'Demon Seated', Mikhail Vrubel

Psychopaths and Morality: Where do they fit?

Psychopathy is a psychological disorder that leads to antisocial behaviour and often is associated with bold and insensitive actions towards others. In moral philosophy, psychopathy has generated the following ethical conundrum:

Is it moral to hook up a psychopath (whose only pleasure is killing) to a reality-simulating machine so that he can believe he is in the real world and kill as much as he likes?”

Some people would say that this is a nonexistent dilemma – without a doubt, this is the morally right thing to do. Not, perhaps, according to Immanuel Kant. Kant would likely have claimed that this act is in no way moral, since it violates the second maxim of his Categorical Imperative (a principle within his moral theory) which explicitly forbids us from treating people as means or manipulating them in any way. With this interpretation of Kant in mind, using a reality-simulating machine for this purpose would not be justified since the psychopath, who should be an “end-in-itself” is downgraded to a mere means toward an end; namely, our psychopath-free society.

On the other hand, if our end is societal well-being, one person’s ‘suffering’ – namely, the fact that the psychopath is removed from reality – certainly does not outweigh the resulting non-suffering of the many. In essence, this is a utilitarian outlook to take when it comes to this moral conundrum. It is in complete disagreement with Kant’s moral philosophy for it suggests it is not really immoral to manipulate one person if everyone else benefits from this. The question remains, though, do either of these outlooks solve the dilemma? One reason to suspect not is that both neglect the question of whether or not we can even assign blame to the psychopath for their desire to kill.

Another situation, devised by philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, can help us explore whether we can assign blame to those whose actions are not within their control. A man, Tom, breaks into John’s house. Tom walks up the stairs, looms over John’s bed before bashing his skull in with a baseball bat. Instantaneously, most of us, believing that some form of retaliation is in order, would say that Tom deserves to be imprisoned or even that he should be executed. Now let’s add that Tom had a brain tumour. We might then pause to reflect on this new information. It seems that there is a potential new explanation: his violent behaviour resulted from the tumour. Our former moral condemnation of said behaviour would no longer seem as justified. If we were in Tom’s place, we might have done the same thing. So, circling back to our original moral problem, why does Tom get the benefit of the doubt for his actions, whereas the psychopath does not for their desire to kill?

Let’s put our psychopath to the test.

You are standing at the edge of a cliff with a fat man beside you. You notice five people are tied up on the tracks, where a trolley will run them over if you don’t throw the fat man – whose weight would derail the trolley – onto the tracks. Do you throw him?

Most of us would naturally recoil and take a second to pause. The psychopath, however, would not; they would cast the fat man onto the tracks in an instant. If the psychopath were to be questioned on their rationale, their answer would most likely be formulated as the most sensible calculation, under the circumstances. That is to say that this would not be a rash decision, since psychopaths in some studies have been shown to have abnormally high IQ scores along with, on one conception of rationality, perfect reasoning capabilities and impeccable logic. What line of reasoning would have led the psychopath to their decision then? It doesn’t seem to be a utilitarian reason guiding their actions (though this certainly might guide us in carrying out the same action) but rather the lack of a specific emotion, empathy.

An interesting point to consider would be whether our hypothetical psychopath, whose only joy is derived from killing people, would actually intervene or instead leave those five people to die. However, in ethics, we often wrestle with the distinction between killing and letting die, and in this particular case, assuming the distinction holds, the psychopath would probably still kill the fat man, yet have no regard for the lives of the five people he saved. What we can infer from this is the psychopath’s response to the dilemma involves a definite mismatch between the outcome of their actions and their intention.

‘Demon Downcast’, Mikhail Vrubel

To help shed light on this issue, it might prove useful to delve deeper into what it means clinically to be a psychopath. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a psychopath possesses these traits:

– Uncaring (lack of empathy)
– Lack of remorse or shame
– Irresponsibility
– Selfishness
– Irritability and aggressiveness

Now, we need to answer the question of whether or not we can blame the psychopath for being a psychopath. If we look at the brain of such an individual, we find dysfunctional elements in the amygdala, the ’emotional’ portion of the brain (see “Neurobiological basis of psychopathy”). More and more, we are seeing that psychopaths really did not choose to become (or from birth, be) psychopaths and their actions can be neurologically broken down into awkward synaptic firings. As a result, we might no longer resent the psychopath (or those in a temporarily similar circumstance, such as Tom) for their neurological states which are quite seriously out of their control.

Still, why then insist on the need for the reality-simulating machine? This could be considered as a manifestation of our blame towards the psychopath and we have already discussed the intuition that blaming people for things outside of their control is morally questionable, at best. Of course, aside from (or in addition to) retribution, one motivation is so as to protect others from the psychopath. Did the psychopath volunteer for such an intervention, though? One might say that the psychopath wouldn’t mind, but in cases where it is against their will (I am inclined to believe that this would be the case for the majority of these individuals), hooking them up to this reality-simulating machine is certainly not moral since these factors appear now to be totally out of their control. Also, if we should satisfy our retributivist desires, aren’t we just satisfying the psychopath’s own desires, however out of their control they may be? If we are really to follow some form of retributivism this ‘punishment’ is actually more of service to psychopaths.

Clearly, psychopaths seem to possess a distinctive moral compass, not necessarily pointing in the same direction as our own. But where do psychopaths derive their morals, if any, from? It may help us to comprehend where the ‘morals’ of psychopaths originate from as it will elucidate why their reasoning strays from our own on the trolley problem and reality-simulating dilemma.  The prevalent view is that psychopaths have no morals: they suffer from a moral deficit and we should study how this lack of morals arises. A recent study with this view has determined that:

The main problem seems to be a broken amygdala, a brain area responsible for secreting aversive emotions, like fear and anxiety. As a result, psychopaths never feel bad when they make other people feel bad. Aggression doesn’t make them nervous. Terror isn’t terrifying. (Brain imaging studies have demonstrated that the amygdala is activated when most people even think about committing a moral transgression.)

If this conception of psychopaths’ moral development is correct, the key point to take away from such empirical work is that psychopaths don’t feel bad when they make other people feel bad. This supports a long tradition in moral theory, that contends it is not reason that guides our moral judgement, but emotion. Contrary to Kant’s duties derived from rational maxims or John Stuart Mill’s mathematically-inclined utilitarianism, the morality of non-psychopaths could function in spite of rationality.

In the discussion of the trolley problem, it was observed that non-psychopaths would reflect, in terms of “recoiling”, before making a decision. Recoiling from a decision, as it were, is a purely emotional reaction, one which psychopaths are incapable or uninterested in expressing. Additionally, the discussion on the reality-simulating dilemma didn’t generate a clear answer, yet it enabled us to look further into the underlying issues of moral culpability and the psychological inner-workings of the psychopathic mentality. Interestingly enough, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once suggested, “morality is the sign-language of the emotions”. This observation links up to our modern scientific understanding of psychopaths and their fractured amygdalae. Psychopaths seem to operate beyond any moral considerations that we may lay out for them, which makes these issues as intractable as they are fascinating.

Kyle van Oosterum is a first-year philosophy student at the University of St. Andrews.


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