Psychopathy, autism, and basic moral emotions: Evidence for sentimentalist constructivism

In Serife Tekin & Robyn Bluhm (eds.), The Bloomsbury Companion to Philosophy of Psychiatry. Bloomsbury (forthcoming)
Authors
Erick Ramirez
Santa Clara University
Abstract
Philosophers and psychologists often claim that moral agency is connected with the ability to feel, understand, and deploy moral emotions. In this chapter, I investigate the nature of these emotions and their connection with moral agency. First, I examine the degree to which these emotional capacities are innate and/or ‘basic’ in a philosophically important sense. I examine three senses in which an emotion might be basic: developmental, compositional, and phylogenetic. After considering the evidence for basic emotion, I conclude that emotions are not basic in a philosophically important sense. Emotions, I argue, are best understood as socially constructed concepts. I then investigate whether these emotions are necessary for moral agency. In order to do this I examine the philosophical and psychological literature on psychopathy and autism (two conditions defined in terms of empathic and emotional deficits). Persons with psychopathy appear incapable of distinguishing moral from non-moral norms. Additionally, while persons with autism often struggle to develop their empathic capacities, they are capable of understanding and deploying moral emotions like guilt and shame. I conclude that, in line with the conceptual act theories of emotion, that only contagion-based empathy is necessary for the acquisition of moral concepts.
Keywords autism  basic emotion  constructivism  empathy  meta-ethics  psychopathy  sentimentalism  emotion
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