With the advent of psychology and psychiatry, moral judgment of our fellow human beings has been replaced by an attempt to understand them. The concept of “bad” or “evil” has been discarded in favor of “sick” or “crazy.” Of course, there are obvious maniacs who are so bizarre and out of touch with reality that people have never really judged them the way they would normally do. Societies driven by religion could only try to explain insanity in terms of possession by evil spirits. They knew these people were not in control of themselves but still something evil had to be responsible. Instead of evil spirits, we now speak of schizophrenia. Psychiatry didn’t stop there. The field went on to explain other forms of bad behavior on the part of people who were obviously not crazy. Neurosis became a major catchword. The joke was, “The neurotic builds a dream house, the psychotic lives in it and the psychiatrist collects the rent.” We hardly hear the word “neurosis” much any more. But we hear about and talk about personality disorders a great deal. People with these disorders are still thought to suffer from mental illness. Only the rare bird tries to combine the language of medicine with the language of morality. M. Scott Peck is a medical doctor who has attempted to do just that. His book, People of the Lie, applies Christian morality to people with personality disorders. His book is subtitled, “The Hope for Healing Human Evil.” This immediately puts psychology, psychiatry and even medicine on a philosophical basis. No more could science dealing with human beings be considered “pure science,” divorced from value judgments. Perhaps that is a more honest approach. Has the science of humanity ever been value-free? There is a school of thought which debunks the whole concept of “mental illness.” Notable in this group is R. D. Laing and Thomas Szasz. This sort of questioning leads one perilously close to questioning the reality of even physical disease. Is “disease” merely one way to explain the distress our bodies experiences while coping with a bad diet and other poor lifestyle choices? Holistic medicine comes at least close to exploring that possibility. Nevertheless, we have chosen, as a civilization, to be patients and doctors. The patient submits to the wisdom of the healer and feels safe (or at least hopeful).
Some human behavior has been so disturbing to society that the conflict between the medical framework and a moral one has been perplexing, especially when applied to the field of criminal justice. Society has rules and people break those rules. Some infractions are not too serious while some shake our society to its foundations. Moreover, some of these people reject the idea that they are “ill.”
I just learned a new word: “Bioethics.” Interesting. We now know psychopathy is a neurological condition although some people try to make it more fluid and less absolute with epigenetics. In The Wisdom of Psychopaths, Kevin Dutton has discussed epigenetics and psychopathy. According to Book Raps,
“The author is very interested in epigenetics, which is the change in how a gene is expressed without changing the DNA sequence. This would appear to be looking at how environmental factors influence how the gene is going to be expressed. This could occur to the fetus during pregnancy or I would suggest the same definition could occur by experience in childhood but all impacting on some genes that perhaps had a tendency to produce psychopathy. The author considers also how such things as child abuse might even produce an enzyme that in a susceptible individual might make them more aggressive.”
So, not only does the brain shape behavior, behavior and experience can shape the brain as well. It puts a whole new spin on the “hardware” vs. “software” paradigm. But regardless of the etiology of psychopathy, we know the condition of psychopathy isn’t voluntary. We don’t chose to be psychopaths. We come to know we are psychopaths. But, if the condition isn’t voluntary, what about the actions of a psychopath?
“… arguably, psychopaths are both sinned against as well as sinners. If that is true, then their status as the victims of abusive subcultures partially mitigates their moral responsibility for the harms they cause. We argue, from the neuroethics of psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), that communities have a moral obligation to psychopaths as well as a case against them.
Unfortunately, the above article is not available at present except in this Abstract. Fortunately, the same website (Taylor & Francis Online) that contains this Abstract also has an article by Nada Gligorov that discusses the issues in greater depth.
“Those individuals repeatedly fail to be motivated by other’s suffering or by the negative consequences of their behavior. Similarly, if we were to employ the constructionist framework proposed by the authors, almost any individual with a systematic weakness of will, not resultant from a neurological disorder, could be absolved of moral responsibility because of that person’s consistent deficit in being motivated by moral reasons. This is a problematic outcome if the purpose of the constructionist framework is to help us identify only those individuals who are not morally responsible for their actions.”
And episode of the TV show, Law and Order: SVU, involves a serial rapist who uses an affirmative defense, claiming he is psychologically impaired by his addiction to pornography. Defense attorneys can’t be blamed for seizing upon any way they can to defend their client. That’s their job. But can society intelligently accept a propensity to commit a crime as an excuse? I think human nature has a built-in propensity to break the rules when there is a reward involved. Understanding the cause of an action doesn’t negate the presence of free will. Of course, there’s a clear distinction between actions that are truly involuntary. Tourette’s Syndrome, sleep walking, epileptic seizures, to give a few examples, cause actions that the free will does not control. But raping someone because of a strong desire is something else again. On the other hand, there are cases like Patty Hearst’s that resulted from actual brainwashing. A better word for brainwashing is coercive persuasion. Patty Hearst broke the law because she had been made to believe that it was her only chance of surviving.
On the philosophical issue of free will vs. determinism, I am firmly on the side of free will. I think confusion results from seeing it as in either-or situation. Free will and determinism work together. Everything has a cause, including our actions. But the fact that our actions have causes doesn’t negate the fact that our choices are freely made in accordance with our will. That’s partially something I experience intuitively. I choose an action and then perform it. The reason I choose A instead of B has causes, I’m sure. But I am still in the center of my will and make the decision.
An article by Guy A. M. Widdershoven, Beyond Bad and Mad, states Gillett and Huang’s position a little more clearly:
“Gillett and Huang try to do justice to the complex social nature of psychopathology. They want to overcome the simple equation of psychopathology with being bad, by emphasizing the developmental problems that psychopaths suffer from. In their approach, psychopathology is seen as a combination of two elements: being bad and being mad. Yet it remains unclear how the two are related. Does the element of madness make the psychopath less bad (since in a way he or she cannot help acting as he or she does)? Does the bad intention somehow make the psychopath less ad (since a psychopath really wants to hurt other people, unlike, for instance, a person who assaults another person because of a delusion)? Or does the combination of bad and mad make the psychopath in two ways different from ‘normal’ people, because he or she is neither a moral person, obeying societal norms and legal rules, nor a sane person, responding in a stable way to stressful events? In the latter case, the elements of bad and mad do not mitigate one another, but add up and make the psychopath deviant in a twofold way.”
Finally, there is Moral Responsibility and Psychopathy: Why We do Not Have Special Obligations to the Psychopath. The article basically states that psychopaths are able to understand society’s moral requirements and to choose whether or not conform or rebel.
“Psychopathy is a mental disorder that involves impaired capacity for empathy and remorse as well as impulsivity and impaired responses to fear-induced stimuli. Brain imaging performed on individuals diagnosed with psychopathy has shown abnormalities in the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulated cortex, and amygdale (Damasio 2000; Blair 2003 2007). These regions of the brain help to mediate the cognitive processes that result in decision making procedures that are relevant to moral situations. Though many psychopaths exhibit a failure to control their impulses this does not imply that they have an inability to control them (Glannon2011). Regardless of how the psychopath was brought up or what role the distorted context of relational concepts like love and kindness have played in the creation of the habituated character of the psychopath, it seems that psychopaths are still responsive to reasons and act from an authentic psychological scheme that affords them the ability to reason about which actions they ought to perform. If this is true then I am having a hard time understanding why the psychopath is owed any special obligations from the community.”
I agree with this last statement. I don’t think there is real advantage to being considered unable to control what we do. Freedom and responsibility come together. If we are held not morally responsible, we can be confined to psychiatric facilities and lose our civil rights. In England, I understand, psychopaths who commit serious crimes are placed in psychiatric prison hospitals such as Broadmoor. A popular novel called The Psychopath Test by Ron Johnson describes the fate of a man who faked mental illness to get into a cushy hospital instead of jail. He ended up at Broadmoor where, instead of having to serve out his term, was confined indeterminately as the shrinks there diagnosed him with psychopathy. In America, psychopaths are treated more harshly than the ordinary criminal as we are considered more likely to re-offend. It is fortunately only applied in parole considerations. Parole isn’t a right. It’s a privilege so they can deny parole to whomever they wish. Some authorities actually wish to civilly commit convicts after they have served out their time. That is flat-out unjust. Even more sinister are the murmurs of the possibility of placing electrodes into the brains of psychopaths to change how we think. That gives me the willies. Sure, they could call it voluntary. But giving someone a choice between staying in prison or nuthouse or of getting this “treatment” and going free is making that person an offer he can’t refuse. Bad news. Psychopaths aren’t crazy. We are free. And I’d like to stay that way. Freedom is responsibility. I’m responsible for my choices. If society doesn’t like those choices, it can kiss my psychopathic ass.
- What We Owe the Psychopath: A Neuroethical Analysis, b
- Moral Responsibility and Psychopathy: Why We do Not Have Special Obligations To The Psychopath
- Epigenetics. Book Rap
- The Applicability of Psychological and Moral Distinction in an Emerging Neuroscientific Framework: AJOB Neuroscience, Vol. 7, No. 4
- The Myth of Thomas Szasz. The New Atlantis
- The Legacy of Thomas Szasz, by Phil Barker
- R. D. Laing. Was the counterculture’s favourite psychiatrist a dangerous renegade or a true visionary?
- It Isn’t as Simple as it Seems. Understanding and Treating Psychopathy by Valerie Gray Hardcastle
- Beyond Bad and Mad: Making Psychopaths Responsible : AJOB Neuroscience, Vol. 4, No. 2 by Guy A. M. Widdershoven
- Doubts Arise as States Hold Sex Offenders After Prison, The New York Times
- Criminal Minds: Neuromodulation of the Psychopathic Brain.
- Mad, Bad or Rad, by Fran Nowve
- Deconstructing Psychopathy, by yours truly