Autism, Empathy and Questions of Moral Agency

Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 39 (2):145-166 (2009)
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In moral psychology, it has long been argued that empathy is a necessary capacity of both properly developing moral agents and developed moral agency . This view stands in tension with the belief that some individuals diagnosed with autism—which is typically characterized as a deficiency in social reciprocity —are moral agents. In this paper we propose to explore this tension and perhaps trouble how we commonly see those with autism. To make this task manageable, we will consider whether high functioning individuals diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder are capable of empathetic responses. If they are, then they possess a capacity that, on the view above, is required for moral agency. If they are not so capable, and yet sometimes engage in moral behaviour, this casts some doubt on the claim that empathy is required for moral agency. This second possibility will necessitate an exploration of the capacity of some individuals with autism to engage in moral behaviour, giving us further grounds to re-see these individuals as moral agents



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Andrew Fenton
Dalhousie University