In the TV detective series Bron/Broen, one of the main characters, Saga Norén, delivers the bad news to family members after a murder has been discovered. She does so by abruptly announcing the victim’s death, and starting a thorough interrogation without giving the family member any time to gather themselves. She gets impatient when they do not immediately answer, and does not hide her impatience.
Maybe you feel shocked or even angered by this lack of responsiveness. We tend to expect more concern in these types of situations. However, her behavior may (at least partly) be explained by a difficulty to pick up on, and respond to the emotions of others.
These difficulties are commonly described as empathy deficits which should excuse a person from the general expectation to attend to the feelings of others. But, in a recent article I argue we should reconsider our assumptions about why and how these persons are excused.
What is empathy?
Think of another example from Oliver Sacks’ essay ‘An Anthropologist on Mars’. He is exhausted, hungry, and thirsty, from travelling all day when he visits Temple Grandin, to talk to her about her life and experiences as an autistic person. He keeps hoping she will notice and offer him some coffee. She does not. Her social interactions leave him with the general impression that: ‘she learned ‘how to behave’ without having much personal perception of how people feel.’
But perceiving how others feel is only a part of empathizing with others. What comes next is to then care about these feelings; to have affinity with the needs and interests of other creatures. The suggestion that persons who struggle to pick up on what others are feeling lack empathy altogether is harmfully misleading.
There is no lack of affinity with other creatures here. On the contrary, like many autistic persons, Temple Grandin has more affinity with animals than most. And in her written works about living with autism she mentions how she cares about and would respond to the distress of a friend.
We need to distinguish between an ability to perceive what someone feels and needs, and the ability to care about what someone feels and needs.
A moral excuse
When it is difficult for a person to perceive what someone feels and needs, this should change what we expect from that person. In comparison to someone else, we cannot expect the same level of responsiveness from Temple, nor can we hold it against her that she does not attend to Oliver’s unspoken need for refreshment. Failing to notice what another person needs, is decidedly different from self-centered neglect or intentional dismissal of their needs.
One may object that there are alternative more indirect ways to recognize the emotions and needs of others. But these skills are difficult to master, do not always suffice, and are not always available. So, it remains true that – on the basis of these difficulties- you should really cut a person some slack for failing to attend to what you feel. Additionally, you may do well to communicate your feelings and needs in a manner that is more accessible and intelligible to the person.
For this reason, persons who struggle to perceive what others feel and need are often considered socio-morally handicapped or compromised. This conclusion creates an inequality between ‘us the morally competent’ and ‘them the morally compromised’. But we should think twice about this conclusion for at least two reasons.
Empathy for whom?
The first reason is that neurotypical persons are equally (if not more) clumsy in their interactions with autistic people or other diverse minds. Recent studies suggest that there may be a ‘double empathy problem’. Meaning that, although autistic persons have trouble detecting the feelings and needs of neurotypicals, neurotypicals also have trouble reading the mental states of autistic people. The difficulty to empathize may thus be explained by the fact that persons have different minds and, correspondingly, will find it easier to empathize with minds more like their own. If this is true, we are all equally compromised in attending to the needs and feelings of those who are different. That would also mean these excuses do not especially apply to neuro-divergent minds; they apply to all of us.
Whose moral expectations?
The second reason to reject a suggestion of unequal competence is that empathic tendencies may also get in the way of doing what is right. It may be hard to administer medicine to a child, when this makes the child bawl their eyes out. In the Netflix show ‘The Good Place’, a humanoid robot has a failsafe mechanism where she pretends to be really upset when people are about to reset her. This makes it very difficult to do so, even in a case where this is obviously the best decision.
We would not be inclined to think of these difficulties as a form of moral incompetence or consider these persons morally compromised. We lower our expectations when things are hard for typical people, whereas we consider a-typical persons compromised when they fail to meet expectations that are determined by typical people.
A failure to tune into other people may actually help provide some sense of moral clarity, because one is less immediately influenced by the emotional responses of others. The comedian Hanna Gadsby believes her autism allows her to see how to exist without having to look out to the world.
To avoid an unfair attribution of moral incompetence to Temple Grandin, and others who struggle to empathize, we should not only ask whether her different mind excuses her in situations where a typical person would not be. We should also ask how our expectations are biased towards more typical minds in the first place.