Psychopath College

6 maj 2010 | In Emotion theory Meta-ethics Moral Psychology Neuroscience Psychology Self-indulgence | Comments?

What is wrong with psychopaths? Seriously? I’m not asking in a semi-mocking, Seinfield-esque ”what is the deal with X” kind of way. I’m seriously interested in finding out. Is there something they’re not getting, or something they don’t care about? And is caring about something really that different from understanding it? (In the Simpsons episode ”Lisa’s substitute” Homer, trying to comfort Lisa, memorably says ”Hey, just because I don’t care doesn’t mean I don’t understand”).

As most people interested in philosophy, I’ve been accused of being ”too rational” and, by implication, deficient in the feelings department. And, like most people interested in philosophy would, I’ve dealt with this accusation, not by throwing a tantrum, but by taking the argument apart. To the accusers face, if he/she sticks around long enough to hear it. When people tell me I’m a know-it-all, I start off on a ”This is why you’re wrong” list.

So, when it happens that someone compliments me on some human insight or displayed emotional sensitivity, I tend to make the in-poor-taste-sort of-joke ”Psychopath College can’t have been a complete waste of time and money, then”.

Psychopath College, you see, is a fictional institution (Aren’t they all? No.) that I’ve made up. It refers to the things you do when you don’t have the instincts or the normal emotional and behavioral reactions, but still want to fit in. You learn about them by careful observation, you try to find a rationale for them, a mechanism that will help you understand it. In the end, you manage to mimic normal behavior and make the right predictions. (Like all intellectuals, led by the editors of le monde diplomatique, I learned to ”care” about football during the 1998 world cup, not in the ”normal” way, but for, you know, pretentious reasons.)

It’s commonly believed that psychopaths ability to manipulate people depends on precisely this fact: they don’t rely on non-inferred keen instinct and intuition but actually need to possess the knowledge of what makes people behave and react the way they do. And this knowledge can be transferred into power, especially as psychopaths are not as betrayed by unmeditated emotional reactions as the rest of us are.

A recent study reported in the journal ”Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging” told that psychopathic and non-psychopathic offenders performed equally well on a task judging what someone whose intentions where fulfilled, or non-fulfilled would feel. But when they do, different parts of the brain are more activated. In psychopaths, the attribution of emotions is associated with activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, believed to be concerned with outcome monitoring and attention. (This said, the authors admit that the role of the OFC in psychopathy is highly debated) In non-psychopaths, on the other hand, the attribution is rather correlated with the ”mirror-neuron system”. In short, psychopath don’t do emotional simulation, but rational calculation, and the successful ones reach the right conclusions.

The task described in the paper (”In psychopathic patients emotion attribution modulates activity in outcome-related brain areas”) is a very simple one, and offers no information on which ”method” performs better when the task is complex, or whether they may be optimal under different conditions.

Since knowing and caring about the emotional state of others is, arguably, at the heart of morality, studies like these are of the great interest and importance. What, and how, does psychopaths know about the emotional state of others? And might the reason that they don’t seem to care about it be that they know about it in a non-standard way? Jackson and Pettit argued in their minor classic of a paper Moral functionalism and moral motivation” that moral beliefs are normally motivating because they are normally emotional states. You can have a belief with the same content, but in a non-emotional, ”off-line” way, and then is seems possible not to care about morality. Arguably, this is what psychopaths do, when they seem to understand, but not to care.

As Blair et all (The psychopath) argues, one of the deficiencies associated with psychopathy is emotional learning. This makes perfect sense: if you learn about the feelings of others in a non-emotional way, you don’t get the kind of emphasis on the relevant that emotions usually convey. Since moral learning is arguably based on a long socialization process in which emotional cues plays a central part, no wonder if psychopaths end up deficient in that area.

What can Psychopath College accomplish by way of moving from knowing to caring? It is not that psychopaths doesn’t care about anything; they are usually fairly concerned with their own well-being, for instance. So the architecture for caring is in place, why can’t we bring it to bear on moral issues? Perhaps we can. Due to the emphasis on the anti-social in the psychopathy checklists, we might miss out on a large group of people that actually ”copes” with psychopathy and construes morality with independent means.

One thing that interests me with psychopaths, who clearly care about themselves and, I believe, care about being treated fairly and with respect is this: Why can’t they generalize their emotional reactions? This is highly relevant, seeing how a classic argument for generalising moral values when there is no relevant difference, at least from Mill, Sidgwick and memorably by Peter Singer, is held to be a pure requirement of rationality. The thought is that you establish what’s good by emotional experiences, and then you realise that if it’s good for me, there is no reason why the same experience would not be good for others as well. So the justification of generalisation is a rational one. But the mechanism by which this generalisation gets its force is probably not, and depends on successfull emotional simulation, a direct, non-considered emotional reactivity (then again, whether you manage to ”simulate” animals like slugs or, pace Nagel, bats, might be a matter of imagination, not rationality or emotionality).

So what does this possibility say about the epistemic status of our moral convictions, eh?

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