Heidi Maibom in her essay at Aeon Magazine explores some the psychological and philosophical insights into morality gained by observing the behaviour of psychopathic individuals.  I recommend going to Aeon and reading the entire article, its quite insightful.


“The psychopath’s response to people who suffer indicates that what we recognise as morality might be grounded not simply in positive, prosocial emotions but also in negative, stressful and self-oriented ones. This is not some cuddly version of empathy, but a primitive aversive reaction that seemingly has little to do with our caring greatly for the humanity of others.

Yet what exposes our common humanity more than the fact that I become personally distressed by what happens to you? What could better make me grasp the importance of your suffering? The personal part of empathic distress might be central to my grasping what is so bad about harming you. Thinking about doing so fills me with alarm. Arguably, it’s more important that I curb my desire to harm others for personal gain than it is for me to help a person in need. Social psychology research has focused on how we’re moved to help others, but that’s led us to ignore important aspects of ethics. Psychopathy puts personal distress back in the centre of our understanding of the psychological underpinnings of morality.

The last lesson we can learn concerns whether sentimentalists or rationalists are right when it comes to interpretations of the moral deficits of psychopaths. The evidence supports both positions. We don’t have to choose – in fact, it would be silly for us to do so. Rationalist thinkers who believe that psychopaths reason poorly have zoomed in on how they don’t fear punishment as we do. That has consequences down the line in their decision making since, without appropriate fear, one can’t learn to act appropriately. But on the side of the sentimentalists, fear and anxiety are emotional responses. Their absence impairs our ability to make good decisions, and facilitates psychopathic violence.

Fear, then, straddles the divide between emotion and reason. It plays the dual role of constraining our decisions via our understanding the significance of suffering for others, and through our being motivated to avoid certain actions and situations. But it’s not clear whether the significance of fear will be palatable to moral philosophers. A response of distress and anxiety in the face of another’s pain is sharp, unpleasant and personal. It stands in sharp contrast to the common understanding of moral concern as warm, expansive and essentially other-directed. Psychopaths force us to confront a paradox at the heart of ethics: the fact that I care about what happens to you is based on the fact I care about what happens to me.”

    We’ve all experienced the inner hardening, and turning away when faced with another human being in need.  Of course it isn’t indicative of us being a psychopath, but the ability to realize that ethical distance is trait we all share.  I realize the pain and suffering of people who are starving, but they are far away and I can turn away and ignore their suffering and get along with my life.

Seems kinda shitty once you think about it, and the fact that most people do it doesn’t lessen the gravity of this particular ethical failure.  Yet, the behaviour will persist, a dubious solution to the real life situations that run up against our moral understanding of the world.

This sort of ethical dilemma is illustrated in the series Breaking Bad.  I’m almost done (two episodes left) watching Breaking Bad, and the moral path Walter White chooses to walk seems to illustrate the how muddy ‘good ethical behaviour’ gets once it hits the real word.

To be clear, a moral injury is not a psychiatric diagnosis. Rather, it’s an existential disintegration of how the world should or is expected to work—a compromise of the conscience when one is butted against an action (or inaction) that violates an internalized moral code. It’s different from post-traumatic stress disorder, the symptoms of which occur as a result of traumatic events. When a soldier at a checkpoint shoots at a car that doesn’t stop and kills innocents, or when Walter White allows Jesse’s troublesome addict girlfriend to die of an overdose to win him back as a partner, longstanding moral beliefs are disrupted, and an injury on the conscience occurs.”

What quality makes people bounce back from a moral injury, or turn further toward questionable moral choices?  We’d all like to think we belong to the class of upstanding, moral citizens – but how long does that last once the unkind vicissitudes of life go into overdrive?