Autism and Moral Responsibility: Executive Function and the Reactive Attitudes
Although criteria for identifying autism have been established based on behavioral factors, researchers are still exploring and developing models to describe the cognitive and affective differences that lead to the known behaviors. Some of these models offer competing ways of understanding autism; some simply describe characteristics of autism. Significantly, these models tend to involve cognitive functions that are also cited in accounts of moral responsibility. This suggests that autism may be a reason not to blame an autistic person for some actions that transgress social, ethical, or legal expectations even when we would certainly blame a neurotypical person for the same action.
Whether to treat autism as exculpatory in any given circumstance appears to be influenced both by models of autism and by theories of moral responsibility. This talk will focus on a limited range of theories: autism as characterized in terms of executive function deficit, and moral responsibility based on access to appropriate reactive attitudes. In pursuing this particular combination of ideas, I do not intend to endorse them. The goal is, instead, to explore the implications of this combination of influential ideas about autism and about moral responsibility. These implications can be quite serious and practical for autists and those who interact directly with autists, as well as for broader communities as they attend to the fair, compassionate, and respectful treatment of increasing numbers of autistic adults.