«Abstract: At least some serial killers are psychopathic serial killers. Psychopathic serial killers raise interesting questions about the nature of ...»
I think it is an open question whether there are many (or any) people that are actually evil in this sense. However, if there are such people I would not be surprised to ﬁnd that serial killing psychopaths ﬁt the bill. For example, perhaps a psychopathic serial killer ﬁnds fascinating the idea of dissecting a living person, fails to see any objections to doing so beyond the risk of getting caught, and proceeds with the business of torturing and killing people. On my view, this would be evil.
Here’s an interesting feature about evil in this sense: it doesn’t require that the evil person be responsible for being evil. That is, our evil psychopathic serial killer need not be responsible for being a psychopath or for any of the things he or she does at all. Evil—profound, genuine, really super-bad evil in the sense we’ve been talking about—just doesn’t require responsibility. In this sense it is like being a jerk, or being a tight-wad. These are bad things to be, but your being these things doesn’t require that you are responsible for your jerk-ish and tighwad-ish behavior. Maybe you are a jerk because of a brain tumor, or maybe you are a tightwad because of low blood sugar. For all that, it would still be true that you are a jerk and a tightwad.
Now I don’t want to pretend that knowing the origins of how you became a jerk or tightwad might not affect our reactions to your behavior. If we know the origins of these things it can affect how we regard the fact of your being a jerk or a tightwad. We might be less willing to blame you, or more likely to explain away your behavior to our mutual friends. Still, many of us would be less willing to hang out with the jerk or to ask for money from the tightwad, regardless of how these defects of character were arrived at.
Coming back to evil, then, I think evil is one of those descriptions of people that is (1) inherently condemnatory (no one wants to be genuinely evil, a true jerk, or a real tightwad) without (2) taking a stand on how that condemnatory nature came to be. It is a bad way to be, and in the case of evil, a really, really bad way to be. There is good reason for us to have a visceral, strongly negative reaction to the evil person and his or her deeds—such people have interests that are strongly at odds with the basic terms of our living together. So we want them expelled, destroyed, or otherwise expunged from our lives when we are convinced that they are among us.
If all of this is right, then we can explain why the non-responsibility of psychopathic serial killers should leave us a bit unhappy. The worry that I noted above was this: focusing on the fact that such predators are not responsible seems to mean that we must abandon our moralized reactions to them (e.g., indignation, resentment, and so on). Any account that concludes with this reaction to psychopathic serial killers must therefore be wrong. What the foregoing remarks on evil help us to see, though, is that this reaction is too quick. While psychopathic serial killers may not be morally responsible for harming others, they might well count as genuinely evil. Nothing about their non-responsibility would affect whether or not they are truly evil. To the extent to which we are justiﬁed in being revolted, angry, or threatened by evil, we are justiﬁed in having these reactions to psychopaths regardless of whether or not they are responsible for what they do.
Matters are complicated, in part because our attitudes towards evil are oftentimes wrapped up in the assumption that the evil-doer is also responsible for what he or she does. But as I suggested above, that need not be the case. Sometimes evil is as evil does, and that can be enough.
Further reading In recent years psychiatrists, philosophers, and neuroscientists have been doing a lot of work studying and thinking about the nature of psychopaths. For those interested in reading more about these issues a good place to start is: Hare, Robert D. 1999. Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopath. New York: The Guildford Press; for a more technical overview of the current experimental
research on psychopaths, see Blair, James, Derek Mitchell, and Karina Blair. 2005. The Psychopath:
Emotion and the Brain. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell; for a discussion of the relevance of the scientiﬁc research to moral philosophy, see Nichols, Shaun. 2004. Sentimental Rules: On the Natural Foundations of Moral Judgment. Oxford: Oxford University Press. My thanks to Shaun Nichols and Dominic Murphy for many and several discussions about psychopaths over the years, and to Stephanie Vargas for