Monday, August 18, 2014

Autism Diaries: ethics

There are ethicists who specialize in ethical conundrums. And there are ethicists who specialize in the ethical treatment of people with disabilities. But are there any ethicists who specialize in how ethical conundrums are handled by those with disabilities--in particular, those on the autistic spectrum?

After all, AS individuals are thought to lack the kinds of empathy and perspective taking skills that inform the ethical views of neurotypicals.

Take J, for example. Much of what guides his behavior isn't an internal moral compass, but the threat of punishment. Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not torment animals; thou shalt not bother people or waste things--it's all because thou would get punished, if not imprisoned, if not executed.

And yet, J sometimes shows glimmers of ethical awareness. Recently, for example, we were talking about zoos, and I explained to him that many people don't like zoos because of how they coop up wild animals. This idea clearly troubled him, because he immediately started rationalizing about why zoos still might serve a purpose:

"But people like to look at the animals."

"But they can watch animals on nature videos and see them in their natural habitats."

A while later:

"But maybe it's like waterfalls. You don't want to just watch a waterfall in a video. You also want to go to the waterfall."

It occurred to me, then, to present him with one of those "trolley car" dilemmas:

"What happens if a trolley is accelerating out of control, and about to hit a group of people, but you could flick a switch so that it only hits one person. Then would you flick a switch and cause that one person to die?"

"Maybe I would do that. But maybe not if it was someone I know."

"What about if you're standing on a bridge above the trolley, and there's a man on the bridge next to you, and you could stop the trolley from hitting the group of people by throwing the man over the bridge in front of the trolley. Would you do that?"

"I don't think I would do that because it would seem like murder."

Fairly typical arguments, I thought--from the standpoint of neurotypical ethics.

But then there was this exchange:

"Is that right," he asked "it's OK to do experiments on animals but not on people?"

"But what about new medicines?" I asked. "How can we know if they will work on people unless they are tested on people?"

His response was disconcertingly swift:

"Maybe people should do experiments on criminals in jail."

And I'm still not sure how to answer this in terms he will understand.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Having had that discussion (about animals and research) with many people (experiments on criminals and not animals), I find that it is disturbingly difficult to discuss, even with supposedly neurotypical teens -- if a person has already accepted the idea that animals are people, too (or some lesser version of that view). Animals, after all, are innocent, while criminals are not. And, many people have experience with loving animals but not criminals. The simpler arguments depend on drawing a line between animals and humans. The other arguments are philosophically quite complex.

It's interesting how much of the rest of your discussion with J is no different from those with neurotypical teens (and, I'm guessing you think that he hasn't heard of the trolley problem, which distorts the results for many). I think these broad strokes of "don't have empathy or theory of mind or . . . ." are often incorrect, especially when compared with the broad swathe of the typical population (rather than extremes within it, like the super-empathetic person). My guess is your entire discussion is the one I'd expect from any naive individual (i.e. naive to discussing ethical topics).

bj