Psychopaths Are Not Evil

The psychopaths are always around. In calm times we study them, but in times of upheaval, they rule over us.
(Ernst Kretschmer)

Psychopathy is a set of symptoms that consists in missing certain emotional, interpersonal, and behavioral traits and having others (Hare 1999). Some of the distinguishing characteristics of psychopathy include shallow emotions, egocentricity, deceitfulness, impulsivity, a lack of empathy, and a lack of guilt and remorse. Particularly significant for evaluations of moral responsibility is the psychopath’s inability to care for others and for the rules of morality.
According to the M’Naughten rules for criminal insanity, a person is legally insane if, due to a disease of the mind at the time of committing, he/she is unable to understand the nature or quality of his/her action or to associate with that what he/she is doing is wrong. For instance, a delusional schizophrenic who thinks that her neighbor is a demon is not responsible for harming her neighbor since she does not understand that she is harming an innocent person; she believes she is defending herself from an inhuman malicious agent. Many philosophers believe that the M’Naughten rules give us the conditions for moral responsibility as well as the conditions for criminal responsibility (see, e.g., Wolf 1987).
It is open to question whether psychopaths are insane according to the standard set by the M’Naughten rules since it is controversial whether psychopaths know that their actions are wrong. Motivational internalist believe that it is conceptually impossible to believe that an action is morally wrong and yet be entirely indifferent to abstain from doing the act. That is, for the internalist, there is a conceptual link between believing that an action is wrong and having a misleading attitude toward the action. The internalist believes that one may be able to deliberately do what is wrong because, all things considered, he/she cares more about something that is contrary with abstaining from misbehavior, added he/she is at least somewhat predisposed to abstain from doing what she knows to be wrong. Since psychopaths seem to be quite indifferent to whether their actions are right or wrong, motivational internalists believe that they do not really believe, or understand, that what they do is morally wrong. At most, they might believe that their harmful actions break societal practices. But it may be one thing to believe that one has broken a societal convention and quite another to believe that one has broken a moral rule. Philosophers who reject the internalist thesis, i.e., motivational externalists, are more willing to believe that psychopaths know the distinction between right and wrong. According to motivational externalists, moral knowledge only involves a rational ability to recognize right and wrong, and not the ability to care about morality. Since psychopaths are not intellectually impaired, motivational externalists do not think there is any reason to assume that psychopaths cannot tell the difference between right and wrong. (For more about how the internalist and externalist theses relate to the moral responsibility of psychopaths see Brink 1989, 45–50; Duff 1977; Haksar 1965; and Milo 1984. See also Rosati 2006. Recently some theorists writing about the moral responsibility of psychopaths have attempted to escape from the internalist/externalist debate. It is beyond the purview of this entry to survey this literature. See Levy 2007, Matravers 2008, Talbert 2008.)

Bad Upbringings
The extent to which abnormal behavior is produced by bad upbringings rather than genetic starting points or individual choices is a complex practical question. Assuming that there is a definite causal link between bad upbringings and wrong behavior, there are two main arguments for the claim that we should not hold perpetrators morally responsible for behavior that has resulted from bad upbringings. The first argument contends that since we do not choose our upbringings, we should not be held responsible for crimes which result from our upbringings (See, e.g., Cole 2006, 122–147). Susan Wolf (1987) provides a variation of this argument. According to Wolf people who have had exceptionally bad upbringings are helpless to make accurate normative judgements because they have been taught the wrong values. Wolf likens people who have been taught the wrong values to people suffering from psychosis because like psychotics they are unable to make accurate judgements about the world. For example, Wolf has us look at the case of Jojo, the son of Jo, a ruthless dictator of a small South American country. Jo believes that there is nothing wrong with torturing or killing innocent people. In fact, he enjoys displaying his unlimited power by ordering his guards to do just that. Jojo is provided with a special education which consists of spending much of his day with his father. The expected result of this education is that Jojo acquires his father’s values. Wolf claims that we should not hold Jojo responsible for torturing innocent people since his upbringing has made him unable to distinguish that these actions are wrong. Since Jojo is unable to distinguish that his actions are wrong he meets the conditions for insanity as described in the M’Naghten rules.
The second argument for the claim that we should not hold people morally accountable for crimes that result from bad upbringings begins with the idea that we are morally accountable for our crimes only if we are appropriate objects of reactive attitudes, such as resentment (Strawson 1963). According to this argument, perpetrators of crimes who have had notably bad upbringings are not appropriate objects of reactive attitudes since there is no point to expressing these attitudes toward these perpetrators. A proponent of this argument must then explain why there is no point to expressing reactive attitudes toward these perpetrators. In his paper “Responsibility and the Limits of Evil: Variations on a Strawsonian Theme” (1987) Gary Watson considers various ways to make sense of the claim that there is no point to expressing reactive attitudes toward people who perpetrate crimes due to bad upbringings. Watson’s discussion centres on the case of Robert Alton Harris. As a child, Harris was an affectionate good-hearted boy. Family members say that an abusive mother and harsh treatment at corrections facilities turned him into a vicious cold-blooded murderer.

Sometimes ignorance is used as an excuse for putative evildoing (Jones 1999, 69–70). The argument goes something like this: if an individual has no good reason to assume that she causes substantial harm without moral justification, then she is not morally responsible for causing this harm because she has no good reason to act otherwise. For instance, if Dorian shoots a gun into some bushes on a country estate without having any reason to believe that a man is hiding there, he is not morally responsible for harming a man who is hiding there (this case comes from Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray). In this way ignorance can be a valid excuse for causing unjustified harm.
Though, since Aristotle, theorists have identified that ignorance is merely a reasonable excuse for causing unjustified harm when we are not responsible for our ignorance, i.e., when the ignorance is non-culpable (Nichomachean Ethics, Bk III). One sort of culpable ignorance which has received an appropriate bit of attention from philosophers writing about evil is ignorance that results from self-deception. In self-deception we evade acknowledging to ourselves some truth or what we would see as the truth if our beliefs were based on an equitable assessment of accessible evidence. “Self-deceivers are initially aware of moments when they shift their attention away from available evidence to something else, although they may not be aware of the overall project of their self-deception.” (Jones 1999, 82). Some tactics used by self-deceivers to evade acknowledging some truth, including (1) avoiding thinking about the truth, (2) distracting themselves with rationalizations that are contrary to the truth, (3) systematically failing to make inquiries that would lead to evidence of the truth and (4) ignoring available evidence of the truth or distracting their attention from this evidence (Jones 1999, 82). Several theorists writing about evil have suggested that perpetrators of the Holocaust such as Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann were self-deceptive evildoers. (Calder 2003 and 2004; Jones 1999; See also, Martin 1986).

Psychopaths are not Detrimental to the Rest of Us
For some who have faith in the overall good in human nature might suggest a shove in the right direction would enable psychopaths to redeem themselves, or they can be “cured” by religious conversation or therapy.
The truth is, psychopaths do not want to change.

None of my patients that are classed as psychopaths have come to me to change them or to redeem themselves, they only need an ear to talk about any mundane topic they have in their minds-even murdering.

Psychopaths are generally satisfied with themselves and with their inner aspect, dark as it may seem to outside spectators, they see nothing wrong with themselves, experience little personal distress, and find their behavior rational, rewarding, and satisfying. They never look back with regret or forward with concern.
Psychopaths perceive themselves as superior beings in this bitter world, their “God” like personalities enables them to view the world how they want to see it.
Most of my patients wanted the world to see them as nothing but great, and would do anything to show it. But while the psychopath may be superficially charming, beneath the facade they are devious, manipulative, selfish and egotistical in the extreme.
They cannot comprehend how you and I feel as they have no empathy, yet they have learned to mimic our emotions thanks to their high IQ.
They do not aspire to redeeming features, although they may, like a chameleon, display them whenever is the right moment.

While psychopaths have many characteristics and attributes that categorize them as what they are, they are certainly not evil. Only gray. And they surely are dangerous, although, so can be your “normal” next door neighbor or the old woman passing you by.


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