Learning about Morality from Psychopaths

Jonah Lehrer shows us how:

from The Frontal Cortex (blogsite)
Jonah Lehrer

Psychopaths can teach us a lot about the nature of morality. At first glance, they seem to have perfectly functioning minds. Their working memory isn't impaired, they have excellent language skills, and they don't have reduced attention spans. In fact, a few studies have found that psychopaths have above-average IQs and reasoning abilities; their logic is impeccable. But the disorder is associated with a severe moral deficit.

So what's gone wrong? Why are psychopaths so much more likely to use violence to achieve their goals? Why are they so overrepresented in our prisons? The answer turns us to the anatomy of morality in the mind. That's because the intact intelligence of psychopaths conceals a devastating problem: the emotional parts of their brains are damaged, and this is what makes them dangerous.

When normal people are shown staged videos of strangers being subjected to a powerful electrical shock or other painful stimulus, they automatically generate a visceral emotional reaction. Their hands start to sweat, and their blood pressure surges. But psychopaths feel nothing. It's as if they were watching a blank screen.

Read the entire thing.  As usual, I don't agree with all of his points, I think he too heavily elides other influences on morality--assigning an emotional role solely, when the emotions are as tractable and trainable as reason--so I find the ultimate conclusion dissatisfying even as I find the observations intriguing.


  1. For an interesting take on psycopathy, read Columbine. Extraordinary. Cheers, Kevin


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