Moral Development in Persons with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Daniel Seseske

Abstract—In this paper, I will look at moral development in persons with autism and identify certain impairments that inhibit them in their pursuit of the basic human goods. I wish to show the need for future research and education in order to equip persons with autism in their pursuit, promotion, and enjoyment of the basic human goods. By moral development I am referring to the psychological skills that equip a person to pursue, promote, and enjoy the basic human goods. In order to assess moral development, I will use the four-component model of moral development developed by James Rest and his colleagues, which looks at moral sensitivity, moral judgment, moral motivation, and moral character. In looking at each of the components, I will point out both the impairments that inhibit persons with autism in their pursuit, promotion, and enjoyment of the basic human goods, and also at positive skills that can hopefully be further developed through research and education in order to better help persons with autism to overcome these impairments.


Natural law morality is built upon the basic human goods, fundamental goods that we all pursue. Alfonso Gomez-Lobo identifies the following as the basic human goods: life, family, friendship, work, play, knowledge, appreciation of beauty, integrity, and religion. In this investigation, I will look at moral development in persons with autism and point out the ways in which certain impairments inhibit them in their pursuit of the basic human goods and so stress the need for further research and education to help them develop the skills necessary for the pursuit, promotion, and enjoyment of the basic human goods.

What do I mean by moral development? I am referring to the development of certain psychological tools and skills that equip a person for the pursuit, promotion, and enjoyment of the basic human goods. How do we best assess moral development? When it comes to the psychology of moral development, Lawrence Kohlberg is often the first name to come up. In more recent years, however, people have recognized that Kohlberg’s work, while still valuable, is limited strictly to moral judgment and, as such, does not give a comprehensive account of moral development (Christopher & Campbell, 1996). James Rest and his colleagues, in an effort to remedy this problem, have offered the four-component model of moral development; this model not only addresses moral judgment, but also looks at moral sensitivity, moral motivation, and moral character (Bebeau, Rest, & Narvaez, 1999). Both Victor Battistich (1999) and Lawrence Walker (2004), two researchers in this field, have supported the use of this model. These four components can be viewed as four sets of psychological tools that help the person to pursue, promote, and enjoy the basic human goods successfully. As such, to assess moral development in persons with autism, I will be focusing on these four components. In exploring these four components, I wish to point out two things: (1) the impairments in development in the different components that inhibit persons with autism in their pursuit, promotion, and enjoyment of the basic human goods, and (2) the positive skills that, through further research and education, can hopefully be developed to help persons with autism to better pursue and promote the basic human goods.

Research specifically targeting moral development in persons with autism is in its early stages. Even though this is the case, research addressing other aspects of autism can be incorporated into this discussion and will help facilitate our understanding of moral development. This is possible because there are certain skills that are essential to each of the four components (Bebeau et al, 1999), and some of these skills are the focus of other autism research. Thus the findings of these studies are helpful to our current discussion, even though the research itself does not deal directly with moral development.

I. Moral Sensitivity

Moral sensitivity is defined as interpreting the situation…the awareness of how our actions affect other people. It involves being aware of the different possible lines of action and how each line of action could affect the parties concerned (including oneself). Moral sensitivity involves imaginatively constructing possible scenarios (often from limited cues and partial information), knowing cause-consequent chain events in the real world, and having empathy and role taking skills” (Bebeau et al, 1999).

Most important for my consideration are empathy and role-taking skills. It seems that these skills are the basic foundation of moral sensitivity, in that a person must have an empathic response, an emotional response to the needs of another, and then be able to take the perspectives of others who are involved to recognize the goods at stake for those involved. A moral situation is a situation in which basic human goods come into play, i.e., where they are threatened, where they can be pursued, where they can be enjoyed, and/or where they can be promoted.

James Blair’s (1996) research deals with the primary element of empathic distress, a fundamental emotional response to the distress of others. Blair tested the ability of children with autism to distinguish between conventional and moral transgressions. A conventional transgression is one that is wrong due to certain conventions, e.g., not wearing the appropriate school uniform. A moral transgression is one that is always wrong, e.g., hitting another person. The child is presented with a scenario in which a transgression occurs. The child is then asked, “If the teacher (authority) says this is acceptable, is it acceptable?” A correct response is tallied when children say “yes” for conventional transgressions, and ‘no’ for moral transgressions. Blair found that children with autism are able to make the distinction. Blair’s theory is that people are able to make this distinction based on affect; in other words, people make the distinction because of the fact that in the case of moral transgressions there is a victim, and the viewer has a fundamental emotional response to the suffering of the victim.

Empathic distress, however, is not sufficient in and of itself. Martin Hoffman argues that empathic distress is fundamental, but that it must lead to emotional perspective-taking. Initial experiences of empathic distress must lead us to more mature skills, namely, taking the other’s perspective and, in doing so, having a more appropriate emotional response to the other (Gibbs, 2003). Research shows that persons with autism have deficits in their ability to read the emotions of others and to take their perspective, skills necessary for a mature moral sensitivity (see Gross 2004; Adolphs, R., Baron-Cohen, S., & Tranel, D. 2002). So while the fundamental building block—empathic distress—is functional in persons with autism, it seems the other critical skills, particularly emotional role-taking skills, are impaired.

Unfortunately, the lack of emotional role-taking impairs the ability of a person with autism to recognize the basic human goods that are at play in a given situation. For example, he or she may not recognize the way in which words will hurt another person and threaten the good of friendship. On the positive side, the fundamental empathic response does seem to be present and perhaps can be built upon to develop their role-taking abilities further.

II. Moral Judgment

The next component presented by Rest and his colleagues is moral judgment, “judging which action is morally right or wrong” (Bebeau et al, 1999). Usually there will be more than one good affected in a given situation and, as such, a person must be able to make a judgment when a number of goods are in conflict.

In a recent study, Grant, Boucher, Riggs, and Grayson (2005) investigated moral judgment in persons with autism, looking at certain cognitive skills that are essential for moral judgment. The researchers wanted to see if the persons with autism had an understanding of motive and if they recognized that damage to persons is graver than damage to property. To see whether a person accounts for motive, they would use something like the following scenario: Sarah is helping her mother set the table and accidentally drops a tray of six glasses; Bobby is trying to steal a cookie from the cookie jar and breaks a single glass in the process. Which action is naughtier? Most young children, up to a certain age, will say that Sarah is naughtier, because she broke more glasses—they focus on outcome. On the other hand, at a certain age, the children will say that Bobby’s action is naughtier because they begin to take motive into account—over and above outcome. So the study presented several different scenarios to see if children with autism were able to weigh motive over outcome. In addition, the researchers also wanted to see if children with autism recognized damage to persons as graver than damage to property.

Their research proved to be very fruitful. Grant et al (2005) found that children with autism did seem to take motive into account, recognizing that motive was essential to culpability (naughtiness) and apparently placing more weight on motive than on outcome in most cases when asked “Who was naughtier?” They were usually unable to explain “Why he/she was naughtier?” but the researchers believed that this was a result of language impairments and difficulties with executive function and information-processing associated with autism. These impairments greatly affect the skills necessary to make successful justifications, since language is the necessary medium, and the other impairments in executive function and information- processing cause difficulty in “voluntarily and flexibly accessing available information in order to produce novel (generative) responses” (p. 327). So the inability to make proper justifications does not exclude the likelihood that they have some understanding of motive.

Overall, the researchers concluded that the children with autism do have some basic understanding of motive and noted that the children with autism seem to recognize damage to persons as being greater than damage to property; though noting at the same time that the two groups did score below the neurotypical children. We see very positive signs here. The research seems to show the ability of persons with autism to make judgments when a number of goods are at play and to recognize that the basic good of life is more important than instrumental goods such as property. However, it is important to remember that to replicate this kind of success in actual moral situations will depend on the ability of the persons with autism to recognize the goods that are in play (this harkens back to the discussion on moral sensitivity) in order to make judgments about them. Even when they were looking at just a couple of specific goods, they scored below average. But again, it seems that there is some foundation that can be further developed.

III. Moral Motivation

Unfortunately, there is no specific research that addresses moral motivation in persons with autism. When we speak of moral motivation, we are concerned with the desire to be moral, i.e., the desire to put moral values ahead of other values. For example, a person could put his self-image or selfish interests ahead of moral values when he acts. Future research would have to find a way to assess moral motivation in persons with autism. One potential problem is the tendency of persons with autism to desire a rigid routine. They often get very anxious and upset if their routines are changed (NAS website). There is the potential that their desire to maintain their routines would outweigh any other desires, including the desire to be moral. As such, routines may come to interfere with their pursuit and promotion of the basic human goods. It is important to expose persons with autism to these goods and to show the value of these basic goods to help them develop a desire to be moral.

IV. Moral Character

The final component of Rest et al’s four-component model is moral character, defined as: “having the strength of your convictions, having courage, persisting, overcoming distractions and obstacles, having implementing skills, having ego strength” (Bebeau et al, 1999). Moral character is a central theme of the ethics of Aristotle. As Joseph Brennan (1992) notes, “Aristotle’s ethics…is an ethics of character rather than an ethics of rules” (p. 65). Virtue, according to Aristotle, “is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e., the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it” (Nicomachean Ethics, II:6). And so, a person becomes virtuous, that is, develops good moral character, through performing virtuous actions. Moral character, as such, depends upon consistently performing the virtuous act appropriate to the situation that presents itself.

There is no research related to the condition of autism that specifically speaks to this aspect. However, the writings of persons with autism are helpful. For example, Temple Grandin (1995), a woman with autism, writes of her courage in overcoming obstacles on her way through college, graduate school, and a PhD program; ultimately she has had a great influence on the way cattle is handled through her work and her efforts in the field. We see that Grandin has been able to promote the basic goods of life, knowledge, work, and integrity. Grandin (1999) writes that persons with autism should focus on the skills in which they excel and develop them to be able to use them in a job.

While it is clear that there is potential in this area, that is, in developing moral character by committing to a certain career goal, the danger is that taking this route will lead to only some of the basic goods. In addition to the goods of life, knowledge, work, and integrity, there are the more social goods, namely, family, friendship, and play (in addition to certain jobs with a more social aspect). Persons with autism may develop courage and perseverance in pursuing career goals, but it is still important that they develop the other virtues associated with social relationships in order to pursue and enjoy those goods as well.


There is still much to be done in coming to a more complete understanding of moral development in persons with autism and understanding their pursuit of the basic human goods. There is a need for more research and also for a thorough study of the writings of persons with autism. Hopefully, through further research and working with persons with autism, we can better assist them in their pursuit of the basic human goods.

This, of course, will not be easy. Perhaps the major difficulty is the fact that autism is a spectrum disorder. That means it is “characterized by varying degrees of impairment in communication skills, social interactions, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior” (NIMH, 2004). Since there is this variation, treatments that help persons with autism who are higher functioning may not be particularly effective for persons with autism who are lower functioning.

Works cited