From early childhood, human beings are taught about good and bad, and right and wrong. Our parents and teachers tell us that sharing is good, hurting others is bad, telling the truth is right, and lying is wrong. Over time, as we grow up, our understanding of the moral norms of the society in which we live takes on more and more complexity, and specificity, nevertheless, “somehow we manage to achieve an implicit grasp of what they require” (Brennan et al. 1).
However, as ubiquitous as morality is in our everyday lives, and as intuitive as it may feel for many of us to follow its rules despite its nuance and variability, there is still much that we do not know or understand about it. What exactly is morality? What is it that makes a norm moral? Why are human beings uniquely moral creatures? In Cristina Bicchieri’s words, “from a purely descriptive standpoint, what we call “morality” is a code of conduct that guides behavior” (Norms in the Wild, 31).
In fact, it is one of many overlapping codes of conduct that guide behavior, which include, but are certainly not limited to, etiquette, law, and religion, and that comprise the conglomerate of social norms. However, moral norms are at the very top of society’s hierarchy of norms because they “regulate the behaviors that a society considers to be most important, including behaviors that directly or indirectly affect others; rules against killing, causing pain, and deceiving are all examples of rules that prohibit causing direct or indirect harm” (Norms in the Wild, 31).
Thus, under this interpretation, we can define moral norms as a subset of social norms, specifically those which are other-regarding, and which concern injunctions against causing harm. Because moral norms are other-regarding, when we follow them, we express shared expectations, values, meanings, and identities, i.e. we recognize one another as moral agents. Thus, for the purpose of this paper, we will define a competent moral agent as an individual who reliably fulfills the social expectations of others regarding the moral norms of society.
But what, exactly, makes human beings moral agents? What is the source of human morality? What capacities are required? Throughout history, many philosophers have endeavored to answer these questions, but the two most significant contributors to the debate surrounding the source of human morality are David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Their moral philosophies have been interpreted as fundamentally opposed in that, on one hand, Hume’s core commitment is that empathy is the source of human morality, and on the other hand, Kant’s core commitment is that reason is the source of human morality.
However, their work does have at least one thing in common: they each aim towards the traditional philosophical ideal of identifying one thing, a sole concept, procedure, virtue, capacity, etc. as the answer to a philosophical question or the solution to a philosophical problem. Given the complex nature of the multiplicitous world in which we live, it seems plausible that, as eloquent as they may be, such arguments, which put forth a sole virtue or capacity as the explanation for something as complicated as morality may simply have too narrow a focus to capture reality. Thus, I suggest that it is not necessary for Kant to be wrong about the source of human morality in order for Hume to be right, and vice versa, as has traditionally been argued; the core commitments of their moral philosophies are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In other words, this paper concerns itself with arguing that, both Humean empathy and Kantian reason are important and necessary for moral agency, but neither is sufficient independent of the other.
The Two Roles of Empathy and Reason
One productive way to pursue the debate between Humean empathy and Kantian reason is to study the moral capacities of individuals in various clinical populations, such as individuals with autism and individuals with psychopathy, both of whom seem to struggle with some sort of moral deficit, in order to learn something about moral agency. Much of the recent literature on autism and psychopathy has been used to argue for either a Kantian or a Humean interpretation of the source of morality. However, I argue that much of this literature has focused on the wrong dichotomy. Empathy and reason each play two roles in moral agency, (1) an epistemic role, and (2) a motivating role.
The ability to empathize, to feel with and like another human being, allows us to understand the affective states of others, e.g. their expectations, purposes, desires, beliefs, intentions, concerns, etc., and through this empathetic understanding, we develop concern for other human beings. This other-regarding concern serves as a powerful force that motivates us to act on behalf of other human beings, especially when they are suffering or in distress. The ability to reason, to consider reasons and form judgments by a process of logic, allows us to understand how these affective states might affect a person’s behavior and to know how to respond to them, which in turn, motivates us to act in order to bring about our desired ends, e.g. to end or prevent the suffering or distress of others. In sum, empathy and reason each play (1) an epistemic role in allowing us to understand the social expectations of others regarding the moral norms of society, and (2) a motivating role in guiding us to act in order to fulfill those expectations.
To illustrate this, I examine the differences between neurotypical individuals and psychopathic individuals in order to demonstrate that the psychopathic moral deficit is not due to an empathetic or rational deficit, as has been traditionally argued, but instead to a motivational deficit. I then examine the differences between neurotypical individuals and autistic individuals in order to demonstrate that, contrastingly, the moral deficit of autistic individuals is not due to an empathetic or rational deficit, but instead to an epistemic deficit. Ultimately, I conclude that, given our definitions of morality, moral norms, and moral agency, my examination of the moral deficits of autistic and psychopathic individuals indicates that (1) having the capacity for both empathetic and rational understanding, and (2) having the capacity to be moved by both empathy and reason, are the necessary and sufficient conditions for competent moral agency.
Psychopathy: The Motivational Moral Deficit
Psychopathic individuals have long been studied by those interested in moral agency because of their apparent moral deficit, specifically their cruel, and sometimes criminal, behavior towards others, which seems to be driven by extreme apathy towards the expectations, purposes, and desires of others. There has been some debate over whether this moral deficit is empathetic or rational, however, I argue that the moral deficit of psychopathic individuals is motivational. Various studies have shown that psychopathic individuals have no problems with perspective taking, which indicates that their theory of mind capacities are intact. They are at least as adept as neurotypical individuals when it comes to reading and understanding the minds of others, including their expectations, purposes, and desires, as well as their beliefs, intentions, and concerns.
Some have argued that this illustrates that their deficit is empathetic, and not rational, which seems to support the Humean theory that moral agency is strongly dependent upon our affective natures, specifically our “capacity to respond empathetically to others’ affective states, to experience a vicarious emotional response to how they affectively experience the world, and especially to feel some distress at their distress and suffering” (McGreer, 231). However, others, including Jeanette Kennett in a 2002 paper cited by McGreer, argue that “it is not the psychopath’s lack of empathy, which (on its own, at any rate) explains his moral indifference. It is more specifically his lack of concern, or more likely lack of capacity to understand what he is doing, to consider the reasons available to him and to act in accordance with them” (2002, p. 354), i.e. it is not a lack of empathy, but instead a lack of reason.
While we often think of psychopaths as sort of ‘enlightened egoists,’ this stereotypical image ignores the fact that the behavior of psychopathic individuals is often much more self-destructive than it is self-interested, which suggests that not only are psychopaths unable to see the expectations, purposes, or desires of other people as reason-giving, but they are also unable to see their own interests as reason-giving, with the exception of their short-term impulses. Under this interpretation, the moral deficit of psychopathic individuals that prevents them from being competent moral agents, seems to be a lack of rationality, which supports the Kantian theory that reason is necessary for moral agency. However, I offer a third interpretation; the moral deficit of psychopathic individuals, which prevents them from being competent moral agents is not solely empathetic or solely rational.
The fact that the theory of mind capacities of psychopaths are intact means that they are able to (1) recognize and attribute mental states, e.g. expectations, purposes, desires, beliefs, intentions, concerns, etc., both to oneself, and to others, (2) understand that others have expectations, purposes, desires, beliefs, intentions, concerns, etc., that may be different from one’s own, and (3) understand how these mental states might affect a person’s behavior. The first two abilities indicate that psychopaths have a capacity for empathetic understanding, while the third ability indicates that psychopaths have a capacity for rational understanding. However, although they can empathize with other people and rationalize their behavior, there seems to be a disconnect between their empathetic and rational understanding of the expectations, purposes, desires, etc. of others, as well as their own, and their motivation to act in order to fulfill them. Thus, this indicates that their deficit is not epistemic, but motivational.
Autism: The Epistemic Moral Deficit
Autistic individuals have been studied by those interested in moral agency, not because they appear to be apathetic about the expectations, purposes, and desires of others as psychopaths do, but instead because, although they tend to view their behavior and that of others in specifically moral terms, and to care deeply about the expectations, purposes, and desires of others, they nevertheless often do not act in accordance with the moral rules of society. They are strongly attracted to the existence of a moral order, and seem especially attached to the idea that the behavior of human beings should conform to rules of morality that apply to everyone. Because of this, they are prepared to see other people’s expectations, purposes, and desires as action motivating in the same way that they see their own expectations, purposes, and desires as action motivating.
However, because of their disabilities, they struggle with perspective taking, and it can be extremely difficult, or even impossible, for them to discern what others’ expectations, purposes, and desires are. This is due to a qualitative impairment in reciprocal social interactions, including a noticeable lack of awareness of others’ feelings, which is one of the characteristic impairments of autism. Although their deficient theory of mind capacities make it particularly challenging for individuals with autism to act as competent moral agents who reliably fulfil the normative expectations of others, this does nothing to undermine their motivation to do so. Consider, for example, “the case of a young man with perfect pitch and a passion for pianos who could not fathom how anyone could be happy without a well-tuned piano. Upon discovering that there were people who in fact didn’t have pianos, or who kept them out of tune, he thought that there should be a constitutional amendment requiring every home to have a well-tuned piano” (McGreer 222-223).
This example illustrates that, although this young man felt deeply motivated to do the right thing, his autism dramatically affected his moral priorities. He was unable to empathize with other people, to understand that others have expectations, purposes, desires, beliefs, intentions, concerns, etc., that may be different from his own, and rationalize their behavior (in this case, not having a piano or having one, but keeping it out of tune). This indicates that the moral deficit of autistic individuals, which prevents them from being competent moral agents, is both empathetic and rational, but not motivational. There seems to be a disconnect between their empathetic and rational understanding, and their motivation to act in order to fulfill the expectations, purposes, desires, etc. of others, but unlike in the case of psychopathic individuals, it indicates that their deficit is epistemic, not motivational.
What can we learn about moral agency from case studies of autism and psychopathy? We can learn that empathy and reason are both important and necessary for moral agency, in that (1) having the capacity for both empathetic and rational understanding, and (2) having the capacity to be moved by both empathy and reason, are the necessary and sufficient conditions for competent moral agency, i.e. acting in order to reliably fulfil the social expectations of others regarding the moral norms of society. Psychopathic individuals have the capacity for empathetic and rational understanding, but because they lack the capacity to be moved by empathy or reason, they do not meet the requirements for competent moral agency. Autistic individuals, on the other hand, have the capacity to be motivated by both empathy and reason, but they do not meet the requirements for competent moral agency because they lack the capacity for empathetic and rational understanding necessary for moral agency.
The fact that the motivational deficit of psychopathic individuals and the epistemic deficit of autistic individuals is what prevents them from acting as competent moral agents implies that if psychopathic individuals had the capacity to be moved by empathy and reason, and autistic individuals had the capacity for empathetic and rational understanding, they would be competent moral agents. Thus, we can conclude that these empathetic and rational capacities are both necessary and sufficient for competent moral agency, and therefore, Humean empathy and Kantian reason together serve as the explanation for the source of human morality.