Empathy, Autism, and Hume
Hume famously places our ability to empathize with the emotions of others at the center of his account of moral judgment. Jeanette Kennett makes the case that the capacity for moral reasoning evident in some empathy-impaired individuals, including high-functioning people with autism spectrum disorder (HF-ASD), is empirical evidence against a Humean moral psychology. This chapter challenges this type of critique of Hume’s moral psychology by offering an analysis of different ways of characterizing empathy. The analysis is applied first to the evidence for empathic behavior and empathic impairment in individuals with high-functioning autism, and then to Hume’s sympathy mechanism as presented in his Treatise. It concludes that the apparent empathy impairment of the autistic individual is not an issue with their ability to experience the affective empathy that Hume intends to be produced via his sympathy mechanism, but rather a difficulty in the cognitive empathy involved in successfully identifying the passions of others. Once those with HF-ASD come to have an idea of a passion in another they are in fact capable of the kind of emotional contagion that Hume requires for moral judgment.