The Ethical Capabilities of a Psychopath

Characteristically, psychopathic behaviour is amoral but for many years, research studies have failed to distinguish systematic differences in moral judgement capability between psychopaths and non-psychopaths. As outsiders to the psychological abnormality of the psychopath, we see these troubled individuals being represented in the media as the ‘Guy next door’ or in some cases, as handsome and charming- someone who would ‘never hurt a fly.’ An example of this being the Netflix series ‘You’. In the series, the protagonist Joe Goldberg is a serial killer who constantly obsesses over his victims, but his moral judgement is of course clouded by his psychopathic tendencies. According to Joe, everything he does is in the name of supposed ‘love’ for his romantic conquests but unbeknownst to him, his stalking and acts of violence are the product of a traumatic childhood amplifying this dangerous side of him. Despite this clear issue, the viewer is still drawn to the character of Joe because of the one- sided narration (by him) and because of his pleasant appearance. 

This is not exclusively shown in media though- we have examples of the unsuspected psychopath in real life as well. One of these being the notorious serial killer Ted Bundy. Bundy was described (by women) as a ‘charming, intelligent and articulate’ man. This was a contrast to how he described himself as ‘the most cold- hearted man you’ll ever meet.’ Now in this example, we have a sadistic murderer who is fully aware of his capability to murder innocent people in cold- blood, but the similarity between Ted Bundy and Joe Goldberg being that they are both the last people anyone would suspect of being who they really are. 

Now, we already know about the clear differences in behaviour between psychopaths and non- psychopaths but their ethical (judgement) capabilities are unclear. The definition of a psychopath is: ‘a person suffering from chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behaviour.’ If someone is suffering from a mental disorder, their mind functions abnormally when compared to a person without a mental disorder. This disorder affects their everyday life, including their social behaviour and ability to sustain long, lasting relationships- either professional or informal. Their decision- making is affected by their violent, usually internalised thoughts which ends up contributing to their riotous demeanour. A 2012 study investigating Utilitarian moral judgment in psychopathy, made by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) (US), shows that when questioned, non- psychopaths rate moral transgressions (acts that violate the welfare of others) as significantly less permissible, significantly more serious and significantly less dependent on authority than the conventional transgressions (acts that violate social constructs, not necessarily the welfare of others). Psychopaths on the other hand, failed to distinguish between moral and conventional transgressions on any of these ratings. However, this effect was driven by the psychopaths’ abnormally severe judgments of the conventional transgressions; psychopaths rated the moral transgressions normally.

In sum, psychopaths have an impaired moral judgement capability when compared to the average human being, but this is not always clear as the psychopathic mind is much more complex than the non- psychopathic mind.

Maryam Khalaf