38. Psychopathy, Morally Considered [QP]

Let’s kick it off with a moral dilemma:

“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?”

Interestingly enough, most people would say that this is a nonexistent dilemma – without a doubt, this is moral. Not according to Kant. Kant would claim that this act is in no way moral, since it violates the second maxim of the Categorical Imperative (his moral system) which explicitly forbids us from treating people as means or manipulating them in any way. To Kant, an unflinchingly rigid philosopher, such a violation cannot stand, since we are manipulating the psychopath. We might believe that certain rules should be universalized – in effect the first maxim of the Categorical Imperative – but we might also believe that exceptions must be made and that for societal well-being, one person’s ‘suffering’ certainly does not equate to many. In essence, we have a utilitarian outlook when it comes to this ‘dilemma’. But does it really solve the problem? And can we really blame him for being a psychopath?

Here is another situation that philosopher/neuroscientist Sam Harris devised. Let’s say we have a man called Tom, who happens to break 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 tumor. Naturally, we might pause for an instant. It seems that his violent behaviour has an explanation and our former moral condemnation of said behaviour does not seem as justified. If we were in Tom’s place, we might have done the same thing. So, circling back to our original ‘dilemma’, why does Tom get the benefit of the doubt, whereas the psychopath above does not?

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 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 would not. Surely enough, the fat man would be cast onto the tracks in an instant by the psychopath. Curiously enough, psychopaths tend to have abnormally high IQ scores along with perfect reasoning capabilities and impeccable logic. It doesn’t seem to be a utilitarian reason guiding his actions – it certainly might guide our actions after some careful reflection – but rather a lack of emotion or empathy. It seems that we have to delve deeper into what it means to be a psychopath. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a psychopath possesses these traits:

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

Even without the DSM, we might have familiarised ourselves with the brilliant silhouettes of psychopathy drawn by Bret Easton Ellis (author of American Psycho) and Alfred Hitchcock’s monochromatic masterpiece Psycho (1960). Regardless, 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. More and more, we are seeing that this psychopath really did not choose to become a psychopath and his actions can be neurologically broken down into awkward synaptic firings. Naturally, we might not resent Tom or the psychopath for their neurological states which are quite seriously out of their control, but why then do we insist on the reality-simulating machine? This is necessarily a manifestation of our blame toward the psychopath. Did the psychopath volunteer for such a treatment? Incidentally, one might say that he wouldn’t mind, but in cases where this is against his will (I am inclined to believe that this would be the case for the majority of these individuals), hooking him up to this reality-simulating machine is certainly not moral, since as we have explained, these factors are totally out of his control. Also, aren’t we just satisfying his cruel desires, however out of his control they may be? If we are really to follow some form of retributivism, where the punishment fits the crime, this sort of treatment is actually more of service to him.

Psychopaths possess a dysfunctional moral compass, not necessarily pointing in the same direction as our own moral compasses. But where do psychopaths derive their morals, if any, from? The quick and unoriginal observer would say that he suffers from a moral deficit and that we should really study where his lack of morals arises. In fact, a recent study published the following results:

“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.)”

The key point to take away from there is that psychopaths don’t feel bad when they make other people feel bad. It suggests something quite profound about morality; it is not reason that guides it, but emotion. Contrary to Kant’s duty-morality based on rationality or John Stuart Mill’s mathematically-inclined utilitarianism, morality could function in spite of rationality and psychopaths are living proof of this very point. A quote from Nietzsche could not finish this article more adequately:

“Morality is the sign-language of the emotions.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (§187)



2 thoughts on “38. Psychopathy, Morally Considered [QP]

  1. It is interesting to consider such questions. I believe that psychopaths are thus because of biochemical imbalances which affect brain function; not a brain dysfunction that affects behaviour. I would like to see the result of an experiment where we take a large group of identified psychos and balance their biochemistry with supplementation to study the effects of this on their perceptions and emotional responses. I’m willing to bet that if this were possible, the results would be very telling. I further believe that all psychological and psychiatric problems are also due to imbalanced biochemistry which can be corrected with appropriate supplementation. By the way, you “philosophy in seconds” is evolving into a “philosophy in 15 minutes” 🙂


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