Saturday, June 19, 2010

Understanding Psychopaths and the Problem of Moral Strangers

Mencius' famous teaching that "human nature is good" can be easily dismissed as naive in ignoring the reality of human depravity. In defense of Mencius, we might say that, of course, Mencius knows that many human beings are bad, because his point is only that all human beings are born with the propensities and capacities that can be cultivated into goodness, even though many people fail at this because of their bad circumstances or their bad choices. But even this modest claim that human beings are born with the natural potential for goodness seems to fail to account for those we identify as psychopaths, who from birth seem to lack the full potential for goodness that we take as normal for most human beings.

Similarly, some of my critics have argued that psychopaths contradict my claim that there is a natural moral sense rooted in human biology. To answer that objection, I wrote Chapter 8 of Darwinian Natural Right on "The Poverty of Psychopathic Desire." I survey the modern research on psychopathy and conclude that psychopaths suffer from an abnormal poverty of desire: they lack the social desires and moral emotions that support the moral sense in normal people. If morality depends upon a moral sense, and if the moral sense depends on moral emotions that typically arise in most human beings, then it would seem that those few people who happen not to share those moral emotions are not bound to obey that moral sense. Yet, although it is true that psychopaths are under no moral obligation to conform to the moral sense, because they lack the moral emotions that provide the only basis for moral obligation, it does not follow that we cannot protect our moral community against their attack. Since they lack the moral sentiments that make moral persuasion possible, our only appeal with such people is force and fear.

Some of my critics--for example, John Hare and Carson Holloway--insist that this shows the fundamental weakness in my argument--that my appeal to moral sentiments cannot work with those psychopaths who lack such sentiments, and so the only way we can constrain their behavior is through force or fear. But these critics haven't provided any good alternative. To me, our experience with psychopaths shows the tragic limits to moral persuasion. With those who lack the social emotions necessary for developing a conscience, we have no grounds for persuasion.

In my chapter on psychopathy, I rely heavily on Robert Hare, one of the leading psychologists in this area. So I have been interested to see the recent media coverage of a controversy involving Hare. In 2007, Jennifer Skeem and David Cooke wrote an article criticizing Hare's work on psychopathy. Their article was accepted for publication in the journal Psychological Assessment. When Hare saw a copy of their manuscript, he threatened to file a lawsuit for libel if the article were published. This brought a delay in publication. Eventually, Skeem and Cooke revised their article, and Hare was invited to write a reply to be published along with the article. Finally, three years later, this has all been published in the latest issue of the journal. The intensity of the controversy is suggested in a recent article in the New York Times. The latest issue of Science also has an article on this.

I have not been able to secure copies of these journal articles. But from my reading of the abstracts, it seems that this continues a controversy that has surfaced in some previous articles. In 2007, Cooke and Skeem published an article in the British Journal of Psychiatry that seems to state the same criticisms of Hare that are set forth in their latest article. Also, Hare has posted a statement on his website giving his side of this controversy.

Hare's great influence comes from his being the creator of the "Psychopathy Checklist," which is used by forensic psychologists to identify people with psychopathic personalities. The checklist consists of 20 traits and behaviors, with definitions for each. Using interviews and case-history information, evaluators rate subjects on a 3-point scale for each item. This is commonly used in legal systems to decide whether an offender is psychopathic and thus likely to be dangerous in the future.

Much of the controversy over Hare's checklist turns on arcane technical details. And if you're going to try to read the article by Cooke and Skeem, I warn you that they write in the turgid style favored by academic psychologists. For example, they use words like "parameterise."

But there is an important substantive point here beyond the technical issues of methodology. Cooke and Skeem argue that psychopathic personality should be distinguished from criminal behavior, and therefore criminal behavior should not be part of the "Psychopathy Checklist." They agree that psychopaths might be often inclined to criminal behavior. But this behavior is separate from the "construct" of psychopathy. Oddly enough, Hare seems to agree with this, because he claims that Cooke and Skeem distort his work to make it appear that he treats criminal behavior as essential to psychopathy, whereas in fact he does not.

In my chapter on psychopathy, I agree with this point, because although psychopaths are often inclined to criminal violence, and indeed to the worst kind of violence, as in the careers of serial killers, many psychopaths never commit such crimes, but pursue lives of deceitful and manipulative behavior that are harmful even if they are not guilty of criminal violence.

Although few of us will have any contact with serial killers (we hope!), many of us almost everyday deal with people who show a psychopathic lack of conscience. Consider the following character sketch from Cooke and Skeem. They identify "three highly correlated symptom factors: arrogant and deceitful interpersonal style, deficient affective experience, and impulsive and irresponsible behavioral style." They then correlate various traits to each of these three factors. Corresponding to the first factor are "glibness/superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, and conning/manipulative." Corresponding to the second factor are "lack of remorse or guilt, shallow affect, callous/lack of empathy and failure to accept responsibility for own actions." Corresponding to the third factor are "need for stimulation/proneness to boredom, irresponsibility, impulsivity, parasitic life-style, and lack of realistic, long-term goals."

As I indicate in my chapter, many of the traits of psychopathy correlate closely with the "Machiavellian personality," a psychological construction derived from Machiavelli's writings. Success in politics might require a callous, manipulative temperament, which raises questions about the uneasy relationship between politics and morality.

A couple of related posts can be found here and here.


Unknown said...

Is psychopathy really so cut and dry? There are people who are simply born without the necessary circuitry, but aren't there others who learn to selectively disengage their moral emotions when it is advantageous to them? For example, it is common for men in some corners of the internet to claim that their experience has shown them that the default setting for women in regard to romance is a sort of psychopathy. Their response is that men, in order to protect themselves, must learn to understand psychopathy and selectively engage in it in the context of romantic relationships. I don't think that this is too far from what Machiavelli thought, if I remember the Mandragola and Balthasaar correctly. I guess if anyone would make an argument against Darwinian natural right using psychopathy as their objection, it is that men and women, with regards to sex and romance, are actually much more inclined to be psychopathic than to engage their moral emotions. It seems to me that there are very many people who believe this, and they seem right to do so, because of the fact that about half of children in the U.S. are now born out of wedlock. By age five, most of the fathers will no longer be living with the mother, and will not be involved in their children's lives. Whether or not the men or the women are to blame can be argued all day and night, and often is. The wounds that emerge then cause both the men and women involved to view the opposite sex, in terms of romance, as outside the moral pale, and hence that it is acceptable to treat the opposite sex, in the realm of romance, without any moral consideration, i.e. just as a psychopath would. The anecdotal evidence that can be gleaned from popular culture provides enough of a case that psychopathy in the realm of romance must be accounted for separately from congenital psychopathy.

Larry Arnhart said...


Psychopathy is best viewed as an extreme form of masculine propensities, or as being at the far end of a bell-shaped curve. So some degree of manipulative callousness and deceptiveness is normal for many people when the circumstances seem to demand this.

It is a mistake, however, to suggest--as some people sometimes do--that psychopaths are living the sort of pleasure-filled life that many of us secretly desire. Hervey Cleckley (the first psychologist to systematically study psychopathy) stresses the "flat soul" of the psychopaths. So a psychopath might seduce many women, but he gets no deep satisfaction from any of them because he's incapable of real love.

Our natural desire for sexual mating can lead many of us into a life of casual and manipulative promiscuity--especially, when we're young. But don't most of us discover that this is ultimately not what we want, because if fails to satisfy our desires for conjugal love, parental care, and familial bonding?

Right now, I am thinking about someone I know who manifests strong psychopathic traits, someone who is simply evil. She's a beautiful woman who has had many men, and who knows how to use her charm to control people. She presents herself as a good Christian, and she has constructed a public image of Christian piety. She's now going through a divorce because her husband could no longer handle her callous abuse of him and their children.

Now her world is collapsing, because it's hard to maintain her carefully contrived image as a good Christian mother. One can see that she will soon be totally alone. It's hard to see that there will be anything in her life to give her satisfaction. Her punishment fits her transgressions, because she must live with her own flat soul.

Unknown said...

Mr. Arnhart,

Thanks for your response.
I don't think that I fully articulated my argument, so I will try and expand on it to clarify.

I agree that manipulative, deceitful, and casual relationships fail to fulfill our desires for conjugal love, familial bonding, and parental care. I guess what I am suggesting is that in matriarchal societies people never really grow up beyond that manipulativeness because women and men do not ever form the pair bonds that would civilize them and allow them to experience parental care and familial bonding within the context of conjugal love. When stable relationships are not an option for most people, what other choices do they have but manipulation or celibacy? Women get to experience familial bonding and parental care that result from sex, but they do not pair that with conjugal love and so feel free to banish men from the lives of their children and to continue to have relationships with other men in search of conjugal love. Such a practice is generally damaging to children, and as you know, because of evolution, relationships that involve step-parent figures are incredibly difficult. By the same token, men know that on a whim a woman can deny him any chance to be a meaningful part in the life of his child, so they too separate sex from conjugal love, and both from parental care and familial bonding.

Under these conditions, average, normal human beings are capable of the same callousness and narcissism as psychopaths. It is plausible that the very society we live in presents millions of people(mostly working class) with a very difficult choice between celibacy and the simulation of psychopathic traits, especially manipulation and deceitfulness. I think that, when you examine the ever-rising out of wedlock birth rate, which is now around 50%, the very slowly declining divorce rates that are still projected to be between 40-50%, and the rising percentage of people who have never been married, it is reasonable for people to take a rather short term view of their romantic entanglements, and to view the sort of satisfaction that comes from long-term pair bonding as ultimately unattainable under current conditions and laws.

Because many people who view long-term relationships as out of their reach act manipulatively to avoid celibacy, one might think that their punishments fit their crimes. However, they would still have the punishment of not being able to be part of a successful marriage even if they chose not to be manipulative.

Also, I am truly sorry for your friend, and I hope that he is able to gain full custody of the children. It would truly be horrific if his wife were able to manipulate the courts into granting her custody, but the courts are biased in favor of women.

Troy Camplin said...

You might want to check out the book "The Sociopath Next Door." Quite an interesting book.

But the existence of exceptions like sociopaths or psychopaths prove nothing -- the exception does not negate the rule.

But of course, those who do think the exception negates the rule are those who also think that so long as there is a single person without access to health insurance, we have to have socialized health care. You can't reason with irrational people.

Anonymous said...

You are operating your assumptions on psychopaths by generalizing the human mind as "the same" in all people, that just simply is not the case, there is far more factors involved with the way these type of people develop and their ability to function in regular society can be nearly undetectable. I think you may be confusing psychopaths with people suffering from antisocial disorder or possibly even sociopath behavior

Anonymous said...

Psychopaths are born. It is called nature vs. nurture. They are manipulitive, deceitful, and get great pleasure in hurting normal people. They use, abuse, to their own advantage. Eventually they get caught, the mask of sanity crumbles, and they flee, to start their cycle over again. Psychopaths look normal, but they have no personality of their own, they take in a little of everyone they met, and that is the mask of sanity.