On Philosophy

December 27, 2006

Ethics and Sociopaths

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 5:03 am

Sociopaths were one thought of as simply people without feelings. However things are never that simple, what was once thought of as simply a lack of feeling is now recognized to be often correlated with antisocial behavior. As such the term sociopath no longer officially refers to any psychiatric condition, people who were once called sociopaths would most likely be diagnosed as suffering from psychopathy or antisocial personality disorder. And besides, the mind is rarely so simple. Even so, here I will misuse the term sociopath to describe a kind of “ideal” case, of a person with no emotions (no further strings attached), in order to do some meta-ethics.

Specifically I would ask: could our fictional sociopaths be ethical? Now I am not asking if they would in practice act ethically. In principle there is no reason that they couldn’t act in any way they chose, but for many people their emotional aversion to doing wrong, especially to harming others, is one of the primary forces that keeps them on the straight and narrow. A sociopath would of course not be motivated to do wrong by rage, or a misguided desire to be happy, so perhaps they might have some advantages on the rest of us too. But, in any case, the question I am asking here is designed to discover if there are any reasons derived from our ethical systems that would rule out sociopaths from being considered as upstanding people, in principle, regardless of how they act.

Obviously there are no such barriers inherent in a consequentialist system. A “late” consequentialism would judge them only on the results they achieve, and sociopaths can achieve the same results as the rest of us; likewise an “early” consequentialism would judge them based only on the choices they make, and again they can make the same choices for us. And a deontological ethics would have no special reservations about them either, being close in spirit to consequentialism. However, there are systems of ethics that might prevent sociopaths from being considered ethically upstanding, no matter how they chose to act. For example virtue ethics, which says that the virtuous person (defined as person who has certain qualities) can be ethical, would probably say that no sociopath could be considered morally good, because often what makes a virtuous person includes something like love for one’s fellow man (actual language may vary), and a sociopath, having no feelings, can’t meet this standard. Similarly an ethical system that judges people based on their intentions may rule out sociopaths, especially if it cares about reasons for action, because sociopaths will often be motivated by cool calculation (perhaps not to do something because it is “wrong”), and not by the caring for others that may be required.

But consider a world full of sociopaths acting ethically (i.e. doing whatever would be considered ethical by a normal person, even if the system of ethics that we are considering prevents them from being considered truely ethical). Obviously this world won’t differ (in the large scale) from a world of people with normal feelings acting in basically the same way. But if this is the case why should we prefer the world with normal people over the world full of sociopaths (assuming we were judging the value of these worlds, not picking one to be born in)? I submit that the only reason to favor one over the other (ethically) would have to be derived solely from the ethical theory itself, as there are no substantial differences that would help us pick one world over the other. And I think this shows that an ethical theory that rules out sociopaths in principle from being considered ethical cannot be rationally defended (we have identified at least one case in which there are no relevant objective criteria that can help us pick one world as better, and thus the judgment of the theory that the world of sociopaths is ethically inferior to the world of normal people must not be based on such factors, meaning that they theory is making an irrational or unjustified distinction). Of course we could be stubborn and argue that the existence of emotions in one world is an objective reason to consider it superior, but I find that hard to say with a straight face, since there are as many negative emotions as there are positive ones.

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