by Lily Frank
When we think of psychopaths what often comes to mind are Hollywood depictions of despicable murderers totally unmoved by the suffering of others. Indeed, clinical diagnoses pf psychopathy includes a long list of traits that coincide with “amoral” behavior that would fit a Hollywood script. Psychopaths are callous, lack empathy and remorse, lie frequently, are cunning and manipulative, abandon relationships, and are at high risk for criminal activity and violence. They are otherwise just like everyone else.
Psychopaths have been used to support philosophical theories about morality. One of these views is the view expressed by David Hume, and many others since, that moral judgments involve emotions in some way. Roughly, the argument is that the moral failures of psychopaths are in an important way connected to their emotional deficits. Psychopaths do not empathize and have flat affect and this is why, it is supposed, they also fail to act morally. This theory is often paired with the view that when we make a moral judgment we are always motivated to some extent to act on our judgment. If someone is completely unmoved by their own moral judgments, on this view, they never truly made the moral judgment to begin with.
But this is all too quick. Despite their abnormal emotional profile and bad behavior, there is evidence that psychopaths make the same moral judgments that we do. When presented with hypothetical moral situations (i.e. the trolley problem or deciding whether or not to help a bleeding victim even though their blood would ruin your car seats) the answers of psychopaths were not significantly different from the answers of healthy controls or non-psychopathic delinquents (Cima et al. 2010).
There seems to be a contradiction between what the psychopaths say about right and wrong and how they behave. One straightforward way to understand the relationship between what psychopaths say and how they behave is that psychopaths make judgments and have beliefs about what the right thing to do is, but are unmotivated to do it. In other words the “psychopaths know right from wrong, but don’t care” (Cima, Tonnaer, and Hauser 2010). If this is the case, it bears on a central debate in moral psychology about how our moral judgments motivate us to act on them.
An alternative way to understand the psychopaths is that they are motivated by their moral judgments; they are just motivated very little. Their motivation to do the right thing is easily overshadowed by a motivation to do the wrong thing. This explains their bad behavior. This seems to be a common part of our everyday lives. For example, I know I should give up my seat to the elderly person on the bus, I am motivated to give up my seat, but I have a much stronger motivation not to-I am tired and want to rest.
Another way to understand the moral judgments of psychopaths is that they aren’t really making moral judgments at all. Instead they are mimicking other people’s moral judgments. When a psychopath says that he thinks he should stop to help an injured person on the side of the road, what he really means is, other people think that someone in that situation should help the injured person. This interpretation leaves intact the theory that moral judgments involve emotions and that they always involve some motivation to act on them.
How can we choose between competing explanations of the psychopath’s moral psychology? Looking at a related condition, sometimes called “acquired sociopathy,” suggests that the “know but don’t care” hypothesis is more persuasive. This related condition results from an injury to the ventromedial prefrontal cortext (VMPC) region of the brain (Damasio et al. 1990; Damasio 1994).
Injuries to the VMPC do not impact patient’s ability to reason or what they know, but the injuries cause dramatic changes in personality and severe impairments in emotional function, making once normal people behave much more like psychopaths. A famous example is Phineas Gage who was a 19th Century railroad foreman. Before an explosion propelled a tamping iron through his prefrontal cortex, he was well-liked, successful, personable, and restrained. Amazingly his memory, intelligence, and language abilities were intact, but he became very rude, impulsive, cursed excessively, could not be trusted to keep his commitments and could not keep a job. EVR, a contemporary patient with injury to the same region, was successful and happily married before surgery to remove tumors. Afterwards, he retained a high IQ, superior or normal performance on wide range of tests, including the moral judgment interview. He shortly divorced twice, went bankrupt, and was unable to hold down a job.
Besides the case reports of anti-social behavior, there is reason to think that they lack moral motivation. When presented with emotionally or morally charged images (pictures of natural disasters, mutilated bodies, or nudes) they don’t have a normal arousal response. The arousal response can be seen as correlated with motivation in this context (Damasio, Tranel & Damasio 1990; Roskies 2003, 2006, 2008).This makes the suggestion that these patients are motivated by their moral judgments, just very little, less plausible.
Is it possible that these patients are parroting the moral judgments of other rather than expressing their own moral views? It would be puzzling if this were the case, since before their accidents or injuries these patients were able to make and act on their moral judgments just like the rest of us. To say that they are merely parroting other people’s judgments after their injury is to suggest that the injury caused them to lose some kind of knowledge or facility with concepts, which none of the cognitive tests indicate they have lost (Roskies 2003, 2006, 2008).