Principles or Consequences?

Aspies are often accused of lacking common sense. Sometimes, what’s really happening is that a sense of duty overrides choosing to do what the typical human would do.

Once, at seminary, I walked into a small group session of prayer (in a staff member’s nicely carpeted study) with muddy shoes. Why? I was running late due to train problems, took a short cut across grass, and didn’t want to be any more late than I had to be. Cleaning my shoes would take time, but it was a matter of religious obedience to be at the prayer session promptly. My sense of duty that I had to be there overrode my awareness that I would be bringing mud into the room. Needless to say, the staff member whose office it was, was not impressed. So this is a cautionary tale for any religious superior in charge of an Aspie: unless you explicitly command your Aspie to interpret the rules flexibly and apply common sense, they may feel duty bound to do the opposite.

Serious scholars of ethics or moral theology will know that there are a number of mutually incompatible ways of judging what is Right or Wrong. The two most common approaches deal with principles (deontological ethics, ‘You must do your duty’) and with consequences (teleological ethics, ‘The end justifies the means’). Other schools of thought emphasise what feels right (emotivism) or what makes one a good person (virtue ethics) but we won’t overcomplicate things here.

The formal teaching of the Catholic Church is a hybrid of principles and consequences. The Church holds that there are certain actions and motives which are so bad in themselves that they are always, in principle, wrong. The technical name for these is ‘intrinsic evils’. Such actions include the deliberate killing of innocent humans, and deliberately rendering infertile a human act of sexual intimacy. Aside from the short list of intrinsic evils, the principle of double effect can be applied – if a possible course of action has both positive and negative consequences, it is permissible to choose the act for the sake of the positive consequences and to accept that negatives as collateral damage, as long as the negative consequences are not out of proportion to the expected good.

This stance generates huge amounts of controversy. The idea of intrinsic evil means that a foetus may not be aborted to save the mother’s life, nor may a weapon of mass destruction be used even though many more lives may be lost in the conventional war it might have forestalled. To those who think in terms of principles, these unfortunate scenarios are logically necessary (and the victims of these courses of action will be welcomed in heaven as heroes for their restraint). To those whose minds naturally think in terms of consequences, these principles seem inhuman and abhorrent.

Now, it strikes me that autistic minds tend to think more in terms of principles than of consequences. It also seems plausible that Aspies are more common among scholars than among the general population. How many of the great moral philosophers and theologians of the past had autistic traits? Does this mean that they were biased towards thinking of morality in terms of principles rather than consequences? Has this shaped the history of moral thinking in a particular way?

Now, it’s also true that autistic scholars have a way of looking outside conventional wisdom and seeking objective truths for what they really are. In the physical sciences, such scholars have dared to think that space is curved, solid particles are fuzzy, and the universe has an ultimate speed limit; the theories of Special and General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are the bread and butter of modern physics, but painfully counter-intuitive to the lay reader.

It seems to me that most human beings are more comfortable with a ‘least worst outcome’ approach than a ‘do your duty at all costs’ stance. So which is the case – that autistic scholars are wrongly seeking to impose their own mindset on typical humans, or rightly urging humanity to follow principles in a way which is deeply true yet counterintuitive? As a loyal son of the Church I will continue to preach that intrinsic evils are wrong in all circumstances, regardless of how unpalatable the outcome.

Meaning and Purpose

When I moved to High School, I got good grades in most subjects, but it took a while for my English scores to catch up with other subjects. I think that’s because I had to learn what kind of analysis was expected. When I watch a film or read a book, I am mostly interested in What Happens Next. I read quickly and turn pages to find out how the action proceeds, and should the author choose to insert a page of florid prose about the beauty of a particular landscape, my eyes will likely skip over that and seek out the continuation of the action. I don’t have a very visual imagination, so characters in the story become mere labels in my head – “Frodo, hobbit, hairy feet, carries the One Ring” – I don’t start imagining what people or places might look like.

In school English lessons, I learned to ask questions about the deeper meaning of a text. But that doesn’t come to me very intuitively. If something is an obvious satire, I can recognise that – Terry Pratchett’s Discworld astutely charts a world not entirely unlike our own, moving from a mediaeval existence to a thoroughly modern one. But unless the parallels are clearly drawn, I won’t see them at first viewing. If I am asked the right questions, then yes, I can draw that out – but it requires sustained brainwork, deliberately applied.

It now seems to me that many people are wired to instinctively seek meaning in events.

What is “meaning”? It’s an embedded message. Typical human beings find it in works of art. They find it in the beauty of nature. They seek it to account for the very fact of their existence.

Terry Eagleton’s Very Short Introduction to the Meaning of Life notes that there is a deep philosophical problem in even asking the question, “What’s the meaning of life?”

Is life, in fact (be it human life in general, or your life in particular) the kind of entity which has a ‘meaning’? The concept seems intelligible to an awful lot of human beings, and indeed the Alpha Course has attracted millions to explore Christianity by offering “An opportunity to explore the meaning of life”; but I feel handicapped as an evangelist because I don’t understand what the question means, or why so many people ask it.

Purpose is quite another matter. The Ancient Greeks analysed everything in terms of Four Causes, after Aristotle:

  • What is it? (Material Cause)
  • What rules does it follow? (Formal Cause)
  • What put it into the state it started in? (Efficient Cause)
  • What is its goal? (Final Cause)

Modern science makes do with only the first three to gain a sufficient understanding of the universe. Final Cause is only relevant for those artefacts deliberately designed by an intelligent agent with a conscious purpose in mind. Richard Dawkins has set out how Darwinian evolution by natural selection creates a lot of ‘design-oid’ objects which seem to have a purpose but in fact have been shaped to fit into an interlocking network of predators and prey by the accidents of history.

We human beings are intelligent agents. We are capable of asking the question: “What should I do?” Are we free to designate our own purpose, or has God already got one in mind for us? The traditional Catholic answer is that we were made to love and serve God, to be happy with him in this world and the next.

In my life, I pursued a PhD because I was interested in the subject and capable of doing it – that seemed reason enough. I didn’t consciously have a God-shaped hole and wasn’t asking “What’s the meaning of life?” But God did appear in my life, and I learned that calling Him Lord meant saying: “What would you like me to do?”, ultimately receiving the answer that I should be a diocesan priest. Yet even now, I have a sneaking suspicion that if that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have started seeking ‘meaning’ in life; and ‘purpose’ would have gone no deeper than pursuing ‘what makes me happy’ (which was very fortunately, for me, doing academic research rather than stealing cars or taking drugs!)