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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Libertarians and Autism?

At The Washington Times, Emily Esfahani Smith writes of a study titled “Understanding Libertarian Morality,” published recently in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.
The libertarian style of thinking can even verge, in extreme cases, on autism.
The University of Cambridge-based psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading autism researcher, famously has shown that people with autism exhibit two critical features: They test exceptionally low on empathizing scales and exceptionally high on systemizing ones.
Empathizing governs social relationships — Are you able to relate to other people? — while systemizing governs understanding and analysis of the outside world. Everyone falls somewhere on the empathizing-systemizing scale.
Libertarians score very low on the empathizing scale and very high on the systemizing scale. In other words, they are highly rational moral thinkers, less emotional than both conservatives and liberals. Two of the leading moral thinkers of Western history — utilitarian Jeremy Bentham and deontologist Immanuel Kant — were also incredibly gifted systemizers but deficient empathizers. Today, Bentham and arguably Kant would might be diagnosed with Asperger’s

There are upsides to such a coolly analytic cognitive style. For instance, libertarians are better at logic problems, says Mr. Iyer, a research scientist at the University of Southern California and the lead author of this study. The downsides include a “greater susceptibility to autism,” he says.
“Any ideology or philosophy, taken to an extreme, likely resembles some pathology or another,” Mr. Iyer explains.
Prominent libertarians object to the study’s findings that their beliefs are morally and politically monochromatic. David Boaz, vice president of flagship libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, says that he sees “no evidence that libertarians display less love, compassion or morality than other people.”
Legal scholar Richard Epstein, Mr. Haidt’s colleague at New York University, agrees, noting that libertarians make a distinction between the political and personal world when responding to such questionnaires. Libertarians believe, Mr. Epstein says, that liberty is the guiding value on matters of public policy while “allowing for the personal values to dominate [personal] interactions.”
A few observations:

  • There is a long, unfortunate history of trying to link ideology to mental conditions, starting with the discredited book The Authoritarian Personality.
  • The study rests on a nonrandom, web-based sample, so one has to wonder about whether it is possible to generalize from it.  A large bad sample is still a bad sample.
  • The parlor game of diagnosing Asperger in people who've been dead for more than a century is pretty silly.
  • "Susceptibility to autism" -- what the hell does that mean? It sounds as if autism were something that you could catch -- which it isn't. 
  • Epstein nails it on the difference between the personal and the political.