Autism & Empathy

Cher from “Clueless”, a character who goes from mostly uninvolved socialite to charity worker in the movie.

One commonly cited symptom of autism is our apparent lack of empathy. It conveys the idea that we’re hard, STEM-oriented, robots without the capacity for human connection. The fact is, while there are large portions of the autistic population who don’t compensate for their low oxytocin and other sympathetic neurochemical levels with other means of moral emotion, it would be wrong to say that high-funcitoning autistic people do not have moral emotions. It would be curious to hold that Greta Thunberg lacks empathy. She has a lot of it, she just feels that empathy through different pathways. As do I.

Do neurotypicals have empathy? By the rates of charity donations, volunteer hours, political activism, and more, it would seem that humans, on the whole, mostly have very little empathy. The percentage of time per week they spend doing altruistic work or thinking about the welfare of others or the environment is miniscule. The psychological measurements likely include testing whether they react to a ficitonal tragedy with increased levels of sympathetic neurotransmitters. That hardly tells you whether someone is a good person.

It tells you whether they instinctively react to the stimuli of another person suffering. Yet, there are more moral emotions than that. There are two general gradients of moral emotions, the pity-spectrum and the honor-spectrum. Do you help the unfortunate more out of pity for their condition or the sense of duty according to your own? Would you feel more bad out of their misfortune if you didn’t help them or more bad because of your shame of not being the benevolent person you aspire to be?

I fall squarely in the latter. I less pour out in tears over the plight of the needy but have strong emotions of duty to help them. It relates to the fairly straight-edge life I live. I don’t drink, do drugs, have sex, watch pornography, get in fights, and more. I lead a fairly vice-less life in terms of the traditional vices. That’s becuse I have strong feelings of nobility and honor. It’s old fashioned and, philospically, more aligned with classic virtue ethics than the modernism and utilitarianism which dominates how most contemporary people gage morality.

One difference is when a major trial is in he media, I mostly don’t feel rage against the perpetrator and actually feel that having such rage would be below my humanity. As much a member of Black Lives Matter as I am, when the Trayvon Martin case arose in the media, I didn’t attend the protests in large part owing to my feeling that George Zimmerman was becoming the left’s “Casey Anthony” and I was against metaphorically burning someone in effigy. I thought pity for the victim should not translate to hatred of the perpetrator and that while such hatred may be an inevitable private vice for some because of the crime, the movement should not entertain any of it.

That type of moral feeling is not so much pity but of striving to be evolved, benevolent, gracious, magnanamous, and chivalrous. It’s less about their afflictions as it is my character. Whatever I lack in oxytocin, I make up for in the feelings of shame and honor which are as powerful for me as feeling the intense sadness over a cute worthy victim is for neurotypicals. Are the emotions I feel, morally, more or less empathetic? They are a qualitatively different kind of empathy but I hope that the perceptage of my life spent in altruistic work (which is a lot) may suggest that I’m better than average.

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