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Living the categorical imperative: autistic perspectives on lying and truth telling–between Kant and care ethics


Lying is a common phenomenon amongst human beings. It seems to play a role in making social interactions run more smoothly. Too much honesty can be regarded as impolite or downright rude. Remarkably, lying is not a common phenomenon amongst normally intelligent human beings who are on the autism spectrum. They appear to be ‘attractively morally innocent’ and seem to have an above average moral conscientious objection against deception. In this paper, the behavior of persons with autism with regard to deception and truthfulness will be discussed in the light of two different ethical theories, illustrated by fragments from autobiographies of persons with autism. A systemizing ‘Kantian’ and an empathizing ‘ethics of care’ perspective reveal insights on high-functioning autism, truthfulness and moral behavior. Both perspectives are problematic from the point of view of a moral agent with autism. High-functioning persons with autism are, generally speaking, strong systemizes and weak empathizers. Particularly, they lack ‘cognitive empathy’ which would allow them to understand the position of the other person. Instead, some tend to invent a set of rules that makes their behavior compatible with the expectations of others. From a Kantian point of view, the autistic tendency to always tell the truth appears praiseworthy and should not be changed, though it creates problems in the social life of persons with autism. From a care ethics perspective, on the other hand, a way should be found to allow the high-functioning persons with autism to respect the feelings and needs of other persons as sometimes overruling the duty of truthfulness. We suggest this may even entail ‘morally educating’ children and adolescents with autism to become socially skilled empathic ‘liars’.

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  1. We understand ‘health’ holistically, as the ability to reach vital goals under reasonable circumstances (Nordenfelt 1987).

  2. See DSM- IV-TR.

  3. Although there has been controversy over whether the’Theory of Mind’ thesis is the best psychological explanation for Autism (rival theories are’Executive Function’ thesis and’Central Coherence’ thesis (Barnbaum 2008)),’Theory of Mind’ is to date the most influential psychological explanation of Autism.

  4. “In a high-functioning individual on the autistic spectrum, such pattern seeking can reveal scientific truths about the nature of reality, since their systemizing can help the individual understand how things work.” (Baron-Cohen 2008, p. 69) [Emphasis added].

  5. This is due to ‘weak central coherence’ (Kennett 2002; Barnbaum 2008). ‘Central coherence’ is the ability to see not merely parts, but wholes – the ability to draw together details so as to recognize the meaning of the entire picture (Barnbaum 2008, p. 27, 28). Persons with Autism tend to focus on details and seem to have limited understanding of the whole.

  6. It is not our intention to generalize and hypothesize from a sampling of autobiographies of persons with Autism. The problem with autobiographies in general is that people usually want to paint a good picture of themselves. An additional problem with autobiographies of persons with Autism is the uncertainty over the quantity and quality of editing a manuscript has undergone. Nevertheless and having these reservations in mind, there is no better way to get insight into the inner world of another person than his or her self-reports.

  7. Psychopaths can also be autistic. Michael Fitzgerald (2010) wrote about a subcategory of Asperger’s syndrome which he calls Criminal Autistic Psychopaths.

  8. It has been suggested that Immanuel Kant himself had Asperger’s syndrome (Fitzgerald 2005, p. 119–125).

  9. “The categorical imperative is thus only a single one, and specifically this: Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (Kant 2002, p. 37/Ak 4, p. 421).

  10. Kant exemplifies this with promises which are never intended to be kept. Used generally, this would make the very idea of promises obsolete. The same applies to lies. “For the universality of a law that anyone who believes himself to be in distress could promise whatever occurred to him with the intention of not keeping it would make impossible the promise, and the end one might have in making it, since no one would believe that anything has been promised him, but rather would laugh about any such utterance as vain pretense.” (Kant 2002, p. 39/Ak 4, p. 422).

  11. In his often discussed essay “On a supposed right to lie from philanthropy” from 1797, Kant takes position to a more relativized standpoint, rejecting it with regard to legal rather than to moral laws, but rejecting it still rigorously; independently from the consequences. His rejection, however, only regards lying if one cannot evade a statement. Insofar Kant does not urge us to ruthless or impolite truth telling. Modern Kantians try to explain how a less rigorist and counter-intuitive interpretation of a Kantian ethics could be justified. (Korsgaard 1996, Shapiro 2006) We cling here to a more traditional interpretation of Kant, as this is the one that is addressed in the comparison between autistic and Kantian judgments on lies and deceptions.

  12. It does matter, however, which understanding of truth-telling, lying and deception is addressed. If one understands lying as interfering with another person’s autonomy (Korsgaard 1996, 347), or as the failure of symmetric creation of a common moral horizon (Shapiro 2006, pp. 50–51), truth-telling is no longer the report of one’s own perspective on facts, but a complex interpersonal interaction. This is however obviously not the way persons with Autism use the term “lying” and “truth-telling” in self-reports, but more directly as intentional falsehood telling.

  13. “To be beneficent where one can is a duty, and there are souls so sympathetically attuned (…). But I assert that in such a case the action (…) has no true moral worth (…); for the maxim lacks moral contents, namely the action not from inclination but from duty.” (Kant 2002, p. 14/Ak 4, p. 398).

  14. This does not imply persons with Autism would have no freedom of choice. They have, and they can lie, if necessary. They have not chosen their make-up and their inclination towards the truth, however. This predisposition does not make them more similar to saints in Kant’s sense than neurotypicals, though one could easily suspect that.


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Correspondence to Pier Jaarsma.

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Jaarsma, P., Gelhaus, P. & Welin, S. Living the categorical imperative: autistic perspectives on lying and truth telling–between Kant and care ethics. Med Health Care and Philos 15, 271–277 (2012).

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  • High-functioning autism
  • Autobiographies
  • Truthfulness
  • Moral responsibilities
  • Moral education
  • Kant
  • Ethics of care