(This blog-post became much too long for a blog-post as I was writing it. But as it’s really my writing practice and not written for any particular readership, I didn’t attempt to shorten it. But because I like readers anyway, I put some sub-titles in. If anyone reads this, you can treat the sections as individual blog-posts, as necessary.)
Do Philosophical Questions Ever Get Answered?
Do big philosophical problems ever get solved? I mean, does humanity progress in its understanding of the deepest, most persistent questions about our world and our lives? Or do we just occasionally reformulate the questions and nibble away some crumbs of understanding at the edges of the big problems?
I despair sometimes over the fact that while other disciplines have unleashed energy from splitting atoms, landed people on the moon, found cures for diseases and spun off masses of benefits for everyday human life from their discoveries, philosophers haven’t come much closer in the last two thousand years to reaching agreement on some fundamental and all-important questions, for example, whether we have free will or are fully predetermined in our actions.
One really big challenge in philosophy has been put to bed in recent years though. That is how to deal with the amoralist. The amoralist is the person who – while others discuss what would constitute moral behaviour – asks the question: but why should I act morally at all?
The Amoralist’s Challenge
A classic description of the challenge was written 2400 years in Plato’s Republic where an aggressive character called Thrasymachus states that “morality is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger party” and argues as follows:
“In any and every situation, a moral person is worse off than an immoral one. Suppose, for instance, that they’re doing some business together (…) you’ll never find the moral person up on the immoral one – he’ll be worse off. Or again, in civic matters, if there’s a tax on property, then a moral person pays more tax than an immoral one even when they’re both equally well off; (…) And when each of them holds political office, even if a moral person loses out financially in no other way, his personal affairs deteriorate through neglect, while his morality stops him making any profit from public funds, and moreover his family and friends fall out with him over his refusal to help them out in unfair ways; in all these respects, however, an immoral person’s experience is the opposite.”
Later on, a mythical figure is used as an example who finds a ring that makes him invisible. The following point is made:
“Suppose there were two such rings, then – one worn by our moral person, the other by the immoral person. There is no one, on this view, who is iron-willed enough to maintain his morality and find the strength of purpose to keep his hands off what doesn’t belong to him, when he is able to take whatever he wants from the market-stalls without fear of being discovered, to enter houses and sleep with whomever he chooses, to kill and release from prison anyone he wants, and generally act like a god among men. His behaviour would be identical to that of the other person: both of them would be heading in the same direction.
Now this is substantial evidence, it would be claimed, that morality is never freely chosen. People do wrong whenever they think they can, so they act morally only if they’re forced to.”
This is contrasted with the person who wants to genuinely act morally, rather than just be seen to act morally. In order to be sure that this person isn’t doing good for a reward, it is assumed that his goodness goes unnoticed:
“… even though he does nothing wrong at all, he must have a colossal reputation for immorality, so that his morality can be tested by seeing whether it is impervious to a bad reputation and its consequences.
… for a moral person in the situation I’ve described, the future holds flogging, torture on the rack, imprisonment in chains, having his eyes burnt out, and every ordeal in the book, up to and including being impaled on a stake. Then at last he’ll realise that one’s goal should be not actual morality, but the appearance of morality.”
And so, ultimately, the problem for Plato is this:
“So it’s not enough just to demonstrate that morality is better than immorality: show us why one of them, in and of itself, makes anyone who possesses it good, whether or not it is hidden from the eyes of gods and men, while the other one, in and of itself, and whether or not it is hidden from the eyes of gods and men, makes him bad.”
Plato goes on then for another few hundred pages to meet the challenge of the amoralist and develops his theory of forms, as well as many other ideas on metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics. But he doesn’t get rid of the amoralist challenge out of the history of philosophy.
Are Amoralists Psychopaths?
Around the start of this millennium though I first heard the argument (from Professor James Griffin in an introductory lecture on ethics) that, in order to be fully consistent in his position, the amoralist would literally have to be unaffected by the way his or her actions impact on others. If he or she were perturbed by the idea that something he does hurts someone else, that would already give him a foundation from which he could develop thoughts about why he should act morally. There is a descriptor for a person who doesn’t or can’t care about the impact of their actions on others. Such a person is a psychopath. The amoralist then, if he is fully consistent in the amoralist, turns out simply to be a psychopath.
(Bernard Williams swerved the identification of the psychopath with the amoralist in his book Morality as early as 1972. He discusses the psychopath in a chapter on the amoralist but then thinks that something additional is needed that distinguishes the two.)
And then in a book published in 2000, Alison Denham’s Metaphor and Moral Experience, this happened:
But Why Shouldn’t Psychopaths Do Ethics?
But what kind of argument is it to say that the amoralist is a psychopath? Is it just name calling? Or is it an attempt to marginalise someone who is making an unpopular case on the grounds of a psychiatric condition?
After all, the psychopath could now argue that his or her condition was purely diagnosed on the basis of a controversial diagnostic tool and that his or her kind was in fact successful in various walks of life. He or she might ask therefore why a psychopath should not be taken seriously in a discussion of moral philosophy?
And in fact, in his amusing book The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson describes his meetings with a number of psychopaths, some in prison, some successful businesspeople. Looking into their biographies, he says:
I wondered if sometimes the difference between a psychopath in Broadmoor [psychiatric hospital and prison] and a psychopath on Wall Street was the luck of being born into a stable, rich family.
It’s a line of thought that is enthusiastically taken up by Andy McNab (a teenage delinquent who became a decorated soldier including in the SAS and a best-selling author) and Kevin Dutton (a researcher into psychopaths) in their joint book The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success. They argue that the psychopath’s failure to feel empathy can be a terrible thing in the wrong social context, leading to a life of crime, but a great thing in other contexts – such as war or cut-throat financial markets – leading to glory and riches. As they say:
“In stark contrast to the headline grabbing soundbites (…) when psychologists (…) use the word ‘psychopath,’ we’re actually referring to (…) individuals [whose] characteristics include:
- Coolness under pressure
- Mental toughness
- Reduced Empathy
- Lack of Conscience
Rather than disparage the psychopath and exclude him from our ethical discussions, they suggest that we should all aim to be more psychopathic – in a good way. In their view, spending too much time taking into account emotions and the perspective of others, can lead us to taking sub-optimal actions.
In contrast, McNab and Dutton make the case that there are situations and professions in which the right mix of these traits (‘precision-engineered psychopathy’) is beneficial.
For example, a brain surgeon shouldn’t feel so empathic with the person whose head she is slicing open that it prevents her from doing the necessary. Hedge fund managers can work best if they stay calm and take rational, calculated risks while everything around them descends into chaos. And barristers could do with the right touch of belligerent self-confidence, charm and charisma to persuade a jury.
Can psychopaths then be successful in a number of walks of life and even have the edge over non-psychopathic people? The psychologist and best-selling author, Oliver James, in his book Office Politics, helps with the maths:
“One per cent of the population are psychopaths, which translates into 600,000 Britons and 3 million Americans. About one quarter of the British prison population fits the profile, but that is only about 15,000 people. This means that the vast majority is at liberty, and in your lifetime you are likely to know one well.”
“A key study found that senior American executives are four times more likely than the general population (4 per cent versus 1 per cent) to be sub-clinical psychopaths.”
While he agrees that they can be successful and stay out of prison, James is more sceptical about the idea of them actually having an advantage, or even being able to maintain success over the long term.
“Whilst not necessarily getting to the top, many psychopaths manage to sustain careers that are reasonably successful, made all the easier by the rapidity with which people now move between companies and professions.”
But, according to James, they “eventually find it hard to progress in their careers because their reputations start to precede them. Most of them become more or less unconstructive and malicious burdens on society.”
So, can we dismiss psychopaths from discussions about ethics, or do we need to acknowledge that their special character traits may make them more able to disregard irrelevant points in the consideration of morality? I think we can dismiss them.
The Blindspot of Psychopaths – A Puzzle Solved
Alison Denham, in her book Metaphor and Moral Experience, says:
“… we are on safe ground with respect to one common criterion of diminished emphatic responses, namely, the failure to cite others’ welfare and particularly their discomfort, pain, or distress as a reason for action.”
The psychopath’s failure, Denham says, is “a failure to detect and represent conditions of the world which are there to be detected,” that is to say, they fail to understand what things would look like from the perspective of others. Empathy would give non-psychopaths access to that perspective. According to Denham, this failure “excludes [the psychopath] from genuine participation in a wide range of very elementary moral practices.”
And this is the psychopath’s problem in this discussion about ethics. It’s not that he’s being marginalised on the grounds of a psychiatric condition. And it isn’t that we’re failing to acknowledge character traits that could actually make him more successful than us. It’s that the psychopath has a massive blindspot at the centre of what is being discussed when we discuss moral philosophy.
And that’s how a philosophical puzzle was solved after thousands of years.