Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Psychopaths and Confucian moral psychology

I have little respect for the New York Times. Their quality of journalism is poor but unfortunately standard fare for much of the world's press. However, occasionally one can find gems such as this well researched article on psychopathy by Jennifer Kahn.

Psychopathy is a philosophically rich topic with clear relevance for moral psychology and meta-ethical debates on the nature of moral reasons and moral motivation. 

What has always interested me about psychopaths is not that they have little regard for other people's welfare which is obvious but that they often display very little regard for their own. They are known to be extremely brazen and do things that jeopardize their own well-being. Punishments often do not sway them from harming others (as the article nicely illustrates). Violent psychopaths have very high recidivism rates. They seem to have little to no fear and show little to no anxiety and stress.

I remember reading or hearing of a famous experiment involving psychopaths. A control group and a psychopathic group were wired up and told they were about to receive painful shocks. The control groups displayed profound stress (measured in physiological makers such as heart rate, galvanic skin response, cortisol levels, etc) between the shocks. In other words, they were anticipating the shocks and felt understandable stressed at the future prospects of the pain. But the psychopathic groups felt almost no stress.

psychopaths have often do not recognize fear in others (probably because they don't feel the emotion themselves). In one incident, a psychopath was asked to identify a collection of pics of facial expressions representing various emotions. She identified all of them correctly except the photo of a face displaying fear. She said that she didn't know what that face was expressing but she had seen such an emotion before right before she stabs her victims.

As the article illustrates, psychopaths often are carelessness and recklessness. But I am also reminded of a passage in the Analects that says roughly that one tell-tale mark of someone to be feared in a position of power or state rule is someone that have little regard for their own safety. Presumably, this is saying that if they have a history of little regard for their own well-being, they are the type that will have little regard for the well-being of others and ought not be trusted with ensuring the well-being of others. I can't remember the passage so if Carl knows which one this is, I'd really appreciate his help.


  1. I'm not sure which verse in particular you mean, but here are two that are close:

    8.10 The Master said, "The man who is fond of daring and is dissatisfied with poverty, will proceed to insubordination. So will the man who is not virtuous, when you carry your dislike of him to an extreme."

    17.23 Zi Lu said, "Does the superior man esteem valor?" The Master said, "The superior man holds righteousness to be of highest importance. A man in a superior situation, having valor without righteousness, will be guilty of insubordination; one of the lower people having valor without righteousness, will commit robbery."

    The overall verdict seems to be that boldness 勇 without virtue 徳 leads to chaos 亂.

  2. Excellent! Thanks for sharing! I may have misremembered or misunderstood parts of Shun's interpretation of Confucian moral psychology.
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