Should a psychopath be punished if he or she is to commit murder? Currently, society answers in the affirmative. But the answer, in any case, is not as straightforward as it might seem. This is in fact a very philosophically intriguing question.
Part of the reason there is so much speculation around this topic is due to the lack of agreement about just what psychopathy is. Do we label it as a mental illness or a personality disorder? In any case, we need to examine whether the symptoms of psychopathy render the sufferer exempt from legal consequence. Just quickly, these include excessive deceit and untruthfulness, poor judgement and inhibition to learn from mistakes, tendency to manipulate, and a lack of remorse or guilt.
If a psychopath is biologically programmed to be more likely to get in trouble with the law, how should the law deal with these individuals? If a psychopath had the ability to avoid legal trouble like the rest of us, but chose instead to make a conscious decision to break the law, then I believe it is reasonable for them to feel the full force of the law. If the current justice system is configured for socially competent people, are we doing a horrible disservice to psychopathy suffers by treating them with the same system?
I want to draw upon an example used by Sam Harris in his lecture on free will. Suppose one day you found yourself in the woods under attack by a grizzly bear who decided to maul your leg badly. Luckily, you were able to get away safely in the end. When you reflect upon this incident, you don’t have any feelings of anger or hatred toward the bear because you understand that grizzlies are territorial and aggressive. It’s in their nature. The bear was simply being a bear.
Now in contrast, if a psychopathic axe murderer chased you through the woods before mauling your leg badly, we tend to have a different response. In court, you’d be likely to press charges and you might also feel severe hatred toward your attacker. But just like the bear, the psychopath was simply being a psychopath. Just like the bear, the axe murderer is unable to empathise with you and has no remorse for their actions. They’re impulsive and unable to plan ahead for the consequences that would await them (i.e. life in prison). A non-psychopathic murderer at least has the clarity and foresight of consequence when deciding to murder. The non-psychopathic murderer will likely be driven by extreme anger or hatred of their victim and therefore be able to rationalise that murder is the best way to ensure justice.
If a psychopath is lying, deceitful, and antisocial, does this make them a bad person? If a “normal” person is lying, deceitful, and antisocial, why of course it does! But the normal person has the choice whereas the psychopath doesn’t – they’re simply a result of unfortunate biological programming. Should they be made to suffer for this?
Psychopaths, differing from sociopaths, are born with this particular disposition whereas sociopaths typically acquire their antisocial behaviour through environmental conditioning. It might be reasonable to assume sociopaths may have some sort of say in how they turn out whereas psychopaths are predestined to be this way in the exact same manner homosexuals don’t get to choose their sexual orientation.
So does this mean psychopaths should be exempt from moral responsibility? What if the default position for humanity was psychopathy? Would we then live in a society that favours the personality traits of psychopaths? It seems obvious to me that there should be increased ethical scrutiny placed upon the treatment of the psychopaths in today’s society. What are your thoughts?