Psychopaths: Moral Deviants or Harbingers?

Hannibal the cannibal


I first learned of the idea of a psychopath in Thomas Harris’ thriller, the Silence of Lambs. Hannibal Lecter was a deeply fascinating character, and all the more frightening because he didn’t look like a grotesque monster, a violent & bloodthirsty beast. Instead, Lecter was a charming and intelligent character with a doctorate in psychology, but utterly conscience-free. His hypothetical existence forced me to reflect and sound the depths of darkness within. However, psychopaths remained only a curiosity until this quarter, when I came across the idea of psychopaths again in the works of moral philosophers. In this essay, I shall summarize the main arguments of Nichols and Kenneth regarding the danger that psychopaths pose to moral reasoning. Then I shall argue why neither passes muster, for they remain trapped within the tradition of philosophy as a meta-psychology, and why psychopaths are potential harbingers of the future.


Psychopath as bogeymen


In How Psychopaths Threaten Moral Rationalism, Nichols is concerned with the threat psychopaths pose to moral rationalism in two aspects: the conceptual claim and the empirical claim of moral rationalism.1 According to conceptual rationalism, the concept of morality means that our moral requirements are requirements of reason. It is a “conceptual truth that people who make moral judgments are motivated by them.”2 However, our common understanding of psychopaths show that conceptual rationalism does not quite exhaust our concept of moral requirements. They are rational individuals completely capable of moral judgment but without the motivation. The psychopath is an amoralist in complete command of rational capacities, the Humean “sensible knave”3 who does not believe that behaving properly in certain circumstances require a conscious endorsement, and free-loads on the compliance of others. The evasive answer that psychopaths don’t actually “make” moral judgments doesn’t bear scrutiny, because it appears that they know the difference but do not care what is the right thing to do.4


Since empirical rationalism only makes the claim that human psychology consists of the fact that moral judgment derives from our rational abilities, it is free of such criticisms. Then again, empirical rationalism has difficulties with the empirical evidence of the psychology of psychopathy. Studies show that the distorted moral judgment of psychopaths is due to an emotional deficit, not a rational defect.5 For Nichols, this emotional deficit, the lack of motivating factor, is a problem for the empirical rationalist, because he cannot account for the deficit rationally.6 Nichols conclude that the existence of psychopaths support sentimentalism, rather than empirical rationalism. However, backsliding towards sentimentalism7 is an indictment for proponents of moral rationalism.


In Kenneth’s response to Nichols, Do Psychopaths Really Threaten Moral Rationalism? she makes the claim that philosophers get carried away with the implications of the data and overstate their case. The data may be irrelevant, and the philosopher aren’t exactly the ideal candidates to adjudicate it. In addition, the data is not merely descriptive, for they also highlight normative limits for moral reasoning as well as conceptual limits of moral judgment.8 But Kenneth also claims that the rationalist’s assessment of the capacities are critical in their account of moral agency and that rational moral judgment is empirically available. Kenneth admits that psychopaths are emotionally deficient, and that “emotional responsiveness”9 is a crucial key of our moral capacities. However, she insists that psychopaths fail at practical rationality, and that they are morally relevant.10


Both essays are somewhat premised on the capacity to reason as the benchmark of moral reasoning and judgment, that the individual is an independent & self-sufficient rational person. However, the self of moral reflection & reaction is actually a social, incarnated, creative & illustrative being with the ability to engage in relationships with others and be a useful member of a community. The fetishistic focus on reason and the individual overlooks the fact that moral agents belong to a community with obligations to others & require empathetic capacities, as well as rational capacities. In The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout paints a portrait of a psychopath as a person who lacks conscience, which is a “sense of obligation ultimately based on an emotional attachment to another [person].”11



The psychiatrist Robert Hare developed a Psychopathy Checklist that became the standard tool for identifying psychopaths. This checklist predicts that about one percent of the population fits the profile of psychopathy. Generally, psychopaths are characterized as having deficient emotions or lack self-control, and consequently, incapable of maintaining deep personal relationships. They specifically lack the following qualities: shame, guilt, remorse, or empathy, and in certain situations, the psychopath is prone to rationalization or denials or blame others. Due to the general lack of empathy, the psychopath is tactless, insensitive, and clearly shows contempt for others.


Nonetheless, this raises an interesting question. How can many psychopaths avoid detection for long periods of time before being exposed? One may speculate that their inability to express the proper emotion risks being outed and that must affect their behavior. In order to avoid detection some psychopaths are charming, and this relativistic approach to truth enables them to say whatever they believe in order to pull off their goals. Intimidation and manipulation are two other skills in their repertoire. Perhaps the most important is mimicry — the psychopath can “fake” it long enough to pass off as normal.


Then again, this only casts doubt the actual number of psychopaths among us because they spend their lifetimes hiding their true selves. After all, a shrewd psychopath is likely to understand that she is not like others and that Joe six-pack will not react positively to her. She is the embodiment of Glaucon’s Gyges of Lydia: a person who will do anything to keep doing what she wants, irrespective of other people, while avoiding detection.


The psychopath who lacks self-control or are irresponsible, or have trouble predicting consequences, have more difficult time being a faceless member of the crowd. Those traits expose them easily. However, are those traits essential to the psychopath? Or are they merely the traits of a sociopath, specifically a failed psychopath? And are the more dangerous psychopaths avoiding detection by empathizing expertly, because they successfully hide their lack of instinctive sense of sympathy?


A recent brain image study by neuroscientist Dr. Carla Harenski demonstrates that moral judgments are typically formed within the “emotional” part of the brain, the amygdala, whereas those of the psychopaths are limited to the right temporal section, where the thoughts of others are recognized and refined. Instead of experiencing the emotion, the psychopath actually know that emotion is what others think.


This leads me to the suspicion that folk psychological assumptions are the problem here, not whether moral reasoning is based on rational or empirical grounds, or even sentimental ones. The eliminativists pose a larger threat than psychopaths themselves, in which all our traditional categories become inadequate.




For too long philosophy has served as a third-rate psychology where intentional explanations are considered the holy grail. In fact, they’re rather problematic from a naturalistic standpoint.

When you ask someone why they did something, they will say it’s because they wanted to. We explain our actions through the lens of psychology and its attendant concepts: intentions, goals, desires. All first-person concepts, all intentional explanations. In fact, before the advent of philosophy or science, we saw everything through psychological means. The dawn of philosophy and science has slowly eroded this anthropomorphic impulse, but not quickly enough. Psychology has long maintained its pretense to a science by using the correct tools and standards, by hypotheses and conjectures. However its main problem is its subject matter — the mind.


I propose an eliminative materialism that does away with all spooky notions that has steadily contributed to the dustbin of history (e.g., soul, self, ego, consciousness, God, spirit, etc.), and come to grips with the meat: the human brain. Philosophy will be better off by dumping psychology ASAP and move on to the new dance partner for the 21st century: neuroscience. Where psychology builds air-castles in the air with intentional explanations, neuroscience starts with the Taj Mahal, and tries to deduce the blueprint from it.


Kant’s transcendental idealism opened the door with the declaration that the mind is active, for it brings to the table of experience certain conditions to make it intelligible. In other words, our brains are spin doctors — we are what we are in a way that makes it impossible to intuit what we are. Since the “sense of self” is mostly innate, hard-wired like grammar, and if it is a delusion, then the human species is an evolutionary glitch, a collective mistake. Since most people trust their intuitions over rhetoric, they will contort their rhetoric appropriately and justify our collective mistake into something fundamental. Given that science is about appropriating the environment and controlling natural processes, and the more neuroscience discovers about the brain, the more those with the knowledge and resources will control others. One potential means is neuro-manipulation, in which neural stimulation will induce anyone to feel anything (fear, love, faith), and turn them into meat puppets, or bundles of firing synapses. After all, the ancient Greeks called puppets neurospastos, or ‘drawn by strings.’ Once we discover the strings, neuro-cosmetic surgery is right around the corner, and psychopaths may be nature’s precursor of future neuropaths.




Works Cited

Kenneth, Jeanette. Do Psychopaths Really Threaten Moral Rationalism? Philosophical Explorations. Vol. 9, No. 1, March 2006


Harenski, Carla. Aberrant neural processing of moral violations in criminal psychopaths. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 119: 863-74. 2010


Hare, Robert. Psychopathy Checklist-Revised. MHS, Multi-Health Systems, 2007


Hume, David. An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. London, 1751


Nichols, Shaun. How Psychopaths Threaten Moral Rationalism. The Monist. Vol. 85, 2002


Stout, Martha. The Sociopath Next Door. Broadway Books, NY 2005

1Nichols, p. 2

2Nichols, p. 4

3Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, p. 75

4Nichols, p. 7

5Nichols, p. 12

6Nichols, p. 15

7Nichols, p. 22

8Kenneth, p. 1

9Kenneth, p. 2

10Kenneth, p. 7

11Stout, 2005, p. 25

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...a philosophisticator who utters heresies, thinks theothanatologically and draws like Kirby on steroids.

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