Friday, February 21, 2014

Knowing without caring: unmotivated psychopaths

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).

Lily Frank
Department of Philosophy
City University of New York


  1. Hi Lily, thanks very much for this. I just have a couple relatively trivial comments.

    (1) It seems to me that the "know but don't care" and "know but don't care very much" theses are compatible, and it all depends on whether psychopathy is something that admits of degrees. I don't know the answer to this, but sometimes I think philosophers are slightly psychopathic who insist that our moral emotions are not any sort of evidence of the morality of our actions.

    (2) I'm reluctant to say that psychopaths aren't making moral judgments if they are relying on the views of others. I don't think I am very psychopathic and I am often willing to argue, e.g., The majority of my friends think what I am doing is wrong, so its probably wrong. That's a moral judgment based on the understanding that my moral emotions and reasonings are fallible. So psychopaths may be making real moral judgments on the basis of this sort of evidence and for those very reasons. It's true that in those cases I, like the psychopath, don't really feel that what I'm doing is wrong. But this can be a sign of moral maturity, right? Being able to grasp that what you are doing is wrong even though you don't feel it is.

    1. Thanks very much for your comments Randy. With respect to (1)I agree with you that "know but don't care" and "know but don't care very much" are compatible. I am not sure whether or not psychopathy comes in degrees, but one can score higher or lower on various diagnostic measures of psychopathy. I think that there is a huge amount of variability in the extent to which non-psychopathic people are motivated by their moral judgments, depending on their individual psychology, the circumstances, etc., ranging from don't care at all, to care a little, to care a lot, and everything in between. If I want to use the psychopath as an example as a real life amoralist to argue against the internalists view on motivation (which insists that something doesn't count as a moral judgment unless is has an accompanying motivation) then I want to suggest that it is possible that the psychopath isn't motivate at all by his moral judgment, at least some of the time.

      I really like your second point. It isn't clear why piggy backing on someone else's moral judgments makes them less legitimate as moral judgments at all.


  2. Thanks, Lily. This is nice. What do you make of the following? I’m attracted to a view of moral concepts, like “wrong”, according to which “Stealing is wrong” means “People shouldn’t steal” and “Don’t steal” and “People have very strong, darn-near inescapable reasons to avoid stealing”. Moral rules are (or, even if they are) a kind of social convention, but they’re also distinguished from merely conventional rules like etiquette or household rules in terms of the strength and authority of the practical reasons and the appropriateness of emotions like guilt, anger and resentment. Indeed, it seems like it’s the linking of these emotions to certain actions that explains the distinctive strength of moral reasons for action (see Rozin 1999).

    Psychopaths (and Gage after his injury?) don’t take any judgments to have this special kind of authority. They can tell when a rule has currency but they don’t understand it as distinctively moral, viz. binding or overriding. Four-year-olds are like this, too (see Nunner-Winkler and Sodian 1988). They’re happy (and don’t feel guilty at all) about getting what they want, even if they *know* the way they got it violated one of those “moral” rules. This suggests that they don’t grasp the concept. They don’t *care* about having done “wrong”.

    1. Kyle suppose philosophers finally agree on a moral calculus and everyone learns and accepts it. Psychopaths who are taught it and live by it will nevertheless have no grasp of morality and, far from living morally exemplary lives, will not be living morally at all. This, despite the fact it so much more difficult for them, given that they get no help from moral emotions. I like it! But I would like to admire the psychopath who lives in accord with moral rules, as so many do. How should I express my admiration?

    2. For the psychopath? I don't reckon admiration is apt. I've seen estimates that psychopaths make up 1% of the population (and 10% of CEOs). The overwhelming majority of them aren't violent criminals, so what you describe isn't too far from the actual world!

    3. You really don't think we should admire psychopaths who figure out how to live within moral guidelines despite lacking the standard issue equipment for doing it? I understand the perspective, but there is still part of me that wants to regard them as morally heroic. Maybe there is a way to be more accommodating to this within your basic framework?

    4. Since psychopaths don't internalize rules, I was thinking that these psychopaths would be acting in accordance with our rules based on their evaluation of their non-tuistic interests. We should be really happy when they do that, but it doesn't strike me as morally heroic.

    5. I understand the view to be that you haven't made a moral judgment if it isn't accompanied by the appropriate moral emotions. If you do so judge, then your subsequent moral behavior (if it occurs) will be partially explained by these emotions. An alternative view is that it is possible to make a moral judgment which is not accompanied by such feelings. In that case, to behave morally, you will need to access some other part of your cognitive/emotional architecture to motivate compliant action. It sounds like you want to say that if you do that, lucky for us, but its not moral behavior and therefore not morally heroic. I want to say that, if you do that, I applaud the effort you make to be a good person. It's heroic because its much harder work and requires much greater commitment than when you are fortunate enough to be hard-wired to act in this way. I do find your view persuasive. I'm just wondering if it is slightly Procrustean.

  3. Thanks for your comments Kyle! I am fascinated by the moral/conventional distinction and how it relates the authority of morality. It seems to me that someone who is not able to make the moral conventional distinction may still possess moral concepts, unless we have independent reason to think that that ability is a necessary condition for possessing the concept or being able to make the judgment. What do you make of Philippa Foot who denies that morality has this kind of categorical force? I don't think we would want to say she lacks moral concepts. She even points out that we often let rules of convention like etiquette take precedence over moral rules. I think her example is that we are morally obligated not to over-serve guests alcohol at a dinner party at our house, but that etiquette in that case usually has priority and so we do not prevent our guests from drinking too much. I think I will post more in response to your point about emotions and reasons a little later. Thanks!

    -Lily Frank

  4. Yeah, I'm pretty puzzled by the combination of judgments that we're morally obligated not to over-serve guests alcohol, but the social awkwardness *alone* of enforcing it should be weightier in our deliberations about what to do. (Additionally, maybe it's not the best example for her -- paternalism is at least morally dubious.) Yet I'm in equal measure comforted by the fact that Foot later seemed to come off her earlier view.

    It'll be fun to talk more about this Monday.

  5. Hi Lily,
    I once knew a person who, I suspected, wholly lacked a sense of humor.
    Is this lack similar to the sociopath's?
    Since he is also one of the smartest people I've ever known, and knew that no sense of humor is seen as a social failing, he developed a complex algorithm for responding appropriately to things that other people find funny.
    It was kind of eerie to watch.

    I would argue that this analogy does not hold.
    A sociopath with a similar 'moral algorithm' would be acting morally as much as the rest of us are. There would be nothing lacking in his moral actions. (His moral sentiments would be another matter.)
    In contrast here will always be something lacking in my acquaintance's humor-related actions. He will never be responding out of humor.
    So I find myself with Randy on this one: The Sociopath Who Gives Himself the Moral Law would be pretty heroic.

  6. My brother. Though I bet Kyle would disagree. Your friend never responds from a sense humor and our psychopath never responds from a sense of right and wrong. So, I might offer the friendly amendment that your friend is a certain kind of hero, too. He badly wants to participate in this mysterious and wonderful practice of bringing smiles to people's face by uttering certain kinds of absurdities and he commits considerable effort and intellectual resources to learning to do so. My (our?) view is that they can succeed at being funny/moral, despite lacking the corresponding sensitivity.

  7. Lily, I realize I'm a bit late to the party, but I wonder whether you (or the others so far) would consider what evidence might be gleaned from the first-person testimony of those who have experienced damage to the ventromedial frontal cortex. Assuming, of course, that there is such evidence. Or that what those with VMFC damage actually say about themselves could count as "evidence." For example (completely speculating here), would it matter if some percent of those with VMFC damage said something like this: "yes, you know, before my injury I knew and cared; after the injury, I neither knew nor cared." Or this: "before I knew and cared; afterwards I knew but didn't care." Or this: "you know, I've been parroting other people without knowing what the heck morality was about this whole time, before and after the injury." In short, instead of just making the best conjectures that we can about those with such injuries, from our outside, third-person standpoint, I wonder if there is something learn by listening to their first-person standpoint on the matter in question. Do they have one? Is it consistent within a given person? Is it consistent across persons? (Have those with damaged VMFC's ever been asked to "weigh in" on this debate about what they are thinking?)