Popular Philosophy—Blogposts

Here are some blogposts that I have written for various philosophy blogs, along with links to those sites.

Photo: H.L. Maibom: Mitla, Mexico 2018.

Photo: H.L. Maibom: Mitla, Mexico 2018.

imagining being another

Recently, various objections have been raised against empathy in what seems to be a serious backlash against Panglossian attitudes to the construct, whether in its affective or cognitive form. We are told not only that empathy is not necessary for morality, but that it actually is bad for it (Jesse Prinz and Paul Bloom). Moreover, in his provocatively titled article “Anti-Empathy” the late Peter Goldie insists that we can never fully succeed in taking another person’s perspective because we would have to represent her background beliefs, moods, attitudes, and other features of her personality. This would obviously be impossibly cognitively onerous. However, even if it were possible we would now explicitly represent what is normally implicitly represented, and that, he maintains, would make a substantial difference to these states’ functional role. Instead of influencing the person’s thoughts and actions in the background or, if you like, unconsciously, such psychological features would have to be factored in consciously in any simulation of another. In other words, even if we could amass knowledge of all the various beliefs a person might have, we would never be able to make them play the functional role in ourcognitive economy that they would in the target’s. This obviously raises serious concerns about the entire enterprise. I think this way of thinking about how and why we imagine being in someone else’s situation is wrongheaded, and below I outline why. More details will be found—apologies for this shameless bit of self-promotion—in my upcoming book “Knowing Me, Knowing You”.

Part of the difficulty arises from the somewhat persistent, but nonetheless mistaken, tendency to think of perspective taking as being of two forms: imagining ourselves in another’s situation or imagining being the other person in her situation. Either of these two options is problematic. It is fairly easy to see how wholesale projection goes astray. Even those that are close to us have different tastes, sensibilities, and predilections, all of which will be lost in an egocentric imaginative enterprise. It may get us accurate results for some segment of the population for some situations, but it is unlikely to be of general utility. Moreover, projecting ourselves into other people’s situations often defeats its own purpose. Only if their reaction were already not surprising would our projecting ourselves into the their situation give us the information we needed. But then, strictly speaking, we wouldn’t need the information in the first place. If on the other hand, we find their reaction puzzling, our projecting ourselves into their situation wouldn’t help at all, for we would presumably imagine reacting in non-surprising ways ourselves (and so differently from the targets). 

It can be a bit harder to see why imagining being the other person, which Goldie calls ‘empathic imagining’, is problematic. I like to use examples of over-identification. In the movie “The Element of Crime”, the detective uses a process of identification to find a serial killer, and ultimately ends up taking over from that killer; he becomes the killer, if you like. However, as the identification deepens, so does any real understanding of the killer’s motives, perhaps because the traits, beliefs, etc. that would have helped such an understanding are no longer explicitly represented, but have become part of the detective’s psychology (i.e. are now implicit). In my mind, this captures the problem beautifully. The point of taking another person’s perspective is not transforming ourselves into them. It is to understand them better. The two processes do not work in tandem, though. One appears to exclude the other. Moreover, the delicate question arises of what understanding we would be talking about anyway. Are we trying to understand someone from an entirely different standpoint than our own? Is the point not to see how we can make sense of the other person on the basis of our own current capacities and understanding? We travel some way towards others to get a better sense of them, as the persons they are, but were we able to transform ourselves into them, they would no longer be comprehensible to us. Instead, we meet somewhere in the middle, where I can still make sense of you, but where I will also finds patterns of reactivity that are different from my own. I am neither projecting myself wholesale into your situation, nor am I attempting to transform myself into you (even if for just a moment). 

At this point, you might wonder why anyone would have thought imagining ourselves in others’ situation would have to be either imagining-being-the-other-in-her-situation or imagining-ourselves-in-the-other’s-situation. My diagnosis is this. It is the bastard child of philosophers’ predilection for making fine distinctions and psychologists’ urge to operationalize processes for experimental purposes. Now, you certainly can instruct people to do one or the other, and when you do, you will often find that it makes a difference what instructions are followed. But to think that this gives us valuable information about what people typically do when they imagine being in someone else’s situation is a mistake. 

Are there additional reasons to believe my view over others? I think there is. I’ll give you one more. A problem that dogs views that maintain that perspective taking plays an important role in interpersonal relationships is that there is no correlation between relationship satisfaction and accuracy. Think of accuracy as measured by comparing someone’s self-ascriptions with another person’s ascriptions to them. There is, however, a relation between perceived tendency to take the other person’s perspective and empathize with her generally, and relationship satisfaction (close personal relationships and therapeutic relationships). Overall, surprisingly little research has been done on what is known as empathic accuracy, so we can still hope for better news. For now, however, accuracy does not seem to correlate particularly well with empathic tendencies NOR with the target feeling understood. This latter aspect is particularly interesting, if dispiriting. It seems tempting to conclude that people’s sense of being understood floats free of any real understanding, and may be tied more to attempts at understanding or to the partner’s otherwise empathetic attitude towards them. Another possibility is to rethink what we expect from interpersonal understanding through imagining the other. Perhaps understanding via imagining being in the other’s situation was never meant to give us accurate information about the other person’s mental states in the first place. Instead, it allows us to enter into a state that is similar to that of the target, but that is still related to our own psychological make-up and experience so that is sense-makingto us. Another way of looking at it is to say that the state plays a similar role in our internal economy as it does in the target’s. Such an account need more fleshing out, to be sure, but I think it is a promising proposal to explore further.

Photo: H.L. Maibom: Uxmal, Mexico 2009.

Photo: H.L. Maibom: Uxmal, Mexico 2009.

the role of mental disorder in insanity pleas

This is a comment on a paper on psychopathy in a recent issue of The European Journal of Analytic Philosophy, and published on the Brain blog: http://philosophyofbrains.com/2018/12/05/european-journal-of-analytic-philosophy-symposium-special-issue-on-psychopathy.aspx

Here are also links to papers in that issue, including my “What philosophers can learn from psychopathy” along with a comment on that paper by Rasmus R. Larsen.

 “Are psychopaths legally insane” raises the interesting question of what the role a mental disorder should play in determinations of legal insanity. Both the M’Naughton Rule and the Model Penal Code (MPC) require that defendants suffer from a mental illness in order to count as legally insane. Mental illness, however, is usually not regarded as sufficient for an insanity plea. One must show, in addition, that the psychiatric symptoms suffered by the defendant are sufficient to impact her ability to avoid wrongdoing (for MPC) or to know what she is doing or that it is wrong (for the M’Naughton Rule). Some, like Moore, have argued that showing that a defendant suffers from a mental illness might itself be enough to show that he lacks the capacity for responsibility. If so, psychopathy may itself be an excusing condition. Anneli Jefferson and Katrina Sifferd argue that there are general reasons to be skeptical about this idea. Why? Because mental disorders are too heterogeneous. Two people can suffer from the same diagnosable mental illness—as determined by the DSM-5 or the ICD-10—and have quite distinct impairments and difficulties. Moreover, most mental disorders appear to be dimensional by nature. As Michael Hengartner and Sandrine Lehmann point out in a recent article, psychiatric disorders do not represent “discrete taxa, i.e., clearly demarcated disorder entities that reliably delineate disorders from each other (between-disorder boundary) and normality from disease (within-disorder boundary).” (Hengartner & Lehmann 2017) Psychopathy is no exception. And although psychopaths have documented cognitive and affective deficits, neither one of them is sufficient to show that psychopaths, in general, lack the capacity to avoid wrongdoing.  

I have great sympathy for Jefferson and Sifferd’s argument that since psychopathy is not a uniform category, it cannot serve as the basis of an insanity defense. Whether or not a defendant meets the basic conditions of sanity should be determined on a case-by-case basis. So far, so good. But now things become tricky. If it is not a mental disorder that excuses, but the occurrence of a certain symptom, then that symptom is surely what is excusing. As Hengartner and Lehman point out, however, there is no clear distinction between normalcy and mental illness. So-called ‘normal’ people often hear voices, have delusions, or suffer from paranoia. If that is right, it seems that we should simply abolish the mental illness condition on insanity. But before we do so, one important worry needs to be addressed. How do we know that the defendant suffered from a psychiatric symptom of such severity that, at the time of the crime, she did not know what she was doing or that it was wrong, or that otherwise prevented her from avoiding wrongdoing? The answer is, of course, that we never can. The only thing we can do is look for indicators that increase the probability that the defendant’s reason (or motivation) was, in fact, significantly impaired. But it is exactly here that we are usually able to fall back on a psychiatric diagnosis. By contrast to the non-disordered, people who suffer from mental illness typically experience relevant symptoms in a more pronounced fashion and with greater regularity. It is therefore much more likely that such a person would have committed their crime under the influence of psychiatric symptoms sufficient to excuse her action. Without a diagnosis of this kind, we must look for other reasons to argue for impairment or inability. But where would we look?

The worry, as I see it, is that although Jefferson and Sifferd are surely right that mental disorders are so heterogenous that they cannot themselves excuse, we may still be in need of a mental disorder diagnosis for an insanity plea. This may be fine, as far as they are concerned. A deeper worry begins to creep in, however. And that is that by showing that mental illnesses are too heterogeneous to shoulder the burden of establishing an insanity plea on their own, have we not also shown that they cannot serve as supporting evidence that the defendant was, in fact, relevantly incapacitated at the time of the crime? 

Heidi Maibom

Department of Philosophy

University of Cincinnati



Michael P. Hengartner and Sandrine N. Lehmann: “Why psychiatric research must abandon traditional diagnostic classification and adopt a fully dimensional scope: Two solutions to a persistent problem. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 07 June 2017 (https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2017.00101).

Photo: H.L. Maibom: Freemasons’ Hall, London 2015.

Photo: H.L. Maibom: Freemasons’ Hall, London 2015.

PEaSoup feature

Years ago, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong invited me to participate in a symposium on psychopaths and responsibility. That was the first time I started thinking professionally about this issue. I was excited, yet intimidated. Not only is psychopathy not as neat and easy to classify a disorder as some think, but responsibility itself is an extraordinarily vexed issue. People far smarter than I have failed to make much progress. What to do? 

I decided to attack the issue from the legal angle. This seemed more manageable, and also more pressing when it comes to psychopaths. Other philosophers were insisting that psychopaths do not have the required capacities to be held legally responsible. A popular move is to argue that without the ability to empathize with others, one cannot fully understand that harming them is wrong (in itself). This means that one does not have the required understanding for legal responsibility (cf. the insanity defense). 

A number of assumptions are packed into this charge, namely that psychopaths lack the ability to empathize with others, that empathizing with others is a prerequisite for understanding that harming them is wrong, and that one must fully understand the wrongness of one’s actions in order to be held legally responsible for them. All these assumptions can be questioned. Let us begin with the last idea. How deeply must I understand some wrong in order to be held legally responsible for committing it? Mostly I just have to be able to understand thatit is wrong. A philosopher-psychiatrist friend I told about the debate thinks it’s stupid. Psychopaths are capable of understanding that harming others is wrong at least in the relatively superficial sense that I am able to understand, say, why jaywalking is wrong, and that is enough to hold them responsible for harming others. I am not sure I agree, but it’s a refreshingly simple view. 

Is empathy required for legal responsibility? Suppose I do not have the ability to empathize with anyone, but I am a devout Kantian. For reasons we do not need to go into here, I kill my nemesis. As a result, I am charged with murder. My lawyer argues that I should be excused on the basis of insanity since I am unable to empathize with others and thus cannot truly appreciate why killing someone is wrong. Does this seem reasonable? Not to me (I am, after all, a hardcore Kantian ;)). Although I am not capable of appreciating empathically the wrongness of killing someone, I still seem able to appreciate enough about the wrongness of killing to hold me responsible for doing so. We don’t know whether there are many hardcore Kantians in the wild. But we also have no reason to think that empathy is the only route to understanding the wrongness of our actions. People with autism, for instance, have empathic deficits too, yet they seem to understand that harming others is wrong. 

We can also ask: do psychopaths lack empathy? Far from being a clear-cut case, the evidence is mixed. We have evidence that psychopaths orient to pain in others just fine. Where the trouble starts is in the subsequent response. Where nonpsychopaths show sustained interest in others’ pain and mobilize a strong fear response, psychopaths do not. But this response is known to be under conscious control. It looks just like the response doctors have when they do things like administer painful injections to patients. It seems psychopaths have the ability to muster a full empathic response, but choose not to. It is hard to see how this could be excusing.

Years later, another invitation got me thinking more about Socrates’ idea that no man does evil willingly. Many theories of responsibility, however, seem to work with the tacit assumption that we hold people responsible because when they do wrong they know, in some interesting sense of know, what they do is wrong. But if that is so, we cannot hold most of the people responsible that we do. Something has gone wrong. I think our condition must be looser. Someone is responsible as long as she could have known what she was doing was wrong, as long as gaining that knowledge is not too onerous. But what, more precisely, does this amount to?

The problem with much wrongdoing, it seems to me, is that people do not think of what they are doing under the relevant description. Cases of neglect bring this out. What happens here is that people are stuck in their own point of view and are thinking of their actions purely in terms of the degree to which they satisfy their interests. They fail to adopt a different point of view. One important perspective that is often neglected is that of the victim. But it may not be the only point of view that matters. For one perspective does not automatically trump another. Being able to take the point of view of someone who is not an interested party is also important. If we are unable to do any of these things, we will fail to understand what we are doing in many cases. 

How this applies to the responsibility debate is straightforward. One cannot be held responsible for doing something that one could not have known one was doing. If part of what knowing what one is doing rests on one’s ability to take another point of view on one’s action, then being able to take other people’s perspectives is a necessary condition for (moral) responsibility. This view allows that we can be responsible for acting in ways we did not think we were acting at the time, as long as it was not too onerous for us to take up the relevant point of view. It is a consequence of this view that we can be held responsible for being biased and prejudiced. I develop these ideas more in my manuscript: Knowing Me, Knowing You. 

If you want to know more, go to my website: heidimaibom.com


Read my article on psychopaths and what we can learn from them, published in Aeon Magazine.