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«Abstract: At least some serial killers are psychopathic serial killers. Psychopathic serial killers raise interesting questions about the nature of ...»

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Are Psychopathic Serial Killers Evil? Are they Blameworthy for What They Do?

Manuel Vargas


forthcoming in Serial Killers and Philosophy, ed. Sarah Waller

version 1.0 // July 17, 2009

Abstract: At least some serial killers are psychopathic serial killers. Psychopathic serial killers raise

interesting questions about the nature of evil and moral responsibility. On the one hand, serial killers

seem to be obviously evil, if anything is. On the other hand, psychopathy is a diagnosable disorder that, among other things, involves a diminished ability to understand and use basic moral distinctions.

This feature of psychopathy suggests that psychopathic serial killers have at least diminished responsibility for what they do. In this chapter I consider whether psychopathic serial killers might be properly said to be both evil and morally responsible for their actions. I argue that psychopathic serial killers are plausibly evil in at least one recognizable sense of the term, but that they are nevertheless not likely to be responsible for many of the evils they perpetuate.

1. The puzzle Can you be really, really evil and still not morally responsible for the evil things that you do? Sometimes we are tempted to say no. The worry seems to be that if we deny that someone is responsible for the evil things that he or she does, then the evil-doer cannot really be evil. I think this picture is mistaken, for some very interesting reasons. That’s what I am going to explore in this chapter—the idea that someone can be really profoundly evil and not responsible for what he or she does. If I am right, psychopathic serial killers may well be an instance of just this sort.

(To avoid some confusion, I’ll start by saying a few things that will probably strike you as obvious. Still, people sometimes run these things together when they aren’t being as precise as we’ll need to be. So, bear with me for a few paragraphs while I sort out some basic but important details.) Psychopaths and serial killers are not the same thing. They can be, but they don’t have to be.

As I will use the term psychopath, this is a psychiatric category, and one that does not necessarily involve killing anyone. And indeed, many real world psychopaths never kill anyone. Rather than killing, they only inflict the pettier miseries on people around them. In contrast, killing seems to be a pretty strict requirement for a serial killer. Still, we should be careful because the serial killer category can be slippery. What, exactly, counts as serial killing? Some traditional criteria point to three or more murders over 30 days, with psychological gratification as an important motive. Still, we might start to wonder whether that standard can be met by lots of people we don’t ordinarily think of as serial killers. Might an enthusiastic battlefield soldier might count as a serial killer? How about a doctor who routinely performs euthanasia or abortion out of conviction? Could there be serial killers of non-human entities? I’m not going to try to answer these questions, interesting as they may be. My point here is merely that the category of serial killer is plausibly broad enough to include non-psychopaths. So, not all psychopaths are serial killers and not all serial killers are psychopaths.

So, the categories come apart. Still, I want to focus on those cases where the categories come together, where we have a psychopathic serial killer. I want to focus on these cases because I think

they can help us get to the heart of some very interesting puzzles about the relationship between responsibility and other forms of moral evaluation. Or, to capture the issue in the form of a question:

Does madness mean no badness?

Let me explain. Normally, how enthusiastic we are to blame people for any horrible things they do depends, in part, on how horrible the act is. If you hear me tell a rude joke, you might get irritated. However, depending on the circumstances and how well we know each other you might not say anything at all. In contrast, if I maliciously slam a crowbar into your gut, as soon as you catch your breath you will very likely say something about it. In both cases you will have very good reason to blame me, but the strength and intensity of that blame is at least partly a response to the apparent badness of the action.

On this picture, serial killing looks to be a Very Morally Bad Thing.1 But here’s the thing: it matters who is doing the killing. Every once in a while we hear a story of how some young kid does some or another thing that results in the death of his or her sibling. Asphyxiation, or death from lack of air, is perhaps the most common cause of accidental death among kids, and it may seem particularly heartbreaking when it was done by one young sibling to another, neither understanding what was happening. These stories are really heartbreaking. No one would deny that such cases are really terrible outcomes. But it isn’t obvious that the kid who killed the other kid deserves our blame. In order to deserve blame—even for killing—the wrong-doer has to be the right kind of person, one who (roughly) understands the difference between right and wrong. So, to the extent to which kids don’t understand the significance of what they are doing, they get off the hook. In general, it seems that when someone doesn’t understand what he or she is doing we are prepared to absolve that person for what would otherwise be a bad act. Unless, of course, earlier that person tried to make it so he or she wouldn’t understand at the crucial later time. (For example, it used to be that people would sometimes drink heavily so they would conveniently have an “excuse” for bad behavior; cultural norms on this seem to have shifted a bit, though.) So, that seems like a good general principle: in order to be blamed for doing something bad, you have to understand that the bad thing is a bad thing. But what does this principle tell us about psychopathic serial killers? Do they know that what they are doing is a morally bad thing?

2. On the virtues of philosophy interruptus In the preceding section I was doing a bit of traditional philosophical stage-setting: making distinctions, clarifying terms, and saying a bit about the relationship of our concepts to one another. Here’s one way of putting the philosophical project of this chapter: we are trying to figure out what we should say about something—the moral responsibility of psychopaths—when there is no clear, widely-agreed upon method for figuring out how to answer questions like this. What we do is generate some reasons for thinking one thing rather than another. We try to figure out what general rules can explain the judgments we are confident about but might also help us understand cases where we are less confident. But we also have to be very careful about how far we take this process. In some sense, it is very easy to do philosophy. You can do it from the chair you are sitting in by just thinking about issues and trying to reason carefully. The temptation of a comfortable philosopher’s armchair is to think that we can get by understanding the world without bothering to study what is already known about it. What makes this temptation particularly powerful to at least some of us is that, in some sense, we could learn quite a bit about the world without ever studying scientific research on our subject matter. That is, we could imagine different ways psychopaths might be, and then try to

1. If, however, you are an American undergraduate or similarly contrarian soul, you might be tempted to deny this claim. Perhaps you think morality is relative in some or another way. Or, maybe you think that morality is merely some invented story we teach people for the purposes of social control. Or, perhaps you think there is some convoluted reason why serial killing turns out to, on balance, be a morally wonderful thing. That’s fine, because you can play along anyway. When I say use the words moral and morally responsible and blameworthy, you can just think this after each of those terms: according to the way ordinary people around here think. The puzzles I am interested and what we should say about them can be raised on any view that admits we have moral concepts, regardless of whether those moral concepts are all they are cracked up to be.

work through explanations of what we should think about them if they did turn out to be that way.

But that’s just lazy. When there is good evidence about how something is, we should learn it first.

Still, science doesn’t answer all the interesting questions. No amount of experimental evidence will by itself tell us what to say about the responsibility of psychopaths. At least so far, science does not do a very good job settling questions of moral responsibility. So, inasmuch as we are interested in this question we are going to need to do some philosophy. But, knowing what the research on psychopaths already says gives us a leg up on doing that philosophy. So, I’m going to put the philosophy on “pause” for a moment to quickly review some of the important details about psychopaths as described in the scientific literature on them.

3. What you don’t know about psychopathic serial killers I’ve found that most folks are pretty confident they know, more or less, what a psychopath is. If you don’t believe me, try asking a few people what the difference is between a psychopath and a sociopath. With any luck, you’ll get treated to a convoluted discussion about that person’s personal theory about the difference. (Really, I recommend trying it: it is surprisingly entertaining to hear people’s pet theories about this difference!) But I’m willing to bet almost none of your friends will know what the real difference is—unless, that is, your friends work in psychiatry or have some peculiar interest in psychopaths.

Don’t believe me? Well, let’s see what you know. Did you know the folks now identified as psychopaths used to be thought of as suffering from something called “moral idiocy?” Or that psychopaths are oftentimes incredibly charming but prone to getting the usages of words wrong? Did you know that psychopaths tend to have trouble holding down a job or staying in a relationship?

Did you realize that ‘psychopaths’ and ‘sociopaths’ are different labels for the same thing?

I want to talk about that last bit—the psycho/sociopath distinction—for a moment. The history of these terms is interesting, and serves as a cautionary tale for how popular conceptions of things can mislead us about the nature of things. ‘Psychopath’ was introduced by the psychiatric community as a term to refer to people with a very specific set of behavioral symptoms that had been previously associated with “moral idiocy” “moral insanity” or “moral imbecility.” There was some variation in how these terms were used, but they all shared the idea that someone thusly described had the inability to recognize moral rules and to respond to them in the appropriate way. So, psychopath was just a new word for a category that existed in the scientific literature from around 1860 or so. But then popular culture got ahold of the term and started using it in ways that departed from the way psychiatrists and psychologists had intended it to be used. Psychopaths made good characters in stories, movies, and popular media, but the folks telling these stories were concerned about precise medical usage. In this sense, the word is much like how ‘depression’ or ‘hysterical’ came to be. These are terms that started out with very specific meanings in medical contexts, but came to be popularized and to greater and lesser degrees detached from their ordinary usage. So, rather than running the risk of having popular usage contaminating medical practice in the case of ‘psychopath’, a new word was introduced as a technical term to cover that category. That’s how ‘sociopath’ was born. (Later, some researchers tried to draw a distinction between psychopaths and sociopaths, but the distinction never really caught on in the diagnostic community.) However, history repeated itself. Sociopath made its way into the popular vocabulary and the folks who decide on categories of mental disorders (the authors of the periodically updated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, a handbook with rules for diagnosing mental disorders) thought it best to try and change the label yet again. This time, though, they came up with a term that was so not catchy so that the risk of Hollywood appropriating it is close to zero. The contemporary label is anti-social personality disorder.

While all this was happening, some researchers (notably, Robert Hare) came to think that there is a population of people who imperfectly overlap with those diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder. Hare and others took up the old term ‘psychopathy’ to refer to this population.

There is now pretty good evidence that there is a discrete population here, that imperfectly overlaps with the current category of anti-social personality disorder. For our purposes, what is important is that there are some striking features to this group. First, they tend to have very bad impulse control and this seems to be correlated with some important differences in the brain. Second, psychopaths seem incapable of experiencing shame and guilt, and they don’t respond to depictions of harm in the way we do. Third, they have great difficulty recognizing and drawing distinctions between rules that are somewhat arbitrary (“conventions”) and rules that are widely recognized as “moral” or less arbitrary. (More on this in a moment.) Finally, there is no known effective treatment for psychopathy.

This is to say: we currently have no way of fixing those defects of the brain and the habits of behavior that account for psychopathic behavior.

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