Psychopaths, moral psychology, and legal responsibility


Psychopathy used to be known as moral insanity because it describes a mental disorder that is uniquely organized around antisocial and amoral behavior. According to Robert Hare, psychopaths are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the crime in society. Someone like Kent Kiehl calculated that over 90% of male psychopaths in the USA are involved with the criminal justice system. As a group, therefore, they have attracted a lot of interest from philosophers and psychologists because understanding what goes wrong in them may help us understand the psychological underpinnings of morality.

Philosophers have primarily been concerned with whether psychopaths’ amorality is due to their deficient reason or their lack of relevant emotions. The hope is that psychopaths may finally help us resolve an old philosophical debate about the psychological underpinnings of morality, namely that between rationalism and sentimentalism.

According to rationalism, usually associated with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, our ability to determine whether an action is right or wrong rests on our reason. In essence, an action that is wrong is also an action that is unreasonable. It important to note, however, that Kant talks about practical reason not theoretical reason. So perhaps a better way of putting his view is to say that acting immorally is the result of bad decision making.

According to sentimentalism, whose main historical proponents are Adam Smith and David Hume, moral judgments rest on our ability to be affectively moved by the plight of others. Judging that an action is wrong consists in nothing more than our experiencing a negative emotion towards it, which Hume calls ‘disapprobation’. But without an underlying tendency to feel with others, particularly others in need, we would have no moral concern for them. So-called ‘fellow feeling’ lies at the foundation of caring for others.

Psychopaths are notorious for their lack of empathy. This is expressed their treatment of others, but also in the way in which they dismiss others’ suffering as largely irrelevant. Many have therefore argued that the problem with psychopaths is lack of empathy.

My own view is such a claim oversimplifies a complex situation. First, psychopaths clearly suffer from deficient decision making abilities also. Second, although psychopaths have a deficient response to others’ pain and suffering, they may not lack empathy or fellow feeling as a whole. Third, the term ‘psychopath’ probably encompasses several separate disorders, not all of which are primarily characterized by lacking affectivity.

Psychopaths have attention deficits. They are often overly focused on one thing over other potentially relevant things in their environment. They are particularly focused on reward, sometimes almost to the exclusion of punishment. When they learn a response, they have difficulties changing it, even when an action that was previous rewarded is now punished. These are clearly practical reasoning deficits. Some philosophers think this shows that psychopaths don’t understand what a reason for an action is, but I don’t think the evidence shows anything that strong.

Psychopaths also find others’ pain and distress less distressing than do non-psychopaths. Interestingly, at the physiological level people respond to others in distress as they would to a personal threat. Psychopaths are more fearless, particularly in response to social threats, than ordinary people are. They also seem to experience little guilt, shame, or remorse. Therefore, deficient emotionality is part of the psychopath’s profile also.

Psychopaths’ capacities to reason and to experience certain emotions are clearly both impaired. Where does this leave us? I think we need a modern moral psychology that transcends the old categories of reason vs. emotion. The two are intertwined in a way that does not fit Kantian or Humean boxes. We also need to update our views about what good decision making is and what empathy involves on the basis of what we learn from psychopathy research. The features we tend to focus on in mental illness, such as delusion or lack of empathy, are usually not uncommon in ordinary people. Deficient empathy in psychopaths may simply be an extreme version of the lack of empathy we ourselves frequently exhibit towards others.

Read more: The Mad, the Bad, and the Psychopath


The lone self

Photo: H.L. Maibom, Oaxaca, Mexico 2017.