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Being AmoralPsychopathy and Moral Incapacity$

Thomas Schramme

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780262027915

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: January 2015

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262027915.001.0001

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Not Caring: Sociopaths and the Suffering of Others

Not Caring: Sociopaths and the Suffering of Others

(p.167) 7 Not Caring: Sociopaths and the Suffering of Others
Being Amoral

Piers Benn

The MIT Press

Abstract and Keywords

The chapter addresses empathic concern as the basis for altruistic concern. The author carefully delineates, but also links, the notions of sympathy and empathy and considers the thesis that psychopaths’ lack of sympathy might be due to a lack of empathy. There might be something more deeply different about psychopaths. It is considered that they cannot really participate in moral life because other persons are bound to see them from an objective point of view, i.e. not as moral agents. Hence there are only shaky grounds for assuming moral responsibility of psychopaths.

Keywords:   Empathy, Caring for others, moral responsibility, psychopaths, sociopaths, emphatic concern, altruism, Peter Strawson

I begin with an intuitive and rather obvious fact about suffering. This is that when you suffer, you want that suffering to end, other things being equal. Even if you consider your suffering as justified in some way—for example, as punishment or because it is the lesser of two evils—there is still something intrinsically aversive about it. Admittedly, there have been suggestions that certain neurological interventions allow people to experience pain but somehow “not mind” it. This is intriguing and not to be ruled out a priori. However, I shall stick with the normal case of suffering: a state experienced as nasty and as crying out for its own termination.

This may seem to be a statement of the obvious. There is, admittedly, a puzzle, in the philosophy of psychology concerning what it is about suffering that makes it so awful, about how there can be a state that cries out for its own destruction in this way. The same question can be raised about pleasure, about what is it about pleasure that makes us seek it. However, it is hard to see what could count as a good, informative answer. I shall take it simply as given that there are such states. Such experiences are intrinsically reason giving: My suffering gives me a prima facie reason to put a stop to it. Of course, suffering of one kind (e.g., sensations of pain) can arouse pleasure of another kind (e.g., sadomasochistic sexual pleasure), and so it might be sought out for that reason. But this is not an objection to the general point.

So much for one’s own suffering. But what about the suffering of other people and perhaps all other sentient beings? There are writers, notably Thomas Nagel (1970), who think that if my own suffering provides me with a reason to extinguish it, then knowledge of the suffering of others must also provide me with a reason to end their suffering. And if I act on this reason, that shows I can be motivated by knowledge of another’s pain—that I can altruistically desire that his or her pain should end. Some people doubt this; they think that whenever people seem to be acting out of concern for (p.168) others, they are really acting only out of self-interest. For example, they suppose that if I obtain satisfaction from helping another person, then I help the other person only for the sense of satisfaction it gives me. How-ever, if I didn’t genuinely care about the other person, it would be hard to explain why I would obtain any satisfaction from their being helped.

Nagel defends the possibility of altruism and takes any suffering, whoever’s it is, to be reason giving; the suffering of anyone—and many would add, of any sentient creature—provides a reason to end it. In this, he is, of course, far from alone. He finds it hard to see how this could be otherwise. What, objectively considered, is the relevant difference between me and someone else? Is it not clear that if I have such an obvious reason to end my own suffering, then anyone else who knows of it also has a reason to end it?

However, although altruistic motivation is clearly possible and often explains our behavior, it is obvious that at other times we are pretty indifferent to the suffering of others. We witness the suffering of a stranger, and though we might be moved by it to some extent, we are not moved as we are by our own suffering or that of people close to us. Almost none of us is an altruistic saint. However, my focus will be on people who are so unusually lacking in such concern that they seem qualitatively different from most other people in this respect. In particular, they display a marked lack of concern for those with whom they come into regular contact and for those with whom they appear to have close relationships. It is sometimes said that they are unable to put themselves into the shoes, or minds, of normal people when it comes to personal concern for others. But what does this mean? And if it is true, does it mean they are so different from us “normal” people that we cannot put ourselves into their shoes? In other words, should we follow the popular idea that there is something so alien about such people—who are sometimes called sociopaths or psychopaths, especially in the popular media—that we cannot make any real sense of their motivations?

7.1 “Normal” Indifference to Suffering

However, consider first some of the reasons why most of us don’t care as much as we might about the suffering of others. I see the emaciated face of a starving child in Somalia, where there is, as I write, a famine. Then I try to remember that the appalling suffering in famine-ridden areas, torn apart by cruel and stupid wars, is only a tiny detail of the picture of human suffering. There is the fear suffered by people at great risk of random violence. There is the grief and rage suffered by those who love them. There is the (p.169) terror and agony of the millions who suffer torture. Then there are, millions of times over, the unspoken minutiae of suffering, the unfathomable small details of people’s lives, and the human monsters who cause many of these horrors. And there are the ordinary heartbreaks of everyday life, nothing to do with famine or cruelty. So what do I feel? What should I feel? The sense of “compassion fatigue” quickly comes over me; I watch the news but still look forward to the next “happy” item, when I shall pour some wine and think about the coming weekend. I may vaguely reprimand myself for this, but I find myself thinking that I cannot take all these horrors on board emotionally, and that I am not greatly to blame for this. I might donate a paltry amount of money to a charity, and then find myself paying less attention to the continuing news bulletins because I have now “done my bit.”

Compassion fatigue, or a sense of emotional burnout, affects almost everyone with the capacity for compassion. This is not particularly surprising. Just as we cannot remember a numerical sequence with more than a certain number of digits or make sense of sentences containing triple or quadruple negatives, so there seem to be inbuilt limits when it comes to compassion. At the same time, we can be aware of this. Intellectually speaking, I recognize that the many hundreds of millions of suffering people are no less worthy of compassion than a particular suffering person whom I am thinking about now. I recognize, likewise, that the death of a stranger’s child is objectively no less of a calamity than the death of my child would be. For many of us, this is where reason—here meaning knowledge and understanding—comes to the rescue of moral motivation. I may be almost unmoved emotionally by the suffering of another, but this is no excuse for not acting; my reason tells me that this suffering is at least a prima facie reason for trying to alleviate it, whether or not it distresses me. Emotional burnout is no excuse. The existence of suffering provides a reason for any-one to alleviate it who can.

However, turn now to another kind of case of not being moved to act, which touches on Nagel’s thoughts. Imagine someone who is in close prox-imity to another person, who he knows is suffering terribly—perhaps this other person has intense claustrophobia and is trapped in a small enclosed space, or perhaps he is suffering from awful, clinical depression. Imagine he knows that by doing something extremely simple and virtually effortless, like pulling a lever, he can put an instant stop to that suffering. Suppose also that he has no reason to want the suffering to continue—for example, he doesn’t think the suffering is deserved in any way or will lead to a greater good. Moreover, he is neither a sadist nor bears any personal grudge—he (p.170) gets no personal gratification from the other person’s suffering. He merely says that he sees no reason to end the torment. If he can be shown a good reason why he should, he will act on it without hesitation. Until then, he will leave him as he is.

How might we make sense of this? We would almost certainly find this man disturbing—he appears radically perverse. He perversely, rather than stupidly or unimaginatively, fails to see an incontrovertible reason for pulling the lever. He is a bizarre figure in a thought experiment. However, let us speculatively call him a “rational amoralist”—at least, with respect to others’ suffering. He is in the grip of a perverse conception of practical reasoning but is quite prepared to be proved wrong and would willingly relieve the suffering if he found a sound reason to do so.

In this way, it is possible to understand the man’s stance in terms of an unusually austere and penetrating devotion to rationality. On this interpretation, he is more rational than most of us are able to be. He has bitten a very unusual bullet and has followed his reason where he thinks it leads. Nevertheless, in practice his “rationality” would be considered simple perversity, to the point that we would find it impossible to regard him as “one of us” in our dealings with him. We would, in real life, see him as someone whose intellectual clarity masks either a deeply abnormal personality or a deeply flawed moral character. We think he is demanding what is a priori impossible when he keeps asking why he should end the torment and thus has set the standard impossibly high; he perversely agrees with us but sees this as confirming his position. In short, and especially if much of the rest of his behavior showed the same pattern, we would conclude that we were dealing with an intelligent sociopath.

7.2 Sociopaths and the Rest: Swapping Shoes

Of course, this character is a far cry from the real people usually called sociopaths. He was introduced to suggest that although he presents us with a temptation to describe him in other terms, for example, as a highly rational man with a tenaciously defended philosophical approach, his radical lack of concern for others’ interests puts him in the same class as ordinary sociopaths. However, the terms “sociopathy” and “psychopathy” abound in psychiatric and philosophical literature, with no complete consensus about their diagnostic criteria or the real psychological essences they refer to if they do so at all. For example, Adam Morton (2004, 47) distinguishes sociopaths from psychopaths, reserving the latter term to describe socio-paths who are also violent. (In this respect, I am following Morton.) Others (p.171) think that sociopaths (if the term is appropriate at all) are simply evil people. But what is generally agreed is that persons to whom such terms apply lack certain emotions and may also be unable to experience, or even under-stand, these emotions. That is why sociopaths are frequently defined as lacking empathy, as deficient in imaginative understanding of the joy or suffering of others.

Sociopathy and lack of empathy are strongly connected, but in addition, it is important to distinguish empathy from sympathy. Empathy, I suggest, is an imaginative recognition of what another is feeling, while sympathy is an emotional reaction to what another is feeling, even if this reaction is quite calm. It is hard to be sympathetic without empathy, and the two are usually closed linked. Yet it seems possible to behave with due concern for others’ feelings, even if one either has a poor general imagination of what it is like to have those feelings or if one does have this general under-standing but is inept at detecting them in particular situations. Indeed, the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant might be of comfort to people like this: Kant says that a morally admirable deed must come from the motive of duty, regardless of whether the agent also has natural sympathy for others, or any other inclination to do the good deed (Kant 1964). Conversely, a sadist could be empathic, with his empathy allowing him to devise subtle, bespoke torments for those unfortunate enough to come his way. He is not unmoved by the suffering of others—on the contrary, it excites him. He is not a sociopath, if sociopathy entails lack of empathy. We are far more likely to call him evil instead and explain this in terms of his extraordinary lack of appropriate sympathy; the sympathetic person has empathy and is moved by this to experience some distress at the suffering of another and to try to alleviate it if possible.

Empathy, then, is not sufficient for sympathy. It is also, arguably, possible to act in a sympathetic manner, without deception, yet also without much empathy. However, given that there is usually a close connection between empathy and sympathy, I stipulate that sociopaths are best described as lacking the hybrid quality of empathic sympathy. A sociopath may not be sadistic. He may not obtain gratification from other people’s suffering, for its own sake. But he has little or no concern for the suffering, wrong, or harm that he inflicts upon others. He lacks conscience, guilt or remorse. Characteristically, he is deceitful, manipulative, and self-centered. He may be charming, and able to simulate remorse and sympathy when it is useful. No doubt there are degrees of sociopathy. But near one end of the spectrum, there is a small cluster of people who display these traits consistently. And we want to ask, do these people really share our moral or social world? Is a (p.172) sociopath—as opposed to someone who is properly described as bad—able to grasp what it is to be normal?

From this comes the idea that the sociopath’s lack of sympathy arises from his or her failure of empathy, albeit that these are two different things. Morton suggests,

The psychology of most kinds of dangerous people involves some deficit in the grasp of what it is to be another person. The violent individual has difficulty understanding that people do not rank others favourably in terms of their capacity to inspire fear. The sociopath has difficulty understanding that many human acts are performed either for the sake of the interaction itself or in order to benefit others. One might conjecture that sociopaths have difficulty with tasks that require one to put oneself imaginatively in another person’s situation, especially when that situation is an essentially social one. (Morton 2004, 51)

The idea of grasping “what it is to be another person” is more suggestive than precise. However, it echoes the widely accepted idea that there is something about human interactions that sociopaths simply don’t grasp. For that reason, sociopathy has been compared with autism, though, of course, autistic people are no more antisocial than anyone else, and probably less so, because they find it difficult to deceive. It might be said that sociopaths don’t understand sympathetic human interaction, much as tone-deaf people don’t understand music. Those who are tone-deaf may become experts in music theory, just as some sociopaths are expert in simulating sympathy and remorse and are shrewd about others’ motivations. But beneath this veneer, there is a deep, disturbing emptiness.

What is particularly interesting, however, is whether the incomprehension is one-sided or whether in reality there is mutual incomprehension between sociopaths and the rest of us. People often think of sociopaths as radically apart from the rest of us, such that they are disturbingly incomprehensible. This adds to their aura of alien dangerousness. But is this true? We might ask, can we put ourselves into the shoes of people who can’t put themselves into our shoes, emotionally speaking? Can we properly understand what it is, or what it would be like, to have no understanding of the things that, in reality, we do understand?

I maintain that it is too simple to declare that the inner worlds of socio-paths are radically incomprehensible. Though it may disturb us to con-template it, it is within the power of normal people to put themselves into the shoes of people who lack empathic sympathy—at least on a particular occasion—and even into the shoes of people who delight in atrocity and evil. To see this, we need some account of the difference between wallowing (p.173) in a terrible act or desire and imaginatively identifying with someone who does. We need also to see how precarious the line between these two things can be.

Take the example of violence. Only a minority of sociopaths are habitually violent, and most habitually violent people are not sociopaths. How-ever, it is helpful to use the example of violence in order to understand how ordinary people can depart from accepted moral norms against violence. Morton suggests that many violent people have been through a process of “violentization,” which has conditioned them to react violently in situations when most people would not. Often, the process starts in early child-hood, when children are subjected to, or witness, regular violence from family members and learn to see this as normal. Later on in childhood they learn that violence brings immediate rewards; they are feared, and others comply with them. In adulthood this becomes integrated into the rest of their personality, and they manage social situations with violence or the threat of violence. This becomes essential to their functioning. They like being feared and think that if they aren’t feared, they aren’t respected. They cannot see that most people manage their social interactions perfectly well without inspiring fear through the use or threat of violence.

Other cases of violentization are different. Morton uses an example of an ex-paratrooper suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder due to his experience of extreme fear and danger on the battlefield. He has witnessed the horrible deaths of men with whom he had tightly bonded, and this leads to intense rage. This may cause him to go berserk later on, in completely peaceful situations; perhaps he becomes a spree-killer who randomly shoots passersby in a shopping mall.

The point about both cases—children for whom violence becomes a learned behavior and the previously peaceful adult who becomes violent—is that their dangerousness is the end result of a process. Most people have a “violence inhibiting mechanism,” as described by James Blair (1995), and a few of us learn to overcome that mechanism. Normal adults can be conditioned to be violent in certain particular circumstances. Soldiers are conditioned to kill the enemy, and security police serving repressive regimes are often trained to overcome their natural aversion to torturing and murdering, sometimes by being very roughly treated during the training. Violent sociopaths, on the other hand, are different. It is possible that they never had a violence inhibiting mechanism to be overcome in the first place. And likewise, nonviolent sociopaths—the majority—never had inhibitions about disregarding the rights and interests of others when it suited them.

(p.174) They have always acted as if other people were things to be manipulated. No special conditioning was ever needed for them to behave in this way.

So can we imagine what it is like to be them? In the case of people who have been made violent by the processes described, there is certainly one sense in which we can understand them—we can understand that their experiences were unusual or highly stressful, that they greatly contributed to their violent dispositions, and hence we might say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Most of us do have a threshold at which we become violent, although it is thankfully much higher than it is for violent individuals, and we can imagine that threshold being lower. However, there is another sense of “understanding” that goes to the core of sociopathy. Our answer to the question posed partly depends on our initial theory of sociopathy. Difficulties arise from supposing that a sociopath has no understanding of what motivates normal people. For example, there seems to be a tension between being, on the one hand, a successful manipulator of others, and on the other hand, lacking any ability to get into their shoes. For accomplished manipulators are uncannily adept at imagining themselves in the position of their intended victims; they must have a shrewd grasp of what they are thinking, of what motivates them in various situations. If they didn’t have this grasp, they would not know which “buttons” to push.

Much hangs, therefore, on what it means to understand another person’s mind. Even if empathy is genuinely lacking in the sociopath, the sociopath may still learn about other people’s motivations by means of accumulated observation of how they usually react in a wide variety of situations. The sociopath knows that if he or she does one thing, the intended victim will react in one way, and if he or she does something else, the intended victim will react in another way. That is, this individual knows that certain triggers produce certain responses, and he or she can use this knowledge to produce responses in others that are advantageous to himself or herself. Furthermore, as Morton notes, sociopaths do have some normal emotions; they can experience excitement, joy, anger, and disappointment. It is fair to assume, then, that they do know what it is for others to experience at least some emotions. What is lacking is human sympathy, which is at least partly caused by their lack of empathy, and of imaginative grasp of certain emotions—most obviously guilt. They might know their treatment of their victims will cause hurt and anger. The problem is that they don’t care.

Can we “normal” people (as we hope we are) imagine what it is like to be like this? To at least some extent, I think we can—for all of us, to different degrees and in different circumstances, lack concern for others when we ought to have it. We might fail to feel pity for someone who (p.175) has encountered a terrible misfortune. As we saw, we might not be much moved by natural disasters which cause disease and starvation. If we hear of a casual friend who is in hospital with a serious illness, we may not be much moved emotionally even if we dutifully visit her. And when we do things we know are wrong, we find ways to dim guilty feelings. I think to myself, I know I shouldn’t be doing this, but since I’ve decided to do it, I can live with the moderately uncomfortable sense that I shouldn’t. I’ll find some way to appease my conscience later on; in the meantime, present desire has its reasons, of which conscience knows nothing. If I let conscience speak too loudly, it might cause me to change course—and that would be frustrating. I can tell this lie, or break this promise, and probably get away with it, so I shall. This surely is a common human experience, and it gives us some insight into what it is like to be a sociopath. The main difference is that sociopaths have little or no conscience, so acting on temptation does not present this sort of internal struggle. Normal people can dim down their conscience, so to that extent they can understand what it is to act without being hindered by it. Sociopaths have little or no conscience to dim down in the first place.

7.3 Imagination

The fact that humans have imagination, that almost indefinable multilayered faculty, is an important key to the question facing us. How could we get stuck in a novel or a play, empathizing with fictitious characters and caring about what happens to them, if we did not have this faculty? Why should I care how the plot culminates if I know that the events related never happened? In the early days of the novel, some puritans regarded novels with suspicion. They seemed to consist of a pack of lies since they related events that never occurred. Of course, this was naive—novelists do not pretend to be relating events that really happened. Readers know this yet are still absorbed by them. We may say that they “suspend their disbelief,” but if that is the right way to think of it, it is not a matter of temporarily believing that the events in a novel are real, but rather of not being prevented from enjoying the work by the knowledge that it is fiction. It is imagination that enables readers to do this, as well as to take an interest in the characters in the novel, in their motivations, personalities, and psycho-logical and moral characteristics.

In many other areas, too, we are normally capable of suspending disbelief, or of imaginatively entertaining a feeling or supposition that we do not believe to be rooted in reality. The line between experiencing an emotion (p.176) and entertaining an emotion in imagination is quite hard to draw. In consciously trying to recall intense emotions once felt, like those experienced when falling in love, you are reminded of what this was like. Should we say that you are in love with that person again, as long as you recall the experience in all its intensity? This does not seem right, yet recalling a past love sometimes tempts people to try to recreate it in reality and pursue the person in question once again. The experience of an emotion and its imaginative recreation become very hard to separate psychologically.

However, detachment is also possible, as other examples suggest. Sup-pose you have no religious beliefs or commitment, yet you find yourself drawn to religious services or to a religiously inspired way of life. There are times when you suspend doubt, when you deliberately set aside the question of whether you believe the relevant theological propositions, and try to adopt the committed believer’s perspective. You might then find yourself with a partial understanding of how the teachings, liturgies, and practices make sense to believers, appreciating subtle meanings and insights in scripture or the transcendent quality of liturgical music. If suddenly challenged as to whether you really believe it, you answer that you don’t, or are not sure—but sense the challenge as an unwelcome intrusion into a real imaginative identification with the true believer’s point of view. It is not that you ever forget that you don’t believe it. It is rather that you direct your attention away from the fact that you don’t believe it. You set aside your doubts, rather than deny them.

But if such exercises of imagination are possible in these arguably positive areas of life, what of the darker side of human motivation? Can we put ourselves into the shoes, psychologically speaking, of those whose behavior appalls us? Could crime authors successfully write literary crime fiction if they did not have some such capacity? Of course, the murders committed in crime fiction spring from all too familiar and understand-able human motives—like greed, jealousy, or revenge. Sometimes they are carefully planned. At other times they are committed in fits of sudden, explosive rage. Most murders in real life spring from motives like these, and crime fiction reflects this. However, some fictitious criminals found at the more literary end of the genre are more subtle; the crime author Ruth Rendell, for example, presents us with uncanny portraits of characters (sometimes female) whom we might regard as sociopathic—intelligent, attractive, scheming individuals who plan heinous crimes with a complete absence of conscience. Presumably it is possible for such crime writers to enter imaginatively into the scheming of such sociopaths without them-selves having such traits. A writer might ask herself, how would I go about (p.177) achieving certain goals, if I myself were cunning, highly plausible, and entirely untroubled by scruples? We have already seen that most of us can bypass the promptings of conscience and sometimes manage to set them aside, at least partially. To that extent, we know what it is to act without a conscience. Furthermore, as Morton suggests, people who do terrible things have many of the same desires as others—what is different about them is in the way they put their desires into action.

Everyone is guilty of immoral acts and omissions. Sometimes they occur in spite of a strong sense of wrongdoing, sometimes with a weaker sense, as when we set it aside, and some occur, more rarely, with little or no pro-test from conscience. When we do bad things, we often act from perfectly intelligible desires—desires which in other circumstances could have led to perfectly acceptable behavior. Given that most of us have these desires at times—for money, for “getting even,” and so on—it is not difficult to understand the motives of those who act on them. It is important to notice, as Morton points out, that even sociopaths are not completely unintelligible to us; we share some perfectly ordinary emotions and desires with them. The difference is that they are prepared to act on some of them, without being troubled at all by guilt. In trying to put ourselves in their shoes, then, we are often imagining acting on these desires, but without imagining the restraining sense of guilt that would normally stop us from acting on them. In imagination, we simply put this sense aside. To that extent, we can imaginatively identify with at least some sociopathic individuals.

However, there comes a subtle point when this becomes difficult or troubling. The disturbing brakes of conscience start to be applied when we catch ourselves crossing the line between the imaginative suspense of conscience and its actual loss. This appears to occur when we contemplate a situation in which the excitement or attraction of an act cannot be imaginatively detached from a sense of its appalling nature. Some things can be found thrilling precisely because of their forbidden nature—obscenity is a good example. In averting our gaze, or feeling utterly repelled by the idea of committing a certain atrocious deed, we are somehow aware of how attractive it could be, if only we let ourselves go and did away with our usual restraints. The sense of revulsion that is rooted in the very thought that something is obscene—as opposed to undesirable or dangerous for some extraneous reason—coincides with the fear that we could be aroused by it, that we understand uncannily well how we could find it fascinating or attractive. In other words, when we apply the brakes of self-restraint when tempted to immerse ourselves in some illicit pleasure, and recoil in horror at being the kind of person who does this sort of thing, it is sometimes because we (p.178) understand all too well the attraction of it, and how easy it could be to become that kind of person. And the fear of losing our fear of becoming that sort of person constitutes an additional horror. People like that are the ones we call sociopaths, and the last thing we want is to be like them.

We all have an interest in identifying sociopathic people when we can, if only to protect ourselves from them. It is helpful to be aware that a few people, possibly among our acquaintances, have strongly antisocial character traits that are very unlikely to change. We need to realize that generous behavior toward them, even if morally admirable, will never be reciprocated. Yet there are also difficult ethical, psychiatric, and legal questions to be addressed about how they should be dealt with by society. These issues largely concern moral responsibility, the use and relevance of psychiatry, and the proper role of the criminal justice system in dealing with them after they have committed crimes.

The problems about moral responsibility that arise from sociopathy are the most fundamental and difficult since they affect our approach to the other issues. We have seen that the motivations of sociopaths are not always as alien as we like to think, and this makes it attractive to conclude that we can use the language of wrongdoing and vice to describe their behavior, just as we can with respect to ordinary people. At the same time, we cannot dismiss the thought that there is something radically different about them. How might we do justice to both these intuitions? In what follows, I shall present some possible positions starkly and with the risk of oversimplification, in order to see the genuine difficulties confronting them.

7.4 A Traditional Framing of the Problem: Free Will and Its Absence

First, then, there is a robust, metaphysical account of moral responsibility, based on the belief that most people, in ordinary circumstances, possess free will;1 that they often freely choose to do what is morally wrong, and that when such acts are crimes, justice requires, or at least permits, retribution. Free will is crucial to this approach to responsibility. For such retribution to be just, the crimes must have been committed freely. If they were not, then there is no justification for retribution—though it may be necessary to deprive offenders of their liberty, in order to protect others and perhaps the offenders themselves from their harmful behavior. So on this approach, the crucial question when it comes to dealing with those alleged to be criminal sociopaths is whether their criminal acts proceed from the exercise of free will. This, in turn, leads us to the question of whether we should think of sociopathy as a condition that, by nature, greatly diminishes or even eliminates free will. If we say that these criminals act from free will, and (p.179) also regard sociopathy as a condition that excludes free will, then we shall conclude that such criminals are not sociopathic and are better described as bad. However, if we judge that such criminals do not act from free will, then it may be right to describe their behavior as exhibiting sociopathy.

But ought we to regard sociopathy as incompatible with free will? This question highlights a significant problem: namely, whether we should use terms like “sociopath” or “psychopath” such as to exclude free will as if by definition, or rather use them to designate a cluster of behavioral dispositions that are so distinct and remarkable as to make especially apt the question of whether people who behave in these ways possess free will when they so behave. It is tempting to reserve such designations for people whom we judge to be so different from most other people that there must be some special explanation—etiology, even—for their behavior; this is bolstered by the fact that the term “sociopath” has a “medical” ring to it, suggesting a psychiatric disorder. However, we should resist the “definitional” route to this conclusion. We should not assume at the outset that sociopathy and free will are incompatible. It is much better to start by observing the descriptive differences between these people and others—that is, the fact that those we call sociopaths are markedly antisocial, lacking in concern for others or remorse (and so on)—and then go on to ask whether they have a special condition that excludes or severely diminishes their free will, while allowing that this may not be the case. This leaves open the conclusion that the attribution of sociopathy is fundamentally a moral one, which designates a moral category—a category of people who are strongly disposed to do seriously bad things.

Such a view is defended by Louis C. Charland (2004), and it has its merits. For him, although there may be some personality disorders that negate moral responsibility—for example, the paranoid, schizoid, obsessive, and others—there is also a “moral group” of personality disorders, notably the antisocial, narcissistic, histrionic, and borderline disorders. The standard psychiatric descriptions of antisocial disorder (e.g., disregard for the feelings of others, impulsivity, lack of guilt) and narcissistic disorder (e.g., morbid self-admiration, attention-craving, lack of reciprocity) (Gelder et al. 1994) are paradigmatic targets for moral censure—after all, people with these traits are hardly likeable and we tend to blame them for their atrocious behavior. Thus when narcissistic or histrionic people insist that they can’t help their behavior and demand sympathy (for remember, they have very special qualities) we naturally dismiss their pleas, seeing them as manipulative excuses for demanding and unreasonable carryings-on. This is our natural response; however, the question remains open as to what extent it is justified. We shall return to this a little later.

(p.180) 7.5 The Strawsonian Maneuver

Second, there is an approach which seeks to bypass the metaphysical problems of free will and determinism, claiming instead that certain moral reactions toward others are inevitable in practice, and that it is conceptually misguided to subject them to such metaphysical scrutiny. This is an approach brought to our attention by P. F. Strawson, in his influential paper “Freedom and Resentment” (Strawson 1962). Crucial to this is the fact that most of us have “participant reactive attitudes” (PRAs)—for example, moral admiration, gratitude, resentment, and blame—and that these are irremovably central to meaningful human interaction. The “participant” perspective is our default position in our relations with others as rational and feeling beings, and only special circumstances incline us to adopt an “objective” perspective instead, as we might if we discover that someone is psychotic, has dementia, or is simply under exceptional stress. Our PRAs encompass not only the obviously moral ones, but also the attitudes and emotions involved in interpersonal relationships in general. Strawson correctly surmises that it would be impossible, in practice, to get rid of such attitudes wholesale, and thinks that life would be greatly impoverished if we did. However, the fundamental point is that we cannot make sense of any perspective upon ourselves that purports to require the abolition of the PRAs. A partial parallel can be drawn with radical skepticism in epistemology. Although decisive refutation of “the skeptic” arguably remains elusive, or at least the nature of such refutation remains controversial, hardly anyone wonders seriously whether he or she may be the only person who exists or whether the past is unreal. Most people who entertain these ideas at all end up with something like Hume’s position (Hume 1975, section XII), which may crudely be summed up as common sense realism in life, even if not in philosophy. Radical skepticism does not come naturally to us, any more than radical doubt about the appropriateness of certain PRAs to our own and others’ behavior. Criticism of some attitudes is appropriate according to the circumstances, but the framework as a whole is not up for serious challenge.

In an earlier paper (Benn 1999), I suggested that even if we take this framework as given, there may be room within it for suspending some of our PRAs toward genuine sociopaths. I hypothesized that there is a strongly communicative aspect to the expression of such attitudes. For example, when we express anger toward someone, we are often trying to induce guilt or shame, to bring about an acknowledgment of responsibility. But if some (p.181) people are incapable of experiencing such reactions, to the point that they cannot understand what we are trying to induce, then perhaps we should not regard them as proper targets for such expressions. This was connected with my speculation that sociopaths themselves may be markedly deficient in the PRAs, and in particular that they may not experience moral anger toward others. To that extent, dealing with them is more like dealing with dangerous animals than with normal adults.

I remain broadly sympathetic to this approach; at least part of the point of expressing gratitude and resentment is to be understood by recipients as expressing exactly these attitudes. Hence, if there is a special class of antisocial people, broadly different from “ordinary” ones, who really don’t under-stand this language, then this should affect the attitudes we take toward them. However, I may have been speculating about sociopaths “from the armchair,” and overhasty in supposing that they had little or no grasp of such attitudes. In fact, people who are classed as sociopaths can experience some emotional reactions, such as jealousy, pride, and perhaps even moral indignation (at least, when they are at the receiving end of what they think is other people’s bad treatment of them!). What is different about them is the significant gaps in their grasp of such reactions. However, more fundamentally, I am less sure that the Strawsonian approach adequately addresses some difficult metaphysical questions of free will and responsibility. In terms of the traditional dispute between compatibilists and incompatibil-ists, Strawson belongs roughly in the compatibilist camp, in that he regards determinism as largely irrelevant to the rationality of the PRAs. But his dismissal of the traditional framing of the problem of responsibility may itself be overhasty. And this is where the first approach I outlined above—that which sees the issue as turning upon a more traditional question of free will—may be necessary after all. To say—probably correctly—that the PRAs are an indispensable “given,” from a practical point of view, is not to prove that their ultimate rational basis cannot properly be challenged.

7.6 A Cautious, Pessimistic Conclusion

There is a real difficulty here. When it comes to attributing responsibility, and especially to questions of criminal justice, many of our intuitions seem to arise from precarious attempts to grapple with issues that are not well understood, despite their enormous importance. It is essential that the punishment of criminals should not be unjust, and this entails not only that an actus reus should have been committed by the defendant, but that (p.182) it should have been committed with mens rea. If it is really the case that certain findings in, let us say, neuroscience or genetics cast proper doubt on some criminals’ responsibility for what they do, then we should take this very seriously, in order to satisfy an essential requirement of retributive justice—that those who act without adequate mens rea should not be punished. It will not be enough to shrug our shoulders and declare that our retributive practices are so deeply ingrained in society that we shouldn’t think of changing them. We shouldn’t assume that just because most people, for instance, will always regard the “my-brain-made-me-do-it” defense as absurd, we should never treat it as a serious theoretical problem. We need to look at both the scientific data themselves and the input of philosophers (among others) as to the relevance of such data and their conceptual groundwork. We should boldly admit that the issues are both genuine and difficult, but that too much is at stake to justify letting the problems go, or retreating into ordinary accepted practice merely because that is the easiest thing to do.

What, then, of those deemed sociopaths? If we decide that these people are not importantly different from ordinarily antisocial people, with respect to moral responsibility, we still have the traditional problem of free will, which is relevant to all human action. However, if we accept that there may be significant differences between these individuals and the rest of us, then we need to ask what these differences are, how they are to be explained, and whether such explanations bear on the responsibility issue.

The most plausible characterization (at least, that I know of) of the putative difference is that sociopaths are incapable of empathic sympathy whereas “ordinarily” antisocial people do not lack that capacity. Possession of this capacity is, no doubt, a matter of degree. But if a person genuinely lacks capacities that are necessary for being morally blameworthy for the bad things he or she does, then on the robust account of free will outlined above, it is unjust to blame that person—as well as almost certainly futile from the point of view of rehabilitation. Moreover, if the findings of genetics or neuroscience can shed light on how the lack of capacity arose, then these sciences are relevant to whether we should morally blame, or legally punish, the offenders in question.

There is no obvious reason, in principle, why we cannot understand how brain-based explanations of behavior might threaten our notions of responsibility. For example, we can accept that if someone who starts behaving in a strange or antisocial way is discovered to have a brain tumor, it is reason-able to revise our judgment of him. We also know that brain damage can (p.183) radically alter behavior, and this could be used as a legal defense. Of course, it is very likely that all behavior is intimately related to states and processes of the brain, but the point is that certain brain abnormalities (however that is to be understood) diminish our capacity for normal behavior. In the case of sociopaths, there is evidence that emotional deprivation in early child-hood, especially when combined with violence, can prevent certain cortical structures from ever developing properly. It would be overhasty to dismiss such factors as irrelevant to the issue of responsibility, since they seem to affect the capacity for moral development, and not just the direction of such development.

At the same time, we have good reason to be wary of what Stephen J. Morse calls “Brain Overclaim Syndrome” (Morse 2006), of looking to neuroscience to explain away more and more of the spheres of life once occupied by notions of freedom, responsibility and control. Explanations along the lines of “Jones thought he was choosing to do X, but in reality his brain was choosing to do it” have a triumphantly debunking air but are philosophically obscure—most obviously because “Jones’s choosing” and “Jones’s brain choosing” appear for present purposes to be the same event or process. And a general appeal to a combination of determinism and mind–brain identity and/or strict interactionism raises a general problem for free will, which has nothing intrinsically to do with either psychopathology or neuropathology.

Where does this leave us, then? We have stipulated that genuine socio-paths are likely to lack a capacity for empathic sympathy that most people possess, that this deficiency shows itself partly in a lack of imaginative understanding of what is communicated when PRAs are expressed to them, and that this lack of capacity is likely to have special neural causes or correlates. However, we are almost certainly in no position to know all the relevant facts about the mental–neural correlations, or to map our everyday talk of psychopathology onto the neuroscientist’s talk of neuropathology. At the same time, everyday interpersonal relations and indeed criminal pro-ceedings require fairly clear categories and boundaries—concerning responsibility, mens rea, and psychological abnormality. Such practices could not properly function without them, and criminal justice morally requires (as I have stipulated) that these practices avoid injustice. The great problem, and one which should leave us feeling somewhat confused and pessimistic, is that in our present state of understanding of both the scientific and the philosophical issues, we cannot be sure of avoiding such injustice. In a practical sense, we have to live with this; at the same time, this fact should trouble us.


Bibliography references:

Benn, P. 1999. Freedom, Resentment and the Psychopath. Philosophy, Psychiatry, Psychology 6:30–39 and 57–58.

Blair, R. J. R. 1995. A Cognitive Developmental Approach to Morality: Investigating the Psychopath. Cognition 57:1–29.

Charland, L. C. 2004. Character: Moral Treatment and the Personality Disorders. In The Philosophy of Psychiatry: A Companion, ed. J. Radden, 64–77. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

. 1994. Concise Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry, 79–80. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hume, D. 1975. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. In David Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. 3rd ed., ed. P. H. Nidditch, 1–165. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kant, I. 1964. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, translated and analyzed by H. J. Paton. New York: Harper & Row.

Morse, S. J. 2006. Brain Overclaim Syndrome and Criminal Responsibility: A Diagnostic Note. Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law 3:397–412.

Morton, A. 2004. On Evil. London: Routledge.

Nagel, T. 1970. The Possibility of Altruism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Strawson, P. F. 1962. Freedom and Resentment. Proceedings of the British Academy 47:1–25. Also in Free Will, ed. G. Watson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982, 59–80.


(1.) Broadly speaking, philosophical defenders of free will divide into compatibilist and incompatibilist camps. Compatibilists believe that free will is compatible with causal determinism whereas incompatibilists deny this. I am not taking sides in this dispute here, since both are likely to agree that if sociopathy is a condition that negates free will, it does so in a special way, distinct from ordinary causal determinism.