Are Psychopaths Morally Responsible?

madwomanWith the advent of psychology and psychiatry, moral judgment of our fellow human beings has been replaced by an attempt to understand them.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 peck1illness. 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 szaszquestioning 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).

criminalSome 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.”

brainSo, 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?

Grant Gillett and Jiaochen Huang wrote,

“… 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.”

smutAnd 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.

freewillOn 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.”

broadmoorI 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 clockworkconsidered 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.


5 thoughts on “Are Psychopaths Morally Responsible?

  1. Very interesting read. You’ve covered a good deal of ground; there’s more I’d like to respond to than I will present now.

    Firstly, Thomas Szasz has been highly influential to my thinking: the notion of freedom and responsibility as being central to the human experience is highly appealing. That this experience (or perceived deficits thereof) is extended across the neurologically diverse spectrum of humanity is a key point for a number of reasons. Here, I will focus on our experience of agency: which is perhaps where the rubber hits the road at the intersection of these two concepts.

    Agency is central to the free will v determinism debate. I have developed my own view on this debate which is simply that it is inadequately framed. I don’t regard “free will” or “determinism” as absolutes in competition; I regard them as models created to explain some elements of the human condition in specific contexts at particular points in time. Are those models still relevant today, given what we have learnt from science and the arts concerning our nature? Are those models relevant to solving today’s questions, including those you raise in this article? I think there’s plenty of evidence to say they are rather out-dated.

    We do have experience of agency, yet we perceive causality. Our justice system attempts to reconcile these for the purpose of fairness. Humans (I suspect all organisms) seek efficiency; capably social creatures that we are, it’s not so surprising we create systems such as the law to apply consistency in dealing with cheats. Yet Szasz said that most damage humans cause to each other is not handled by legal systems. Enter psychiatry.

    Given the recent explosion in research, collaboration, cross-domain knowledge transfer, we are better equipped than ever to challenge old models that aren’t sufficient to answer questions such as you are raising. Are psychopaths morally responsible? Psychopaths are not moral creatures, they don’t experience morality in the way neurotypicals do. Yet they are human.

    Of interest to me is finding the commonalities between the neurotypical and the psychopath and exploring these as foundations for a better grasp of the human condition. I think all humans wish to:
    – avoid unfair treatment;
    – feel desire for reparation when treated unfairly;
    – seek opportunities; and
    – have mechanisms for handling threat.

    We are all social creatures and thus seek to avoid ostracisation as the most time-critical, life-threatening emergency.

    I prefer to consider humanity as a species like any other and observe our behaviour as primatologists do apes’. Evolutionary biology describes two foundational strategies for social interactions: reciprocal altruism and tendency to cheat where we can. I recommend Robert Sapolsky for a discussion, but for a quick primer, check out Joan B. Silk’s article.

    I think we can all relate to the tension between individual benefit and maintaining our place in society. We make multiple choices along these lines each day. I find these concepts to be more useful for understanding human behaviour across the neurodiversity spectrum. In terms of “causality”, we are all bundles of neuropatterns and have only so much that we can or even want to change.

    We can, however, do much to better understand human nature and create more efficient, effective and pleasant practices for all. Society is premised on fair treatment; society will always reject cheats; in fact we are all wired to detect cheating with far greater sensitivity than detection of gracious behaviour. This is cross-species and is unlikely to change until major evolutionary shifts occur.

    In the meantime, there’s plenty for us to improve. And that includes neurotypicals learning to take full responsibility through understanding the greater propensity some subsets of the population have for cheating / seeking social advantage.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. WOW! That was really something. I haven’t replied until now because I have been struggling to grasp all you have to say which is quite a lot. Free-will vs. determinism is such a fascinating subject. I’m surprised you never mentioned Calvinism in your discussion since that is the most extreme form of determinism, really “predestination.” It’s funny to see this kind of determinism in the context of Christian theology since free-will seems to be essential if one is to make any sense of Christianity. But Calvin was clearly a very bold person who followed his premises to the bitter end.

    I haven’s studied philosophy as much as you have. I never heard of “compatibilitism” until now but I realize I am a compatibilist myself. I think free-will (what you call “agency”) and causality are not in conflict with each other. The fact that everything has causes, is part of the chain of cause and effect doesn’t negate the freedom with which we make our choices. I didn’t know it was a philosophy with a name.

    I guess you are a pragmatist in epistemology. I only had one course in this (which doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it on my own). We learned there were three theories, pragmatism, correspondence and coherence. I think coherence is the right approach. Correspondence is really metaphysics pretending to be epistemology. Truth is that which corresponds to reality. No shit, Sherlock! Pragmatism strikes me as a form of giving up the quest for Truth. What works? Isn’t that like saying we can never know truth but we can only hope to find a working hypothesis? I think the largest consistent system of thought has the best likelihood of discovering Truth. Whenever data that is inconsistent with our “system” or theory presents itself, we have to modify the theory or discard it. That’s true honesty in my opinion.

    When it comes to finding “justice,” I do have a love of it. However, I admit I’m not adverse to being on the advantaged side of injustice. For example, if I were among the “1%,” I wouldn’t be so anti-capitalism as I am, since I belong to the “99%.” You’re right in saying we all love justice at least for ourselves. I read an article in the Wall Street Journal that spoke of a study that showed people will even sacrifice their own advantage to avenge an injustice.

    When it comes to the justice system as applied to psychopaths, I think it is the most just and also in the best interest of psychopaths to hold us responsible for our choices. I believe we are just as free and responsible for our choices as anyone. I would rather be punished than treated as a mental patient, losing my civil rights. I have been a mental patient and I even got away with some things because of it. However, the way the staff talked to us said a lot. If they wanted to put someone in “seclusion,” the nuthouse version of “solitary confinement,” they never threatened to force an unwilling patient into that room. They would “help” him to get there. As if the patient isn’t even granted the recognition of any kind of will of his own. He is assumed to want the same thing the staff member wants but may be unable to accept it without “help” from the staff member. Talk about dehumanizing. So, yes, I chose freedom with responsibility.


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