Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Professor of Ethics at Duke, was recently interview on The Philosopher’s Zone about the moral judgment of psychopaths. One of the key questions at issue is whether psychopaths understand what is morally wrong, why it is so and just don’t care, or whether they don’t know what is morally wrong. This ties in with some of our recent posts about moral sentiment in that Sinnott-Armstrong brings in a kind of developmental view of moral understanding to frame the issue with psychopaths.
First it might make sense to clarify what is meant by “psychopathy”. It’s not just anyone who is antisocial or violent. In response to Alan Saunders’ mentioning the recent Norway shooter, Sinnott-Armstrong clarifies: (here’s the official checklist on Wikipedia)
First of all it’s not just any antisocial person. There are lots of antisocial people. There are lots of horrible violent people as in Norway who are not psychopaths. It’s a very specific syndrome defined in terms of 20 items that get scored zero, one or two, so the maximum is 40, and you get scored as a psychopath if it’s over 30. The items are things like grandiose self-image, pathological lying, lack of empathy and remorse, parasitic lifestyle and so on, including criminal history. Criminal versatility is a mark. So this person in Norway does one crime, but psychopaths, to get a two on that item, need to do six different violent felonies, then they get scored high on psychopathy. So they do whatever serves their purposes at the moment; they don’t do a single isolated crime.
In order to bring out the original question – whether these types of people know what’s morally wrong and don’t care or don’t know what’s morally wrong – Sinnott-Armstrong invokes the idea of moral development as ‘mimicking’ after a model of learning some other kind of subject. He uses the example of math: at first you just mimic what you are being taught – 1+1=2, 2+2=4, etc. which a child might learn but not ‘understand’. The child might be able to provide the correct answer based on this mimicked learning, but it isn’t until later that the conceptual underpinning becomes clear and the child ‘understands’ why 1+1=2 and is able presumably to apply the concepts to other situations. He then oddly jumps to the topic of rape, noting that when we are adults we can tell why rape is wrong (assuming we are told as children that it is and we mimic that). His contention is that psychopaths will say ‘rape is wrong’ but that they don’t really understand that it is or why. The mimicking function serves the purpose of getting along in society and hiding their psychopathy, but they don’t ‘understand’ moral norms.
I hate to judge harshly someone’s comments on a 30 minute, popularized radio program, but it seems to me that there are a couple of major questions to ask here. The first would be whether this view of development is correct (mimicry -> understanding) and then whether, if it does apply to subjects such as math, it also applies to morality. In our recent discussions of moral sentiment, we have entertained the notion of socialization as a necessary part of inculcating the moral sentiment, which doesn’t appear to be necessary in the case of math. But let us be charitable and accept that some form of this model is correct and combine it with our socialization model. Could someone be correctly socialized and yet not have the moral sentiment ‘take’?
In my post on criminal justice, I raised the idea of whether someone who doesn’t have a moral sense – wasn’t correctly socialized – can be held responsible for immoral acts. There is a fair amount of evidence that people who are ‘normally’ socialized have a different brain chemistry from those who aren’t and the assumption is that the neurochemistry is somewhat deterministic. If you aren’t socialized properly, your brain chemistry is different and you may be predisposed to committing certain crimes. Aside from the question of whether such a person should be separated from society, I felt that this brings into question the purpose of the criminal justice system (punishment or rehabilitation) and should make us re-examine our idea of culpability.
But what if someone was correctly socialized – which would be validated by the same neuroscience – and yet performs the same immoral act as someone who wasn’t correctly socialized. Would that be a solid basis for using science (neurochemistry) as a basis for determining culpability? If your brain chemistry in most respects mirrors that of the ‘normal’ law abiding citizen and yet you commit immoral/illegal acts, you are held accountable and punished whereas if your brain chemistry is different, you are treated as “ill” and sent for rehabilitation. Do we have that level of sophistication in neuroscience right now? Probably not and I certainly wouldn’t trust a scientist and a court of law to figure it out alone. At the same time, what if we determined that everyone who commits illegal/immoral acts has messed up brain chemistry? And how do we baseline? And what if that baseline moves over time?
Naturally we are close to making morality culturally relative and there are a host of other problems here, but it’s a fun and interesting conversation from my perspective. Sinnott-Armstrong ultimately comes down in the interview to advocating psychological testing of criminals to determine treatment and points out that the American legal system treatment of psychopathy seems oddly inconsistent – it isn’t classified as a mental illness and as such cannot be used in an insanity defense. It is suggested that this is due to the fact that the great crimes typically committed by psychopaths cause such damage that the ‘legal system’ doesn’t want to give them an easy out. Wouldn’t surprise me.