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What is wrong with psychopaths? January 15, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Ethics, Science.

It is estimated that about 1 percent of the U.S. population are psychopaths — distinguished by their extraordinary egocentricity and their total lack of concern for the suffering of others. What exactly is wrong with them? The answer to this question may help us understand more about how moral intuitions develop in us. In The Moral Landscape, neuroscientist Sam Harris notes that while psychopaths do understand the concept of right and wrong (thus meeting the legal definition of sanity), they

generally fail to distinguish between conventional and moral transgressions. When asked, “Would it be okay to eat at your desk if the teacher gave you permission?” vs. “Would it be okay to hit another student in the face if the teacher gave you permission?” normal children age thirty-nine months and above tend to see these questions as fundamentally distinct and consider the latter transgression intrinsically wrong. In this, they appear to be guided by an awareness of potential human suffering. Children at risk for psychopathy tend to view these questions as morally indistinguishable.

And indeed, studies show (Blair et al., 2005) that psychopaths are often unable to recognize expressions of fear and sadness in others, suggesting that the negative emotions of others, rather than parental punishment, may be what goad us to normal socialization:

Blair […] observes that if punishment were the primary source of moral instruction, children would be unable to observe the difference between conventional transgressions […] and moral ones […], as breaches of either sort tend to illicit punishment. And yet healthy children can readily distinguish between these forms of misbehavior. Thus, it would seem that they receive their correction directly from the distress that others exhibit when true moral boundaries have been crossed. Other mammals also find the suffering of their conspecifics highly aversive. We know this from work in monkeys (Masserman, Wechkin, & Terris, 1964) and rats (Church, 1959) that would seem scarcely ethical to perform today. For instance, the conclusion of the former study reads: “A majority of rhesus monkeys will consistently suffer hunger rather than secure food at the expense of electroshock to a conspecific.”

Psychopaths, on the other hand, are born with mental defects that make it impossible for them to value the right things. Like those who are congenitally deaf or blind, they don’t know what they’re missing.


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