Tag Archives: morality

Mere Anthropology

Today I’m beginning a new series of blog posts, in pursuit of the aim of writing “Typical Humans 101“. Various friends have pointed me towards C. S. Lewis’s classic Mere Christianity(a book adapted from scripts for broadcast on BBC Radio) and the more recent series of books by the Jesuit Robert Spitzer beginning with Finding True HappinessLewis’s purpose was to document those things common to Christians from different denominations; Spitzer’s is to treat of humanity’s quest for transcendent happiness. But both authors say enough about the human condition that, with an eye to knowing something of the quirks of the autistic mind, I can pick out those facts which would seem unremarkable to typical humans but deeply insightful to many Aspies.

Lewis’s opening chapters take me to a subject I’ve already considered on this blog – to what extent all human beings have the same inner experience of ‘the voice of conscience’. Lewis is not a psychologist, but as a respected author will have been chosen for broadcast and publication because he captures an understanding which will resonate with many members of his audience; a writer like Lewis rises to prominence because of his good grasp of what’s generally true about human nature.

Lewis’s way in to this subject (MC15-19) is that humans often quarrel about whether a course of action is fair. Even persons or nations who don’t keep their promises are likely to appeal to “fair play” on a regular basis. Such a dispute implies that there is a common standard of morality accessible to all parties. “This Law or Rule about Right and Wrong used to be called the Law of Nature… they really meant the Law of Human Nature… because people thought that every one knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it.” At least, most humans know it, but some may not, in the same way in which some are tone-deaf or colour-blind. Surface details may differ across cultures, but it would be difficult to imagine a culture which praised cowardice in battle or treachery to one’s friends. When we are accused of bad behaviour, we come up with all sorts of excuses – which is itself a sign that we intuitively know we have fallen short of some standard of fairness.  (Lewis also suggests reading the Appendix of Abolition of Man to continue this exploration.)

Following his original radio broadcast, Lewis received letters from  correspondents who found it hard to identify with this “Law of Human Nature, or Moral Law, or Rule of Decent Behaviour”. (MC 20-25) I suspect some such letters, from articulate critics, would have been from writers on the autistic spectrum.

Lewis also deals with the criticism that humans have a “herd instinct”. He acknowledges this may well be true but posits that there is a mental faculty distinct from instinct. We have instincts to eat food, drink water and pursue sex. When we hear a cry from someone in danger, it may stir in us contrary instincts to help and to flee – but there is a qualitatively different something within us which chooses which instinct to follow. This something often directs us to follow the weaker of the two impulses we sense. There is no broad category of human instinct which we must always follow in all circumstances, nor one which we must always suppress.

Inanimate objects are what they are, without choice. Human beings have the capacity of choosing their course of action. It is because we have a sense of what a person “ought” to do we can compare their actual deeds to what they “ought” to have done. We can distinguish this sense of “ought” from what we find convenient for ourselves. We might make use of a traitor, in our national interest, while despising him. (MC25-29)

Lewis notes that an external observer could discern a person’s actions but not their motives. From our own personal experience of being human,  we don’t always do what we know we ought; therefore, by studying human behaviour externally, we can’t establish the “oughts” which are being sometimes heeded and sometimes spurned in the mind of the person acting. (MC31) (Things have advanced since Lewis’s day. Current scientific knowledge of the neural mechanisms of morality are in their infancy; it is not unthinkable, however, that brain-scanning technology might one day be able to identify the presence of particular “oughts”.)

Overall, therefore, Lewis is arguing that there is a universal sense of fair play because all human beings have access to the same objective sense of The Good. If we generally agree that certain human societies are “more moral” than others (taking Nazi Germany as an example of low morals), does that not bear witness to our shared intuitive sense of what a moral society should look like?

Lewis allows that we may learn the Law of Human Nature by education, but argues that is not proof of its lack of objectivity, any more than learning a multiplication table invalidates the fundamental truth that 9 x 6 = 54 and always will be. He will go on to use the existence of The Good as a starting point for exploring the nature of God.

It seems to me that Lewis provides a well-written description of the Law of Human Nature which demystifies it for those of us who don’t experience it in our inner lives – as it is clear that some of the correspondents who contacted Lewis after the broadcast did not. This leaves us with a big question: does Moral Goodness have the same kind of objective reality as Mathematical Truth? That will be the subject of my next post.

* For Mere Christianity, I am using the 1971 19th impression of the Collins Fontana edition first produced in 1955; page numbers will be cited with MC using this edition.

The Golden Metarule

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

The Golden Rule of morality is both a teaching of Jesus and a tenet of many other world faiths. But for Aspies, it’s a poisoned chalice. You see, other people aren’t like you. They might not want done to them what you would want done to you.

Do you want people to tell you the honest truth at all times? If you are an Aspie, probably yes.

Do you want people to tell you directly how they are feeling about you? If you are an Aspie, probably yes.

Do you want people to say “Yes please” immediately when you offer them food, rather than go through the charade of “No thanks”, “But you really must,”, “Oh, go on then?” If you are an Aspie, probably yes.

Do you want other people to follow principles which disadvantage you rather than bending the rules to accommodate you? If you are an Aspie, probably yes.

Are you beginning to see the problem?

But what does it mean to “do as you would be done by”? This rule is capable of being extended. What would I like others to do unto me? I can answer this at the literal level of concrete actions, or at the ‘meta’ level of asking what kind of responses that person would like to have. My Golden Metarule says: “Assess whether the other person is an Aspie or a typical human being, and choose my behaviour accordingly.” Therefore, I must assess whether the other person wants an honest or a coded response, a direct or indirect indication of mood, a blunt response or a feigned polite refusal.

Aspies who have learned to function well in society are applying it all the time. But what about typical human beings who have Aspie friends or colleagues? Can it work both ways? Can typical humans apply this Golden Metarule and choose to deal with me bluntly and by the book because I am an Aspie and prefer to live my life this way? They have yet to prove it!

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.