the essay I list above, autistics know very well that they have to act properly in a social world, which means having rules for acting on empathy and out of compassion and altruistically when appropriate. They are not, in fact, Egoists. They can’t be; they wouldn’t fit in with everyone else if they were, assuming that others are not Egoists as well.

The funny thing here is that this would turn on a risk of equivocating about what “selfish” means. Are autistics self-centered enough to be called “selfish”? Well, not in the sense Harris needs. But since he has an undergraduate degree in Philosophy and is talking about morality, I’m going to presume that he’s come across Egoism and Hobbes, and if he’d come across that he’d have come across the basic bone of contention in Hobbes: that Hobbes defines “selfish” so broadly when he argues that everyone is inherently selfish that it doesn’t and can’t carry the negative and strong connotation that it does. If I am the sort of person who is made happy by helping others, Hobbes would consider that to be selfish, while most others would consider that admirable.

Harris, in one short sentence, commits that gaff. Or, at least, he commits the gaff of misunderstanding what the autistic and the Objectivist moral codes actually are. Objectivism cannot be autism rebranded because it is Hobbesian Egoism morally, while autism is Kantian. Kantians would not make the same arguments that the Objectivists would, and thus they are not the same thing. At all. And Harris should have known that.


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