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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Sociopath as Character Type

Exhibit A?
I find psychopaths fascinating. I’ve known one or two in my time, as most likely have you, since best estimates are that psychopaths comprise somewhere between 1 and 2 percent of the general population. Being in the presence of a true psychopath is an experience which, once you realize it’s happening, is not quickly forgotten, even where the realization is not the result of having been harmed or ripped-off by one. To be alone in a room with a psychopath is to be, well… alone in a room. I once owned a boa constrictor for a brief period, and it projected about as much presence as a psychopath generally does. I imagine the experience is much like the feeling the PMO Chief of Staff gets from being alone in a room with Stephen Joseph Harper.

Psychopaths are people almost without qualities. Take Gillian (this is not her real name, but it is one of the actual aliases she uses). Over the course of the many years I knew Gillian, she never once laughed genuinely at anything except the misfortunes of others. She smiled when she needed to, and a few times she laughed in a very controlled fashion at her own ill attempts at humour (while others cringed). But the humour or joy of others never seemed to positively affect her in the way that their misfortunes, their pains, and their humiliations did.

Although I have thankfully lost touch with her, if I wish I can still track Gillian’s dubious activities online, through the fake presence she has created for herself there: the many blogs she begins but never continues for more than a post or two, and on which she posts material she has cut and pasted from other websites and passed off as her own; her narcissistic, shallow and puerile online philosophical musings, obviously cribbed and bowdlerized from the latest self-help books; her multiple profiles on LinkedIn, each with its own fabricated CV (despite the fact that Gillian is a high school dropout); her Facebook accounts under multiple aliases; the online chatter of web users warning each other about her cons; her criminal and demi-criminal business ventures. What little I know about how she earns her living makes me want to know less.

I heard Gillian lie so often, so brazenly, so incoherently, so pointlessly, that I stopped even trying to keep track of what was true and what wasn’t. It was safer simply to assume that whenever she spoke she was lying. So many were her lies in fact, that to this day there is a sense in which I’m not really sure if there is a real existing Gillian. Once all the lies are peeled back like the layers of an onion, it is doubtful that anything that is truly Gillian would remain. She is all persona and no person — a person without qualities.

Even her tastes could be described as quality-less: she liked whatever current tunes were in the top forty at any given time, simply because, being unable to respond affectively to any kind of art, she simply “liked” whatever songs the charts told her that a reasonable facsimile of a person would statistically like. The same goes for her tastes in reading. Her “personality” only seemed capable of being projected through brands, through her choice of clothes, purse, smartphone, or sunglasses. And she would quickly let you know what these brands were, just in case, like me, you couldn’t care less and therefore failed to give her the respect she thought she deserved for possessing them. Someone whose only way of differentiating their character is through mass produced items is someone who fails to have a character at all, at least insofar as character individuates a person.

Gillian aside, my interest in psychopathy is as much academic as personal. My doctoral research was in moral psychology, and in particular, the moral psychology of character. Central to the concept of moral character is the notion of integrity. Since integrity is something conspicuously lacking in psychopaths, I’ve always seen them as a limiting case of lack of character. This is in contrast to lay views of the psychopath as a person of single-mindedly evil character. Even single-minded evil is a form of perverse integrity, and psychopaths lack even that. I contend that a necessary condition for the possession of character is to have the well-formed capacity to experience the so-called “emotions of self-assessment”, pride, shame, and guilt, for example. Since for the most part psychopaths lack this capacity, they are largely incapable of possessing moral character. Indeed, it’s an open philosophical question whether they can even be considered moral agents at all.

In what follows, I will give you the draft of a paper I have long given up hope of finishing. I simply lost interest in it. Since it was intended for an academic audience, I apologize for the unsociable scholarly apparatus of footnotes and bibliographical citations. It is very rough. For instance, you’ll notice that it doesn’t have a proper introduction, and I’m no longer even sure what the intended thesis was. It was never even given a title. It was stillborn. However, it may contain a few arguments and observations which may serve to divert the interested reader. Since I don’t know what else to do with it, I give it to you.

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First off, we must clarify our terminology. Generally “sociopath” is used interchangeably with “psychopath” in psychological literature. If there is a difference it tends to lie in researchers’ differing beliefs as to the etiology of the phenomenon. Those who study psychopathy tend towards biological explanations of its causes (Hare 1999: 23-24). However, such academic disputes need not detain us here. For our purposes, I prefer “sociopath”, simply because it is relatively free from distorting media-generated preconceptions invested in the term “psychopath”.

A sociopath, in lay terms, is often described as a person who knows the difference between right and wrong but does not care. “Knowing the difference” between right and wrong is here intended in the purely intellectual sense: they know what is considered by people generally to be right and wrong, but that is not to say they understand the concepts in the way we understand them. It is the phrase “but does not care” in the definition that most interests us. Sociopaths lack the moral scruples that constrain the rest of us; particularly, they seem to lack what have been called emotions of self-assessment (Taylor 1985). Thus, they do not feel guilt or shame at having done things that would cause the rest of us to lose sleep. Again, like their “knowledge” of right and wrong, they “understand” emotions only on an intellectual level. They may spend much time and effort learning to simulate emotions that they do not actually feel. Their emotional deficits have been demonstrated experimentally (see for example Levenston et al. 2000). Because they are not constrained by moral sentiments, they can at best be constrained through fear (of the consequences of getting caught doing bad things). In fact, part of their intellectualized concept of “bad” is “things people tend to punish”. Thus, constraint may come from fear of punishment, not from an aversion to shame, which they are incapable of feeling. And even when they are caught and punished, they feel no remorse, only perhaps resentment at having their intentions thwarted.

Conceptually speaking, we could divide sociopaths into two types: a) those who lack moral constraints and do bad things, and b) those who lack moral constraints but do not do bad things, or at least no more so than the rest of us. I have never seen the existence of type b) remarked on in the literature on sociopathy, but it is at least a logical possibility. Such a person would be prevented from wrongdoing only because, for whatever reason, he lacks the sorts of desires commonly associated with such wrongdoing. Owen Flanagan alludes to a similar phenomenon in his discussion of Plato’s famous example of Gyges and his magic ring (Flanagan 257-259). The figure of Gyges was used by Glaucon in the Republic to show that if a person were to have all external restraints removed, he would no longer attend to justice, and that therefore, justice is a merely artificial virtue. Given a magic ring, we are all Gyges. Flanagan argues that the conclusion does not follow. Gyges’ motives for wrongdoing are underdescribed (indeed, they are not described at all). Why does he seem to have so many evil desires in him that he instantly acts on when he gets the opportunity? Why does he perceive his self-interest to lie only in such antisocial ends? And why should I believe that I would do no differently were I in his shoes? It is at least conceivable that not everybody who had Gyges’ magic ring would behave so deplorably, for the simple reason that they lack the same antisocial desires Gyges seemed to have. Perhaps it is also possible that a sociopath lacks Gyges-like countermoral desires, and so would commit no wrongs, even though they are morally uninhibited. I suppose such people, if they exist, do not come to the attention of psychologists because they do not cause anybody any trouble. [1]  Let us return to the other, full-blooded wicked sociopath.

The moral sentiments, including the emotions of self-assessment, can serve to lend integrity to our agency, making our actions intelligible and reasonably consistent. They enable us to pursue our ends across changing circumstances. Thus, we should be able to predict that someone who lacked the capacity for such emotion is apt to be impulsive, flighty, seemingly unable to focus on longer-term goals, unable to meet obligations, unable to form emotional bonds with others, and less likely than most to keep promises (making them untrustworthy). These are exactly the kinds of qualities characteristic of sociopaths: “Psychopaths tend to live day-to-day and to change their plans frequently. They give little thought to the future and worry about it even less. Nor do they generally show much concern about how little they have done with their lives” (Hare 1999: 59). They tend to drop out of school, to be unable to hold down jobs, or to think beyond immediate gratification. Indeed, even their criminality tends to lack consistency. One of the characteristics of the sociopathic criminal’s arrest record is its diversity: petty theft, burglary, assault, drug and weapons offences. Contrary to the media images of single-minded serial killers, the criminal sociopath is typically not a specialist, nor is he particularly good at what he does.

One of the conspicuous things people notice about sociopaths is their unshakeable belief in their own cleverness. They honestly tend to believe they are the smartest people in the world, despite all objective evidence to the contrary, such as the lack of accomplishments, the steady string of failures, the lack of intimate relationships, the long arrest record. Whatever goes wrong is someone else’s fault, never their own. This is all to be expected of someone who lacks the emotions of self-assessment. Someone who, for example, never feels guilt or shame lacks the “early warning system” that most of us have, which tells us that we are about to do something for which our conscience is apt to bite us; a sociopath’s conscience never bites. And because he feels no shame, he has no inkling that anything about himself is in need of change. [2]  This singular lack of capacity for honest self-assessment has led some researchers to recommend that resources not be wasted on trying to rehabilitate sociopaths. As a matter of fact, such rehabilitation may have the effect of helping the sociopath to become more skilled at manipulation (Hare 1999: 192-205).

It is hard to tell whether this sort of self-delusion should be properly characterized as a rational or an emotional deficit. It is likely a bit of both: it is a rational deficit aided and abetted by an affective deficit. Even if the sociopath is candidly apprised of his shortcomings by a third party, because he will be unable to feel the bite of conscience, he is likely either to rationalize his conduct, or to infer that the third party is mistaken. We will have more to say on the relation between rationality and affectivity below.

Media images often portray the psychopath as an alternative character type, an evil but sometimes slightly glamorous one. What I wish to contend by offering the above rough sketch of the sociopath — and I may as well be frank about it — is this: Sociopaths lack character. They are not an alternative character type. They are not characters at all. They represent what we might call the limiting case of the person without character. I shall offer some reasons why.

First, let us bring to mind for a moment the notion of a character in the literary sense. It has been remarked on by some that sociopaths are singularly uninteresting as literary characters; they are too thin. Robert Hare, the foremost expert on these people, tells the following story about how he was a consultant on a Hollywood film project about a couple of sociopathic serial killers:

The filmmakers had great concern for accuracy and had researched the subject as thoroughly as they were able. But the scriptwriter phoned me one day in near desperation. “How can I make my character interesting?” he asked. “When I try to get into his head, try to work out his motivations, desires, and hang-ups in a way that will make some sort of sense to the audience, I draw a blank. These guys … are too much alike, and there doesn’t seem to be much of interest below the surface.”

In a sense the screenwriter had nailed it: As portrayed in film and story, psychopaths do tend to be two-dimensional characters …. The philosophy of life that these individuals espouse usually is banal, sophomoric, and devoid of the detail that enriches the lives of normal adults. (Hare 1999: 140-141)

If we take the poor screenwriter’s words at face value, the sociopathic “character” lacks enough depth for it to perform the individuating function that the concept of character plays. Similarly, if the screenwriter for a Star Trek episode were to take the implications of the “character” of a Vulcan seriously, without deviating from it (as happens all too often), she would find it difficult to differentiate one Vulcan’s character from another’s, short of dressing them in different coloured uniforms. There is no depth, and therefore room for a character ascription that points to the agent’s identity as a person.

Not only that. The screenwriter’s comments offer the tantalizing possibility — which would take another complete study to explore — that some depth of character is a requirement for the mere intelligibility of others’ complex behavior. Without being able to attribute complex and essentially human motivations to others, we find ourselves unable to understand or explain their actions and practices. With sociopaths, it is not that they are too complex to understand; rather, they are too simple, too reptilian.

Second, sociopaths lack the integrity or unified agency that enables them to form and carry through longer-term goals and projects. This is shown in the fact that, though they often express extremely grandiose intentions, few of them ever bear fruits, usually because the effort required is too much for them. The result is aimlessness, lack of concrete accomplishment, and lack of close relationships like marriage and parenthood, which require a large investment of time and effort.

Third, because the sociopath lacks the capacity for self-assessment, both emotionally and intellectually, he is incapable of moral progress. We all do bad things from time to time, but the psychopath typically does not learn from his mistakes. If he were participating in the Milgram experiments, he is the obedient subject who would feel no remorse; indeed, he may even feel a twinge of sadistic pleasure (because he has never learned to associate causing pain to others with shame or guilt), and if so, he might even be that rare bird who would shock again on a reiteration of the experiment. He has not acted out of character when he has shocked a subject. He has no character. Nor is he likely to follow what I call the Characterological Imperative:  “Always choose a course of action as if you were setting a precedent or laying down a law for your character”. He is unlikely to do so because he cannot honestly or accurately assess what sort of person he is or what sort of person he would like to become. Instead, he can at best decide what sorts of things he would like to do and have — at least until other sorts of things usurp them.

At this point someone might wonder what difference it makes. The sociopath cannot see that he is wrong, and cannot be made to see it. If he is satisfied with his life and does not care what we think, then, character or no character, so what? The sociopath seems to undermine the claim that character is, all things considered, a good thing to have. He seems to bear witness to the possibility that character is a moral concept that does no work. We may be justified in doing what we must to protect ourselves from him, but what we cannot do is truthfully claim that we are right and he is wrong, morally speaking. This is because whatever moral arguments we could possibly offer him would be to no effect. At best, we could convince him using prudential arguments that appeal to his present interests — a sort of Parfitian Present Aim Theory applied to sociopaths (Parfit 92). [3]  What can be said in response to this?

First, I would say that the objection is absolutely correct in a certain respect: we probably cannot convince the sociopath that he is morally wrong. But why should that undermine morality? I do not know where the burden of proof should lie here. I confess, it is not immediately clear to me that it is our duty to justify morality to such a creature, any more than he perceives it as his duty to justify his amorality to us. Either way, we would be talking past each other. If he is incapable of understanding morality, then the deficit is his, not ours. We understand something that he does not, much as I understand morality in a way that my cat does not. My cat does not make me question my commitment to morality, so why does the sociopath? This seems like a case of the tyranny of the weak over the strong.

But even if I should feel the need to futilely engage with the sociopath on this point, I might point out to him a peculiar incoherence in his position. So many of the games that sociopaths play, such as the grasping for power and advantage, the preening, the joy at the pain and sorrow of others, the egoistic desire for praise and esteem at all costs, all of these I say, depend on the existence of other people. It is the attention of other people that he wants when he seeks attention. It is the pleasure derived from being richer than others that drives him to steal. All his games are played with (or at the expense of) other people. He does not play them with rocks and trees. Therefore, we ought rightly to ask the sociopath why we matter so much to him. And if we matter so much, then why are we treated with such contempt?

Sociopaths are not the perfect example of people who utterly lack moral sentiment; they are merely the closest that we can get, empirically speaking. For instance, they are able to experience certain emotions, anger and resentment being conspicuous among them. But if morality is a sham, then why should one feel resentment at another? Imagine feeling resentment at the actions of another, and thinking “How could he do that to me?” while at the same time not believing in the possibility of moral wrong. It takes some doing. That is perhaps part of what makes sociopaths incomprehensible. They suffer from a kind of blindness, caused by their inability to empathize. For example, a sociopath is capable of suffering “injustice”, which he might define as “that which is done by others against my own interests”. The blindness here consists of an inability to see that others can also feel injustice at the things that he does. [4]  We should not waste time convincing the blind of the existence of colours, nor should we waste time convincing sociopaths or amoralists of the existence of morality. We can argue over its content, but not its existence.

In any case, the sociopath will not be convinced. His lack of sentiment contributes to his inability to be convinced by any non-prudential argument for morality. This in turn illustrates one aspect of the necessity of the moral sentiments to the moral life.

Before taking our leave of the sociopath, I should clarify my position with regard to a certain debate in the literature on sociopathy (among both psychologists and moral philosophers). The debate is between those (e.g. Nichols 2002) who see sociopathy as a phenomenon involving primarily an emotional deficit, a deficit in affective capability, and those (e.g. Maibom 2005) who view is as primarily a systematic deficit in practical reasoning. For convenience’s sake, we may call the former “sentimentalists” and the latter “rationalists”.

At the risk of seeming bland, I fall somewhere between these two positions. In the foregoing I have stressed, for purposes of my own, the sentimental side of things, characterizing sociopathy as a systemic failure of emotions of self-assessment. However, it is not so easy to separate sentiment from rationality. For one thing, emotions are often — if not always — heavily laden with cognitive content. Second, there are complex connections between sentiment and reason that are often overlooked and which the study of phenomena like sociopathy can shed light on in interesting ways. For example, it was noted above that the sociopath has the tendency to believe that he is much cleverer than the regular run of mortals. He overestimates his talents and abilities. Put another way, he is blessed (or cursed?) with a tendency toward positive self-delusion. As such, we could categorize this as a deficit in practical reasoning, as it involves blindness to certain pertinent facts, which will tend to lead to other mistakes in practical reasoning (for example, irrational risk-taking). It is exactly the sort of deficit that supports the rationalist position.

However, to complicate matters, we can also say that the sociopath’s inability to feel emotions of self-assessment is implicated in the persistence of his lack of capacity for psychological insight. He lacks the emotional “alarm-bells” that might direct his attention to areas of his personality that might not be perfect. People who are positively self-deluded but who are not necessarily sociopathic also lack insight, but the world from time to time “corrects” them through means of mistakes and subsequent negative emotions like regret and shame, which may (though not always) lead to psychological insight. The sociopath, lacking such emotions, lacks an important means of self-improvement. Thus, at the same time that the sociopath believes himself to be clever, he leaves in his wake a trail of failed relationships, incarcerations, lost jobs, and lost opportunities that put the lie to this belief. More to the point, his lack of capacity for shame or guilt manifests itself in an unhealthy lack of cognitive dissonance between his self-assessment and his actual accomplishments (or lack thereof).

Even a supposed rationalist like Heidi Maibom admits that there is room for both sentimentalism and rationalism. [5]  Indeed, I would go a step further and assert that a plausible characterization of the disorder must involve both, and my stress on the emotional deficits of sociopaths should not be taken as a repudiation of rationalism. Antonio Damasio characterizes sociopathy as an “example of a pathological state in which a decline in rationality is accompanied by diminution or absence of feeling” (Damasio 178). In fact, I would say that the rational and emotional deficits do not just happen to accompany one another, but are in fact related to each other.

Much, much more could be said about the relation between reason and sentiment. For example, while we often normally think of them as in some way diametrically opposed, there may be models of emotions available which close the gap quite dramatically. It is worth briefly mentioning one of these, as it may be a useful antidote to the possibly crude picture of the emotions of self-assessment I have laid out thus far.

Using guilt as an example, Jon Elster (p. 303 ff; see also Tesser and Achee 1994) proposes a “catastrophic” model of emotion. Rather than thinking of guilt as a dark, irrational — or at least arational — feeling that wells up from some unknown place inside us (a common lay view), we ought rather to think of it as the experience of a perception of dissonance between our conduct and our values. Here, guilt is experienced as a sort of alarm bell (that metaphor again) bringing to our attention the possibility that all is not well. It is the awareness of dissonance. However, because behaviour tends to be path-dependent (i.e. we tend to continue in a set pattern of behaviour based on previous behaviour), an agent will tend to continue on a course of conduct, looking for reasons to support it. If such reasons cannot be found, the tension caused by the dissonance increases until a behavioural “switch” occurs. Such path-dependency followed by sudden switching is what I call “moral hysteresis”. It could be the subject of another paper on its own.

On the simpler “cost-benefit” model, an agent engages in some conduct, experiencing displeasurable guilt as a negative utility. On this model, provided the guilt is felt strongly enough, we should expect immediate change in conduct. On the other hand, the catastrophic model accounts for the path-dependent nature of conduct: there is delay while the agent rationalizes his current course; meanwhile tension builds up, precipitating a switch — that is, unless the tension can be resolved by rational means. I have oversimplified the model, but its implication is clear: practical reasoning is not trumped by a strong emotion. Rather, reason and emotion work hand in glove.

Elster rejects the cost-benefit account of emotions in favour of the catastrophic model, by reasoning along the following lines: if guilt were merely experienced as a disutility, as an experienced or anticipated cost, then if guilt prevents me from, say, stealing a book (which I otherwise desire to do), I should be willing to purchase a guilt-erasing pill. But someone who is capable of feeling guilt will also feel guilty about buying and taking the pill, because “taking the pill in order to escape guilt and be able to steal the book would be as morally bad as just stealing it” (Elster 303). It just turns stealing the book into a two-step rather than a one-step operation. If I feel guilty about having stolen a book, thereby experiencing tension, I would — where possible — prefer to resolve the tension not by taking a pill, but rather by finding reasons not to feel guilty. Guilt is, on this model, an integral part of practical reasoning, not an epiphenomenon to be dealt with by erasure.

Before ending, since we have been discussing the sociopath, a brief glance at his fictional cousin, Hume’s “sensible knave”, might be in order. Perhaps much of what was said about the sociopath can be said about him. But we might be able to say more.

Hume introduces the knave as follows:

And though it is allowed, that, without a regard to property, no society could subsist; yet, according to the imperfect way in which human affairs are conducted, a sensible knave, in particular incidents, may think, that an act of iniquity or infidelity will make a considerable addition to his fortune, without causing any considerable breach in the social union and confederacy. That honesty is the best policy, may be a good general rule; but is liable to many exceptions: And he, it may, perhaps, be thought, conducts himself with most wisdom, who observes the general rule, and takes advantage of all the exceptions. (Hume 1957: 282-283) [6]

I would characterize the sensible knave in this way: he differs from the sociopath in that though he understands morality, and for the most part is motivated by it in the way the rest of us are, yet, he is overall better off than us because on the occasions where morality does not pay (in terms of overall personal utility), he can disregard morality. He is morally motivated like the rest of us, except where he can get away with something without getting caught. In this sense, he is more complex and troublesome than the sociopath, because we cannot simply write him off as morally blind. In fact, it could be argued that his sight is better than ours, more evolved.

Hume attempts to meet the challenge by in effect saying that such a knave would not always get away with his cavalier attitude to morality. However, Hume speaks as if the knave is more or less equivalent to our sociopath, in that he is not motivated by morality (“If his heart rebel not against such pernicious maxims, if he feel no reluctance to the thoughts of villainy or baseness…”, etc.). My construal of the knave is as someone who is motivated by morality the way we are, but only when it pays. When immorality pays, he can turn his conscience off. So Hume’s rather weak reply will not do.

I believe that such a creature as I have described is probably empirically non-existent, or at least very improbable. For one thing, we must ask ourselves how one could become such a person. One must first become the sort of person who can participate in morality at all, in order to become the kind that can turn it off. But part of becoming a moral person involves the sort of development and habituation that makes violating morality difficult without experiencing consequent feelings of shame and guilt. In other words, before we can become a sensible knave as I have described it, we must become inculcated in morality. This will involve at least two things.

First, it will involve a degree of habituation to moral conduct that may then be harder to break. One will occasionally break it, as we all do. But we do not all do it in the systematic way the sensible knave is supposed to do it.

Second, it will likely involve an internalization of the morality he has learned in such a way that he will not be following it merely from self-interest. Self-interest is not his main moral motivation. This makes it highly implausible that he would systematically violate that morality on the basis of self-interest. If he has properly internalized his morality, he believes that moral conduct is not based on mere self-interest. So self-interest cannot be a motivation for violating it, at least not in a systematic way. And not without emotional consequences. Morality does not come with an on-off switch. Even if one could turn morality on and off at will, I suspect such an agent would more often than not, like Hume’s version of the knave, be tempted to use the switch too much, making fatal mistakes and ending up violating morality more than is helpful. He would be a sub-optimal sensible knave.

Furthermore, it is still difficult to see how having received anything like a proper moral training, he could escape the negative moral sentiments like shame and guilt that come with violations of morality, once he turned his moral switch back on again. Such sentiments would, at least, represent a considerable disutility that would have to be factored into his moral calculations, or at least factored into our assessments of his overall flourishing. The only way around this would be to imagine that there is a radical discontinuity between the knave when he is morally “switched on” and when he is “switched off”. Basically, the former would have to be either unable to remember the latter’s deeds, or else would have to be “disengaged” enough from them to essentially regard them as the deeds of another agent. Either of these scenarios describes a condition of agency which can only be characterized as pathologically dissociative.

A related observation applies to a person of evil character, such a person being one whose values are largely the inverse of ours, but who still has the capacity for the moral sentiments, and has achieved a certain (perverse) integrity, of the kind outlined in this chapter. Such a person would not only desire and value evil things, but would also feel guilt or shame at having been weak-willed enough to, say, miss an opportunity to harm or cheat someone.

We would have to ask a couple of things about him. First, where might his uncharacteristically kind impulse have come from, that leads him to act “shamefully” by refraining from harming or cheating? Perhaps it is randomly generated akrasia (weakness of will), pure and simple, a nervous tic of the will, and thus is not really a “kind” impulse at all. But if his practical reasoning was accompanied by even a momentary thought like “perhaps this is not quite right”, then this is what we call conscience. Might this betoken some “sparks of better hope” within him, as Shakespeare might describe it (Richard II V.iii.21)?

Second, how did he manage to avoid all of the training and character-enforcing messages that we all receive, even the most dissolute among us, if only by accident in the course of our development? There is something perverse in his ignorance, something willful about it. He would somehow have to have systematically failed to acquire the most basic moral training that we are all exposed to in our lifetimes. And not only this, but to separate him from the mere sociopath, he must have somehow, learned the opposite of what he was taught, to have somehow ended up attaching his moral-affective responses to exactly the wrong things. When a student of any other art, science, or skill does this, we say he is extremely stupid. We shrug. We cannot explain it.

Maybe this is the essence of the evil character; he has an original seed in him that makes him averse to what we consider to be the good. I admit I cannot explain such a person. But perhaps just as tellingly, I have also never met or heard of one living and breathing. R. M. Hare once considered a literary example in Milton’s Satan, who famously said, “To do ought good never will be our task / But ever to do ill our sole delight” (Paradise Lost I.158). However, as Hare pointed out, Satan would have had to play for both teams before he could switch from one to the other (Hare 101). At the risk of sounding Platonic, I cannot imagine him wishing to make such a switch after truly having had such knowledge of the good, unless he was never a committed member of the good team to begin with. But my lack of imagination is no argument against its possibility. All I can say is that, if Satan knows what is good but consistently prefers evil (and if he is not a sociopath — whom we have already considered), then he is responsible for this character. He will possess integrity of a kind, according to the scheme of this study, and he may accrue whatever advantages go along with that integrity. But we will tend not to like him, and we will do what we can to ensure that he does not flourish. Speaking counterfactually, his life may very well have gone better for him overall if he had any talent for goodness. But we will be unlikely to convince him of this.

Before we take our leave of the moral sentiments, an apology should be made to the reader. We have merely scratched the surface of an important topic; much about the role of emotions in the moral life had to go unsaid. For example, we have mainly focussed on a particular kind of moral sentiment, what were called emotions of self-assessment. Obviously, the moral emotions run in wider circles than this. The reader might, for example, be dismayed by a lack of attention devoted to that major moral player, sympathy. Obviously, sympathy will have a large role to play in the functioning of moral character. Just as obviously, it is a capacity which the sociopath also conspicuously lacks. And historically speaking, much has been written about sympathy by moral philosophers. However, I was more interested in the emotions of self-assessment, mainly because of their close connection with integrity, which, as I have hopefully made clear, I see as being at the core of the concept of character. I therefore apologize to those who hunger after more, but some matters had to be sacrificed in the name of economy.


BUCKLE, Stephen. Natural Law and the Theory of Property: Grotius to Hume. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

DAMASIO, Antonio. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Putnam, 1994.

DOLAN, M. and R. FULLAM. “Theory of Mind and Mentalizing Ability in Antisocial Personality Disorders with and without Psychopathy,” Psychological Medicine 34 (2004), 1093-1102.

ELSTER, Jon. Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

FLANAGAN, Owen. Varieties of Moral Personality: Ethics and Psychological Realism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

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[1]   However, these people would seem pathological in other ways. For one thing, they would be unable to form any close relationships with others that are based on sentiment, the capacity for which they would lack. On the other hand, it is unlikely they could be made to see that they might be missing out on something that the rest of us enjoy. But to others, they would seem a rather empty and one-dimensional figure. Aside from criminality, many of the characteristics of criminal sociopaths would still apply to them: lack of depth, impulsivity, coldness, underachievement, etc.

[2]   I am aware that another of the emotions of self-assessment is missing from this picture, namely pride. I presume that sociopaths have the same capacity for this emotion as the rest of us, though researchers do not devote any attention to it, mainly concerned as they are with the sociopath’s morally salient incapacity for shame and guilt, which tends to get them in most trouble. If sociopaths have the same capacity for pride as non-sociopaths, then this shows that they are not exactly the limiting case of the person without character I have made them out to be (though they are still closer to that end of the spectrum, and therefore still make for a good case study).

[3]   The Present Aim Theory of agency, according to Derek Parfit (1984), says that my future self at any given future time has the same relation to me as another person does at present. Thus, a future desire has less of a claim to normative priority than a present desire does. This is because my present desire is my desire, whereas my future desires are in relevant respects the desires of some other agent(s): “when we are considering theoretical and practical rationality, the relation between a person now and himself at other times is relevantly similar to the relation between different people” (Parfit 191).

[4]   Some have framed this phenomenon in more technical language by claiming that sociopaths lack a “theory of mind” (Dolan and Fullam 2004). I would avoid such terminology as being overly rationalistic and because there is research disputing the claim (Richell et al. 2003).

[5]   “Since it is clear that psychopaths have emotional deficits of the sort relevant to sentimentalist view of morality [sic.], the question I will be concerned with is whether they also have deficits in their practical reason…. I will argue that although psychopathy supports sentimentalism it does not speak against rationalism” (Maibom 238).

[6]   There is a similarity of form between Hume’s sensible knave and his account of the artificial virtues. An artificial virtue (like justice) has the general tendency to contribute to the overall good, while on particular occasions it can actually be detrimental to it (Treatise 3.2.2; Buckle 259-260). The sensible knave recognizes that virtue may be generally to his benefit, but takes advantage of those occasions where it is not, by acting counter to virtue. In both cases, the problem turns on how to keep people loyal to virtue even in the face of seeming exceptions to it.