Part 79: The Killing Joke

Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. I hope you’re all well, and for my UK readers, I hope the storms haven’t caused you too much of a problem. The wet weather over the last few days demonstrated that my shoes aren’t very water-resistant. I’ve had three days of wet feet. I don’t own many shoes. I have a pair for work, a pair for casual, and a pair for “best” that are covered in dust. Both my two main pairs are soaked through. It left me with no option but to buy more. So, on Saturday, I had a hell of a day…

I’m looking for a new home, and so on Saturday, I viewed two flats at different ends of the city. The first one was a complete non-starter; very different in the flesh compared to the photos on Rightmove. The second one was so close to being right. So. Damn. Close. But the one major downside – a tiny bedroom with no window to the outside – was enough for me to say no. I’ll just have to keep looking. Following the viewings, I went for a coffee with my son and his lovely partner. These are the two closest people in the world to me. It was great to see them, but the cafe wasn’t particularly autism-friendly for me, and after the cross-city journeys, I was starting to feel overwhelmed. But then afterwards, with wet feet, I knew I had to bite the bullet and go and buy those shoes.

Buying shoes is not straightforward for me. It’s very difficult to find shoes that I can actually bear to feel on my feet. More often than not, I end up with Skechers. I went to my go-to shop for Skechers, and couldn’t find any suitable. I then tried three other shops in the same retail park. No dice. So, another drive across the city to a different retail park. Two more shops. Eventually, I came away with two appropriate and comfortable pairs. But that is a day of too much stimulation for me.

Moving on. This week on the blog, I want to dip my toe once again into the issue of autism as a disability. This is clearly important to the autistic community, and to me personally. The thing is, it’s such a huge subject, I can’t possibly cover everything that needs to be said in one blog post… or perhaps ever. But I do think I have something relevant to say. So here goes. Come with me…

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Let’s think about a moral question. Morality, in very general terms, deals with right and wrong. From morality, we derive ethics; the rules that we apply to behaviour. Our ethics can be personal, helping us measure our behaviour against our understanding of morality, or they can be cultural, from which laws are derived. There are all kinds of moral questions, and countless books have been written by great philosophers on morality, so I’m going to have to be pretty low-key in my assertions, here. Is there a profound but simple “sample question” that speaks to morality? Maybe we could head in the direction of the bottom line, and ask, “why is it considered wrong to kill a person?” (Note, in this discussion, I am not talking about assisted suicide or so-called mercy killings – that’s a different subject) I choose the topic of killing because ending someone’s life seems a good candidate for the ultimate evil to inflict on another person. There are arguments against this position, though – for example, the idea of the “fate worse than death”. Let’s think about that. I accept there are things that could be inflicted upon a person that are worse than death; extreme forms of violation that cause unbearable suffering, from which death might seem like an escape. In these instances, you could say that the victim feels like life isn’t worth living anymore. In a metaphorical sense, this means a person has been hurt so badly, that their life (as they knew it) has been ended. I put this in the same category as killing someone, then. So, why is it wrong to inflict this on a person? You might be shaking your head, and thinking, well, isn’t it obvious? Maybe, but perhaps we should try to put it into words anyway. There is a pretty straightforward answer…

To understand why it is wrong to kill someone or to effectively end their life, we only have to ask, “would I be okay with someone murdering me, or causing me so much hurt or anguish that I felt my life was no longer worth living?” The answer is, of course, no. If it would be wrong for someone to do it to us, surely that makes it wrong for everyone, right? This is the basis of Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” In other words, if you think it’s okay for you to go around killing or hurting people, you’d better be prepared for other people to inflict that upon you, too. But in a way, this approach to morality seems a bit… self-serving, right? I mean, are we saying that the only reason we should not cause harm to other people is to make sure we are not harmed? We could say that, actually, we also don’t want our loved ones to come to harm, either. Our morality isn’t just about protecting ourselves, but our loved ones as well. But even that feels a bit selfish, too. Is our only reason for having rules about not harming others really just about protecting our own little clique from distress? I don’t think it is. Empathy and altruism are key attributes of humanity. Yes, the likes of Simon Baron-Cohen try to claim autistic people lack empathy, but I think most sensible people now agree that claim is bullshit. There are different types of empathy, and it’s highly probable that every single human being on this planet has a unique empathy profile, but in the most common, simple understanding of empathy, autistic people are not automatically deficient. Far from it. But I digress. My point is that most human beings have a sense of moral right and wrong that goes beyond just looking after their nearest and dearest. Most of us would not be okay with murdering a complete stranger. Broadly, this is the sense of humanity. Not everyone has it, of course. Heartless serial killers exist. Some people are capable of the most horrible crimes against another person’s being. These are tiny minorities. Most of us essentially want to be good to each other. It is this collective understanding – mainly enshrined in law as a result of the culture it derives from, but also often unspoken – that we need to not be horrible to each other, that leads us to say it is wrong to kill each other. Okay, I said I was going to talk about disability, but here I am rattling on about the philosophy of morality, empathy, and whatnot. Where am I going with it? Well, I was talking about a sample moral question, remember? The morality of killing (or rather, not killing) is simply a template. The point is, a good moral rule of thumb, as Kant correctly stated, is treat people well, if you want them to treat you well. This is because the personal decision to treat other people well, if you look back far enough, is where the cultural practice of living cooperatively in a community comes from, and from there, our laws and ethics.

Unfortunately, not everyone complies. We do have murderers and other nasty people in our world. Talk to the average person, and they’ll tell you murder is bad. They’ll tell you that other horrible crimes are also bad; rape, assault, torture. What about stealing? Is stealing bad? Well, yeah, most people would agree it is. Apart from when they neglect to mention when a cashier gives them too much change, or the restaurant forgets to charge them for the drinks. That’s not really stealing is it, they say. Sorry guys, that is still stealing. But some people’s morals don’t stretch that far. I mean if you’re lucky enough to get away without paying for your drinks, like the old saying goes, no one died, right? So we have entered the grey area of morals; in principle X is bad, unless the effects are so far removed from me that I can pretend it doesn’t matter. Few people like to think about this. It’s a case of everyone does it (allegedly), so anyone can do it. You know what? For the purposes of this blog, I’m not going to go on a moral mission about the longer term wrongs of not owning up when the cashier gives you too much change, etc. There are lesser and greater wrongs in the world, after all. But what happens when that mindset – that’s it’s okay to pocket too much change because no one died; that it’s okay to get away with not paying for part of our bill, or whatever other small infraction – what happens when that mindset gets applied to people? What happens when it gets applied to the everyday lived experience of people? Let’s look at that…

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Most people, if asked, will say they are basically good, decent people; not perfect, maybe, but basically good. The imperfections might stretch to things like, pocketing the money when a cashier gives them too much change, etc. In fact, most if not all of us have a stretchy sense of morality; things we know are kinda wrong but we do anyway, because, like, no one gets hurt (allegedly). But when does it start to hurt? Where do you draw the line? Let’s continue for a while with the example of a cashier giving you too much change. At what point would you start to feel uncomfortable pocketing it? 20p/20c? One pound/dollar? Ten pounds/dollars? A hundred? If you’re having to think about it, you’ve got a problem. But the problem isn’t what you might expect. Like it or not, the moral decisions you make about something like pocketing too much change reflect the whole of you. You are likely to make similar decisions in other areas of your morality, I would suggest. And when I say you, I mean the collective you, including myself. We have a tendency to let our belief that we are basically nice turn a blind eye when we decide to do something not so nice, or, even more insidiously, when we choose not to notice and act on something that’s not nice. If I see someone I love being assaulted, I’m likely to step in, but if I see a stranger being assaulted, would I step in, then? Or would I go full-on Kitty Genovese, assume someone else was calling the cops, and just not get involved?

Each individual among us will have a point at which we would feel uncomfortable accepting too much change, or knowing part of a bill had not been paid, or whatever. We apply a worth judgement to the question. For one person, five pounds/dollars is no big deal, just pocket it. For another person, that’s enough money that they’d worry the cashier might get sacked, so they mention it. There is no objective moral line; each person makes their own choice. You might think I’m being facetious when I try to make moral arguments around the example of a cashier giving you too much change, but honestly, this is not a joke. The principle is huge, because, unfortunately, we also apply worth judgements to people…

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There is a thing called the social model of disability. This is the understanding that the difficulties experienced by disabled people are not intrinsic to themselves, but are a result of barriers imposed by the world we live in. One of the most obvious, and now cliched examples of these barriers to disabled people is the entrance to a building that doesn’t have a wheelchair ramp. The barriers for autistic people can be of a different nature, though. I’m not going to list the social barriers that create disability for autistic people in this blog. To be honest, those issues are covered pretty much every week in this blog, and by many other people in the autistic community. Instead, I want to underline this point: Not enough non-autistic people care.

There is probably a greater awareness of the existence of autistic people in society now than there has ever been. As I’ve mentioned many times, the autism industry generates billions of dollars worldwide annually. Autism is now officially a big deal. But the acceptance and understanding of autistic people continues to lag behind. The non-autistic world knows we exist. But our needs are continually overlooked in education, the workplace, healthcare, and all other social areas. Our needs are being ignored by the non-autistic world because too many of the people that make up that world – ordinary everyday people who consider themselves essentially good and decent – have decided we are not worth the trouble. They might not have consciously decided that, but they have chosen to look the other way, or pretend the problem isn’t there. But the problem is there. Autistic people are more likely than the general population to be unemployed, or low paid. Even more worryingly, autistic people are dying younger than the general population. And the world is letting it happen. Are we back to the question of the morality of killing people? Is the shocking mortality rate among autistic people murder by indifference on the part of non-autistic society? Far too many autistic people die by suicide; the rate is higher than the general population. Why? Why is life so unbearable for autistic people that so many of us just feel like we’ve had enough? Is it really that hard for general society to extend their moral consideration to our wellbeing? To actually listen to us, hear our needs, and then act? In their worth judgements, are we not worth as much as any other human beings?

I’ve said as much as I can for now, because at times like this, when the depth of the plight of autistic people weighs heavily on me, my heart breaks for the autistic community.

That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care, be good, stay proud.


Why Do I Write This Blog?

When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism.  I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation.  With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery.  Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers.  I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.

You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.

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