Moral Knowledge and Psychopathy

A few days back during a conversion with my friend Qasim we started discussing Plato's philosophy of virtue, and Qasim expressed how sometimes he felt strongly drawn by the notion that all wrongdoing springs from ignorance, and if one really knew something was wrong, he would not do it. I must admit, the idea is not without appeal to me as well. It's a question I've often asked myself as well; if I wholeheartedly believe an act to be wrong, if I know that one ought not act in such and such manner, can I then knowingly act in such and such manner?

Plato says all sin is caused by ignorance of the good. If you had known better, you would have done differently. As a immediate objection, I brought up the case of a psychopath. Apparently, I thought, a psychopath can knowingly do something wrong. Qasim was quick to point out, however, that it is only apparently so. It is not at all obvious whether a psychopath actually knows that one ought not act so and so.

Imagine a psychopath who is planning to murder his wife, because she is annoying and he'd rather get rid of her and take all her money too. The psychopath is well-aware that what he is about to do is believed by all around him to be a morally heinous act. He knows that it is believed to be an immoral act, but he feels no guilt, feels no pang of conscience, feels no inner tug of war against the temptation. Does a psychopath know that it is wrong to murder one's wife?

There is a certain ambiguity in the word 'know' here. I can separate out two usages.

A) A psychopath knows that one ought not murder one's wife, but he lacks the internal motivation to avoid doing so.
B) A psychopath does not know that one ought not murder one's wife.

There is a subtle difference in the knowing in A and B. The knowing in A is the ordinary and common sense use of the word. A psychopath knows (A) that one ought not murder one's wife because he understands the imperative. The knowing in B is in the Platonic sense.

If we consider sentence A to be equivalent to sentence B, then it means that

knowing (B) = knowing (A) + internal motivation

Let us see if the case of the psychopath (P) is different from that of a "normal" individual (N) when it comes to Platonic moral knowledge.

A psychopath is consciously planning to murder his wife. He does not know that what he is doing is morally wrong.
A normal individual is consciously planning to murder his wife. He does not know that what he is doing is morally wrong.

What then is the difference between the two? Is there no difference at all between the murder committed by a psychopath and murder committed by a normal person? If there is, where does it lie?

It needs to qualified, I'd say. Perhaps the difference is that a normal person actually does believe that what he is doing is morally wrong, but he is able to suppress and ignore it long enough to commit the act. The not-knowing of N resides in a suppression of his internal imperative to do good and avoid evil. This is supported by the fact that a normal person is capable of guilt and regret over his crime. If a normal person did know better, he would not have committed the act. A psychopath, on the other hand, has no such belief; he is not suppressing or ignoring anything. He is not capable of guilt and regret over what he did. The not-knowing of P is in the absence of an internal imperative. For the psychopath, there is nothing to know better.


For my previous ruminations on applying moral philosophy to psychopathy, see the tag Morality and Psychopathy


Hamza. said…
So the psychopath would get a life sentence on medical grounds and not-psychopath would be hanged...
Awais Aftab said…

It's a tricky debate, whether psychopaths should be offered leniency on medical grounds, but as far as I am aware, currently psychopathy cannot diminish responsibility of a crime in the eyes of law. As many as 50% of serious crimes are committed by psychopaths. Here it is vital to mention that the vast majority of psychopaths do not commit violent crimes; they are however guilty of other sorts of manipulations in their relationships and jobs etc.
Malang said…
I suppose it would be better to study this in light of nihilism. Considering that the 'ignorance' excuse can seldom be applied in that case. If anything the apathy in these cases tends to spring from knowing too much.
Also in the case of psychopaths it isnt necessarily ignorance but more a case of processing. Psychopathy processes moral issues differently from normal variants, right?
Awais Aftab said…

The 'ignorance' that Plato speaks of is not the same ignorance which the Law recognizes. The Law looks at whether an individual consciously chose to do an act, and whether he was aware of the immoral and illegal nature of the act, and as far as the law is concerned, a psychopath is well-aware of these.
Bhai Chod said…
"what would Socrates say...?"

more later...
Anonymous said…
If a 'normal' person is planning to kill his wife, would he be described as 'normal'? Mightn't the psychopath and the 'normal' person in your example both be psychopaths? Unless you can somehow relate killing wives to normality I don't think you've got a valid proposition. While I agree with your reasoning up to that point, from then on it seems, while the conclusions about knowing seem fine the illustration has melted away.
Komal said…
The question is whether moral knowledge is even possible. If it is, then of course the psychopath is ignorant.
puzzled said…
can a psychopath intrigued with fire put his hand in it? or a hole in which he believes there is a snake.....its complete realization of consequenses that stops him...somebody said sin cannot overcome true realization or "yaqeen''.....he is just laking complete realization of consequences of murder,which normally emotions would have put into right perspective....