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02/03/2022

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Autistic & ADHD Philosopher

Speaking as a philosopher with ADHD who grapples a lot on my day-to-day life with future self identification, I find this kind of research highly suspect and the fact that Future Self Continuity is measured solely by self-identification on a set of Venn Diagrams doesn't give much confidence. Nor does the conflation of 'higher moral standards' with 'less likely to cheat on a test.'

I also don't appreciate the implication that my moral standards are lower because of the difficulties I have projecting plans into the future with respect to my future self. The two certainly don't seem connected to me, but what do I know? Neurotypical scientists and philosophers have spoken and eagerly constructed their universalist moral psychologies. I can't wait for all the articles neurotypical philosophers will write about how people like me are innately morally impaired! They will be in good company with all of the philosophy papers about how autistic people like me are innately morally impaired!

Marcus Arvan

Autistic & ADHD philosopher: I appreciate your concerns, but don’t know of any research—including this—that supports the problematic claims you are raising here. The empirical research shows that we all struggle to identify with our future selves, which is why human beings are as morally flawed as we are. The research also shows that projecting oneself into the future is hard work and takes a lot of practice, again for virtually all of us.

The research also doesn’t indicate that neuroatypical people are unable to project themselves into the future in the relevant sense, nor does my theory do or imply that. Anyone who can plan for the future at all has the ability to do so—and empirical findings only indicate that *children and psychopaths* lack the relevant abilities. But this isn’t problematic, right? We all recognize that young children and psychopaths have deficits in moral responsibility by virtue of the inability to adequately understand the future consequences of their actions.

So, while I understand and appreciate your concerns, I don’t think they quite accurately reflect what is being claimed here (or in my work defending this kind of moral psychology). Also, just as an aside, I’m not a neurotypical philosopher. Any theory of moral psychology is going to make claims about what is involved in moral cognition, and I don’t think we should be too quick to judge claims in moral psychology as being problematically universalistic unless they really are *problematically* universalistic--which I am still optimistic is not the case here.

Autistic & ADHD Philosopher

Before I dive in, let me clarify: though you are collateral damage to a certain extent, the main target of my criticism was not intended to be you. I tried to anchor that by referencing 'this kind of research' (i.e. the kind you shared in the link), but I think I wasn't sufficiently clear in my phrasing so my apologies for making it sound like you were the main target of my criticism.

"The empirical research shows that we all struggle to identify with our future selves, which is why human beings are as morally flawed as we are. The research also shows that projecting oneself into the future is hard work and takes a lot of practice, again for virtually all of us."

The empirical research also shows this for empathy, but the implications come from the relative comparisons. Those relative comparisons have undergirded a whole host of problematic and harmful psychological and philosophical theorizing about people who are purported to be impaired with respect to empathy.

"The research also doesn’t indicate that neuroatypical people are unable to project themselves into the future in the relevant sense, nor does my theory do or imply that. Anyone who can plan for the future at all has the ability to do so"

What is the relevant sense? If it's really 'anyone who can plan for the future at all', this is an incredibly minimal requirement that does not correspond with the future-self continuity discussed in the research you linked to. Furthermore, this seems to be a threshold concept, which, again, future-self continuity is not.

In any case, if it's not a threshold concept, that ADHD people often experience relatively greater challenges with planning is widely accepted. Articles like the following are a dime a dozen:

https://psychcentral.com/blog/adhd-millennial/2016/03/why-are-people-with-adhd-bad-at-planning-ahead#1

This article has a quote by Dr. Russell Barkley who is perhaps something like the Simon Baron-Cohen of ADHD:

https://time.com/growing-up-with-adhd/

"“People with ADHD are blind to the future, which is why they never have anything done on time,” says Barkley."

'Time-blindness' is commonly attributed to people with ADHD in these kinds of articles. It is also in common currency in the ADHD community.

Speaking anecdotally and personally, I struggle with *both* planning and with what Hershfield calls future-self continuity. Perhaps that is a personal idiosyncrasy and totally unrelated to being ADHD, but either way I object to the implication in the quoted portion that this has any bearing on how high or low my moral standards are.

"Empirical findings only indicate that *children and psychopaths* lack the relevant abilities. But this isn’t problematic, right? We all recognize that young children and psychopaths have deficits in moral responsibility by virtue of the inability to adequately understand the future consequences of their actions."

The article you linked concerned future-self continuity and higher or lower moral standards among, not 'ability to understand actions have consequences' and 'moral responsibility.' Bracketing that, I don't feel like I am nearly familiar enough with what psychopaths have to say on this issue, nor what researchers have to say, to nod along with that characterization of them.

As for children, it's not clear to me we best understand children as deficient adults, but setting that aside: of course I agree that some minimal degree of consequence prediction is involved in moral responsibility. But that is a very long stretch from future-self continuity, especially as Hershfield seems to understand it (based on their prior research, it appears to involve vivid imagination of one's future self). Furthermore, it is relevant to the question of responsibility and not higher or lower moral standards.

Yes, at some very rudimentary level there will be some universalistic facts about moral psychology. For starters, you have to have a psychology for it to be relevant at all! Rocks don't have moral capacities or dispositions. But in academia, people are quite concerned with interesting and controversial claims and so there is a propensity towards problematic forms of universalism that universalize much more robust and specific capacities or dispositions as the ground for moral capacities or dispositions. Future-self continuity is quite a specific and narrow disposition. It is a far cry from the much more minimal capacities you have invoked.

Marcus Arvan

Autistic & ADHD Philosopher: Thanks for engaging thoughtfully with my response.

I entirely agree with you on this: "Those relative comparisons have undergirded a whole host of problematic and harmful psychological and philosophical theorizing about people who are purported to be impaired with respect to empathy." But I think it is equally important to not reject theories or empirical findings merely because they can be misused in these ways. Let me explain why I think this matters.

In addition to some other neuroatypical featues (which I prefer to keep to myself), I struggle mightily with other-perspective-taking (OPT) - another capacity that my own theory of prudence and morality (!) takes to be involved in moral cognition. All too many times in my life, someone will point out to me that I come across strangely to others in behaving a certain way or completely obtuse to 'social expectations' because I have *literally* no idea how it looks or comes off to others. This has resulted in all kinds of difficult situations for me, including shame, embarrassment, etc., at either offending people (because I had no idea how my demeanor 'looked') or simply "behaving oddly" in other people's eyes (e.g. being disengaged, silent, etc.).

Now, here's the thing: am I capable of morality? Am I capable of prudence? On both counts, I think I fare pretty decently. But I would be the very first person to admit that my difficulties engaging in OPT pose unique challenges to me in terms of (i) prudently satisfying my own goals (such as not to come across poorly to others), and (ii) being appropriately sensitive other people's perspectives (viz. 'empathy'). Fortunately, for people who are neuroatypical in these or other ways, there are alternative methods of cognition to grapple with these issues. For example, my spouse has helped me to be better attuned to people's external reactions and cues, such that it enables me to determine how I come across without very good OPT capacities. This enables me to behave broadly prudently and morally despite not having one element of moral and prudential cognition (OPT) to the same degree as more neurotypical people, and I think any good theory of prudential and moral cognition should recognize these complexities. We're not all the same (we all have various capacities in different degrees), but we can learn to do enough of the same things to be moral and prudent.

Now consider someone I know very well with ADHD. They would be the very first person to say that they struggle with making "prudent decisions" about how to spend their time. After all, they are easily distracted and have trouble focusing on doing things that they want to get done. It would be a mistake--and totally contrary to their own lived experience (or so they tell me)--to pretend that this isn't a legitimate challenge of prudence for them. But so what? Just as I have found strategies to grapple with by relative lack of OPT, they have learned a bunch of strategies to help them focus, etc. And moreover, it's not just people with ADHD who struggle with prudence. Many of us who don't have ADHD have our own struggles: impulsivity, tendency to erupt in anger, anxiety, etc. This is the human condition. We're not all the same, and my moral-prudential theory doesn't hold or imply that we are. Rather, we all have different abilities, and prudent/moral people do enough of the relevant things (future concern, OPT, risk-aversion, etc.) to behave prudently and morally.

Perhaps I'm missing something, but I don't see anything problematic here. The empirical literature on moral and prudential cognition reveals that literally dozens of capacities are involved in prudent and moral decisionmaking--and these capacities vary greatly between people. But noting this, and the effects that these differences can have on us and our behavior, isn't inherently problematic. Some of us are better at empathizing than others; some of us have an easier time simulating the future; others of us have an easier time imagining other people's perspectives; others of us are more temperate and less likely to be overwhelmed by momentary emotions (including particular emotions such as anger, hatred, fear), etc. We all recognize these differences in everyday life, and we all learn to grapple with our own strengths and weaknesses in different ways. On children and psychopaths, there's a lot to say here, but I don't think that there's anything problematic with pointing out that there are clear and demonstrable differences in prudential and moral decisionmaking here (and, as with all populations, there are outliers).

Anyway, in summation: I entirely agree with you that relative comparisons can and do undergird a lot of really bad and irresponsible claims that either explicitly or implicitly denigrate neuroatypical and disabled individuals. I also entirely agree that we should take care to avoid this and call it out when those kinds of claims are made--and, though I didn't see the article as doing this, I very much do thank you for pressing these concerns here, including the ways in which you point out sloppy science reporting in this article (which is, as we all know, ubiquitous). So, I'm very thankful for you raising these issues here and discussing them at length. But, all that being said, I don't think that the scientific findings of Hershfield and others are inherently problematic--and that, on the contrary, those findings can actually cohere quite well (in ways illustrated above) with the lived experience of (neuro)diverse people (though, of course, the examples I give above do not purport to represent everyone as generalizations). We should, I hope you and I both agree, be very careful *with* scientific findings--including how they are used and presented--and I am willing to concede that perhaps I should have been more sensitive to this myself in linking to the piece. But I don't think we should reject the findings themselves, properly (and non-problematically) understood.

Autistic & ADHD Philosopher

Marcus: Thank you for continuing to bear with me. My initial post was a pent-up shouting-at-the-wind moment which was too unfairly shouted in your direction, but the ensuing discussion is one I appreciate.

"Perhaps I'm missing something, but I don't see anything problematic here. The empirical literature on moral and prudential cognition reveals that literally dozens of capacities are involved in prudent and moral decisionmaking. Just like we do not all have the same "natural physical abilities"--but there is nothing inherently wrong or problematic with recognizing this--I don't think there is anything inherently wrong or problematic about recognizing that human beings vary tremendously in the capacities that underlie moral and prudential cognition. Some of us are better at empathizing than others; some of us have an easier time simulating the future; others of us have an easier time imagining other people's perspectives; others of us are more temperate and less likely to be overwhelmed by momentary emotions (including particular emotions such as anger, hatred, fear, etc.)."

I don't think we are on significantly different pages here, but in my experience this is not the typical framing I have encountered in philosophy or psychology. I don't think there is anything inherently problematic with identifying specific challenges people may have with regard to certain morally relevant capacities in research, the problem is that this is often not done so in a sufficiently contextualized or nuanced manner (what's worse, it is often implicitly driven by ableist perspectives). Here are a few problems I think arise quite frequently in discussions of them:

(1) Contrast to a Norm: Usually, there is an implicit or explicit comparison to neurotypical individuals with a presumption that neurotypical people frequently have a full-deck of morally relevant capabilities. Normal people have X, Y and Z to varying degrees. Neurodivergent people of type A have X and Y, but not Z or are impaired in Z (though they may 'hack' out an alternative path to Z, often implicitly presented as a lackluster facsimile). This has all the problems of thinking that people with a sensory disability like Deafness are just Hearing people minus Hearing and that sign-language is just a 'hacked-out' alternative to verbal language.

(2) Deficit Focus: There is a tendency to orient towards deficits and neglect strengths. This is pretty intimately tied with the above. Does Hershfield or anyone look for the moral strengths that could come along with reduced future-self continuity? There may well be some contextually limited strengths of this kind. Too vivid a connection with one's future self might impede certain forms of altruism because some forms of prudential concern might conflict with moral demands. Can over-identification lead to prudential failures, especially if humans are bad at affective forecasting?

(3) Oversimplified Moral Psychology: Most salient to psychological research, it is common to see robust claims about moral psychology being made on the basis of simplistic or artificial proxies. Saving for retirement is one form of prudence, does future-self continuity correlate positively with all forms of prudence? Overall reported life satisfaction is used as a proxy measure, but that is very coarse-grained. With regard to moral standards, not cheating on a test is one moral standard, but it's notably entangled with prudence (fear of consequences), is this a reasonable stand-in for how high or low a person's moral standards are generally? Are most relevant psychological capacities, much less extrinsic factors, controlled for? Rarely.

I don't think research like Hershfield's is *inherently* problematic, but I think the way research like Hershfield's is conducted, received, presented and shared is problematic. I think any findings of the form found in Hershfield's research are very likely to be poorly substantiated by the actual research if we interpret them with an adequately nuanced view of the subject. I think the way these findings are formulated makes them prone to misinterpretation and harmful philosophizing.

It may well be that you and I differ mainly in our pessimism/optimism about the quality and potential uses of this kind of research.

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