«Abstract: At least some serial killers are psychopathic serial killers. Psychopathic serial killers raise interesting questions about the nature of ...»
This last bit—about the “un-ﬁxable” nature of psychopaths is important. It is important because part of what needs ﬁxing in psychopaths is their apparent inability to experience emotions that are an important part of how we regulate our moral lives. If psychopaths can’t experience guilt or shame, then the prospect of experiencing these emotions can’t affect what they do. If they don’t have aversion reactions—the “ick!” or “I don’t want to see that!” reaction—to depictions of harm (e.g., a mutilated limb), then these things don’t structure their behavior. But these reactions—guilt, shame, and harm aversion, are precisely how many of us come to acquire and hold on to our diverse moral convictions and our sense of what is right and wrong. So, even if psychopaths were otherwise completely like us, they would be at a severe disadvantage when it comes to regulating their own behavior. (For that matter, it puts us at a disadvantage when we try to encourage their good behavior and discourage their bad behavior.) The distinctive psychological proﬁle of the psychopath isn’t limited to an absence of remorse, shame, or aversions to the perception of harm. As I noted above, it also includes an important inability at recognizing the difference between what psychologists call “conventional” and “moral” rules.
Conventions cover a lot of our interactions. They are, however, in some sense “local” or bound to particular places and contexts. The rules governing driving, game-playing, manners, and so on are all tied to particular places, times, and groups of people. There are, however, some rules that don’t seem so straightforwardly conventional. Rules about injuring other people seem to be like that.
We don’t need to ﬁnd out what the local rules are for certain kinds of actions. If you were parachuted into a random country without knowing anything about the local people there, you could be pretty conﬁdent that it would be wrong to walk up to the ﬁrst person you meet and sucker punch ‘em for fun. Pretty much anywhere it is wrong to hurt people “for fun” or “just to see.” This difference—one where certain forms of rule-breaking are always bad—is an important one, marking out what some psychologists call “moral” rules. For purely conventional rules, if there is no convention or governing social practice, we are generally pretty conﬁdent the action is permitted. If you live in a building where there is no noise ordinance, for example, then we can safely assume that singing in the shower at the top of your lungs during the day is not likely to be a problem. In contrast, the rule against harming people for fun seems to be a good bet for a rule that is going to apply nearly anywhere people can be found. (We could probably think of some exceptions, but it is also telling how convoluted things would have to be to generate those exceptions. In contrast, it doesn’t take much work to come up with exceptions to ordinary conventional rules.) So, we might put the difference this way: “conventional” rules rule out things because we (or some relevant group of us) say so, whereas “moral” rules rule out things regardless of whether or not someone says so.
My point is not that there is necessarily a real difference in these rules. At the end of the day, maybe it will turn out that all rules are arbitrary or that there is no fundamental difference between “moral” and “conventional” rules, as psychologists have characterized them. That would be interesting. However, the point I’m trying to make doesn’t depend on whether or not there is a particularly fundamental or deep difference. My point is just this: you and I recognize that there is an apparent difference between those things that ruled out whether or not someone says so and those things that
are ruled out only if someone says so. And it is the ability to recognize that difference—the on-theface-of-it difference between “moral” and “conventional” rules—that psychopaths lack. (Note:
whether this is an innate ability or a learned ability doesn’t much matter, because either way psychopaths don’t seem to be able to learn to make the distinction.) The inability to distinguish between these kinds of rules means that psychopaths are in a tough position— they can’t recognize when they are breaking rules that matter a lot to us (whether or not those rules reﬂect the True Ultimate Nature of Morality, whatever that turns out to be). It is sometimes tempting to think that maybe they know something we don’t know or can’t admit. But that is to misunderstand to confuse blindness for knowledge. It isn’t that the psychopath knows the rule but realizes some dark secret that the rule is bogus. Rather, the psychopath is blind to the rule in the ﬁrst place. The psychopath can’t even see what we are talking about—that there is, at least on the surface, a big difference between hurting others and eating your chocolate cake before the entree has arrived.
Why think they are blind in this way? Well, according to researchers who study these folks for a living, if you offer a psychopath a reward for trying to sort rule breaking of conventions from rule breaking of moral cases they simply can’t do it. And if you try to explain the difference to them, they will think you are trying to pull a fast one on them. Let me explain.
It is hard to get inside the head of a psychopath. To get a sense of what their world must look like, at least with respect to “moral” rules, you would have to imagine a scenario where people were trying to convince you that there is a hugely important difference in lots of everyday actions that seem all roughly the same to you. For example, they might tell you that there are some ways of getting out of bed that are okay and others that aren’t. And, we might imagine, every attempt to explain when the rules hold or don’t turns on the supposed signiﬁcance of some invisible feature of the world-mrah, let us call it—that you don’t really get, that never plays a role in your feelings and thinking, and that doesn’t seem particularly important even when it is explained to you. In the scenario we are imagining, I suspect it would be hard for you to directly care a lot about mrah, because you wouldn’t ever really be sure when it is there and why it matters. Sure, you get that people talk a lot about it and seem concerned about it, but as far as you can make out, this looks really random and arbitrary. If someone asks you to distinguish between the mrah-causing actions and the non-mrah causing actions you couldn’t reliably do it. Indeed, you might start to think they were trying to pool the wool over your eyes, controlling you for their own purposes by making up a difference and pretending like everyone can see it.
I don’t know if that helps. But, ‘mrah’ just is harm, spelled backward. And, harm seems to be an important thing that psychopaths just don’t understand very well. Even when they get what counts as harm, notoriously they have a difﬁcult time caring about it. However, harm just is what makes a lot of things really, genuinely bad (at least, as far as we’re concerned). Blindness to harm is thus a serious problem for them and us. If you can’t see it, it is hard to learn to respond to it even if everyone else seems to be doing so. In the case of psychopathic serial killers, it may be impossible for them to recognize and respond to the badness of killing, just as it would be tough for you and I to respond to someone’s frantic worries about the mrah that we are doing as we go about our daily life, pursuing our desires and trying to achieve our various goals.
4. Back to philosophy Even if we accept that there is something importantly different about psychopaths, these facts don’t settle whether or not psychopathic serial killers can be blamed for any wrongdoing they commit. To ﬁgure that out, we need to do some philosophy.
As I noted before, on the one hand we tend to think that serial killing is pretty obviously the kind of thing that seems blameworthy. On the other hand, we also seem to think that not just anyone can be blamed. When we blame someone, we seem to presuppose that they were able to understand the nature of what they were doing, that it was in some important sense morally bad. This, though, is exactly where the scientiﬁc study of psychopaths is a useful complement to our philosophizing. As I was discussing above, psychopaths seem to lack the ability to recognize the moral signiﬁcance of what it is that they are doing, at least when it comes to harming others. So, if our earlier proposal was correct, that blaming requires a kind of understanding on the part of the wrong-doer, then it looks like psychopaths, even psychopathic serial killers, aren’t really the right sorts of beings to be on the receiving end of our blaming. They are surely doing really bad things. But rabid dogs, hurricanes, ﬂoods, and viruses can bring lots of harm to the world without being morally responsible in the ordinary, full-blooded sense of the phrase.
If all this is right, we ought not (morally) blame psychopaths for harming others. That means that psychopathic serial killers aren’t properly speaking blameworthy for what they do.2 I’m not saying it would be easy for us to stop blaming psychopathic serial killers for their killing. And, I’m not saying we would have no reason to remove them from society. On the contrary, we have some of the very best reasons to remove them from society! They are a threat to us, and nothing we or they can otherwise do will keep them from victimizing us. So, those threats need to be addressed in effective ways. In this, though, the appropriate reaction seems closer to quarantining, or what medical personnel do with people suffering from dangerous, highly infectious diseases. We have good reason to keep us and the disease apart, but the disease and its carriers are themselves unfortunate pieces of nature gone wrong. They are not anything we rightly a target of our blame, resentment, and indignation. We might feel these emotions, of course, but there is some sense in which they are misﬁring or inappropriately directed.
At any rate, that’s what seems to follow from the available scientiﬁc evidence and the bit of moral theorizing we did at the start. At this point, though, things get very tricky. You could think this outcome is so bad that we need to revisit the moral theorizing. Sometimes philosophical arguments land you in places that suggest the argument must have gone wrong at some point. We can’t rule out this possibility, but I do think there is a further concern ﬂoating around here that, if addressed, might make this conclusion seem more sensible and less bleeding heart pansy than it surely seems.
2. What about free will, you ask? Don’t psychopaths have free will? It depends on what you mean by free will. If free will involves an ability to understand the moral signiﬁcance of what one does, then we should think they lack free will. If free will doesn’t require this power, then psychopaths might well have free will. In that case, though, our free willing psychopaths will still lack something else, a power required for moral responsibility (i.e., the ability to understand that what they are doing is morally wrong).
5. Psychopathic serial killing and evil Let’s start with the idea that there is something especially horriﬁc about serial killing, something that puts it beyond the reach of excuse by medical diagnosis. To see what that might be, I think it helps to invoke a different moral category, distinct from blameworthiness. I want to talk about evil.
The term evil gets used in a lot of ways. Sometimes people use it as a bombastic substitute for “morally bad.” Sometimes it gets used in a coldly cynical way, as a way of characterizing our enemies when we want to mobilize social or political support for our ﬁghts with those enemies. But there is a sense of evil that picks out a special kind of psychology, different from run-of-the-mill moral badness. It is that sense of evil we invoke when we say something like “kicking puppies is bad, but putting them in an operating blender and laughing about it is just plain evil.” Although doing this to puppies is certainly comparatively worse than kicking them, at least sometimes the point of invoking the idea of evil is to say more than blending puppies is extra bad. Evil marks out a kind of person, or a kind of motivation that is qualitatively different than ordinary moral badness. Hannibal Lechter is evil in this special sense. Maybe Agent Smith in the Matrix movies is like this, and certainly Emperor Palpatine from the Star Wars movies is along these lines. Although he’s a bit more complicated, Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight might ﬁt the bill.
In this usage, “evil” is a category that picks out people or actions that desire to see other people harmed for no reason beyond the desire itself. To be evil in this sense is to want to see others harmed for no further reason. This is very different than wanting to harm people so as to bring about world domination, the arrival of utopian political order, or ordinary compliance with the powers that be. In all these cases, the desire to harm people is just a means for accomplishing some other task. The genuinely evil person, in the special sense at hand, wants to see people harmed for no further reason—the desire to see that harm done is all the reason there is for wanting to harm others.