A psychopath’s take on morality
What is morality? What are ethics? Are they different or the same thing? Where do they come from? Do psychopaths have any moral sense? The answers to these question and more may surprise you…
This is a fairly long article (2721 words, to be precise) and written in the style of an academic paper, albeit with some pictures and video clips for fun, and without the months of research and a shit-ton of references at the end that usually make an essay. Despite the title, it has little relevance to psychopathy at all until the last third. This is a more complete exploration of ethics and morality, the differences between the two, their origin and value, as well as their relevance to, and presence in, the psychopathic mind – or as complete as you can be in 2721 words, which is not very.
If you have a quarter of an hour and are interested in philosophy or morality in general, I hope you will enjoy reading this and learn something. If not, you could skip it and your life would be no worse for your decision. Indeed, it could be slightly improved as you gain back the minutes you might have spent reading something you have no interest in. So make your choice now.
I am an atheist. If you have met a psychopath, it’s likely that you are one too. So, here are two of my beliefs, which will act as the assumptions underpinning this entire piece:
- There is no God-given law of ethics;
- There is no higher authority on ethics (that we know of) than human beings
But, ethics clearly exist in some sense of the word. Humans talk of certain actions as “right” or “wrong” and report to feeling “bad” when they contravene their own sense of right and wrong. Furthermore, countless philosophical texts attempt to define and unpick morality. All of the major religions claim to teach the most morally-perfect way of life. Every political ideology is founded on a particular moral perspective. Wars have been fought, empires have risen and fallen, countless lives have been lost when different systems of morality have clashed. Laws are assumed to be written to uphold ethics in order to protect humanity from itself. Ethics are real, and they are a force to be reckoned with.
Ethics are dependent on people
But if ethics are real, where do they come from? If you allow me to get a bit metaphysical for a minute, generally a claim that something exists implies a claim of physical existence. Physical existence predicates a physical location in space. So where are ethics, and how do we mere mortals know about them? Since they’re not written on an enormous stone tablet in Heaven, nor are they programmed into the fabric of the universe by God, where do ethics reside? You might say in the law, to which I say “whose law?” Kantian ethics? United States Federal Law? Islamic Shariah law? Well international law, you might say, supersedes any one nation or culture’s laws. And it finds its legitimacy in the International Declaration of Human Rights. That’s as may be, but 70 years ago there was no international law and no universally accepted human rights. But ethics were still around then, so they pre-date and are separate from international law.
No, if ethics come from anywhere at all, it is from people. People form ethical beliefs themselves but the ethics are not ‘out there’ in the world. If people were to disappear, so would ethics. And only people can behave ethically or unethically. It is neither right nor wrong for a tree to crush a house, for a wolf pack to hunt a deer, for a volcano to destroy a city or for a male gorilla to rape a female in its harem. However, a development company bulldozing somebody’s treasured family home, a group of hunters shooting a deer, a government using nuclear weapons to destroy a city and a man raping a woman can be submitted to moral scrutiny. People believe these things to be wrong. Why? Because humans have free agency. We are capable of behaving immorally precisely because we believe in morality. Note that I am not saying any of these things are right or wrong, merely that it is possible to make a moral judgement about each of them in a way that is not possible when talking about a volcanic eruption. Before humans achieved sentience there were no ethics, and once we’re gone, assuming we’re not replaced by another sentient species, ethics will disappear too.
Ethics vs morality
So ethics owe their existence to people. And because people are different from one another, the conception of right and wrong varies from person to person. Though individuals within specific ‘morality camps’ (based on religion, culture, philosophy etc…) differ less than the camps differ from each other. And some moral ‘laws’, seen as universal within certain cultures, are directly contradicted by other cultures’ morality. Polygamy within marriage is perfectly virtuous for some Muslims, but it is considered immoral in most forms of Christianity. Western ideals of democracy and freedom mean nothing in North Korea.
And so it is for most actions. Looking around the world, you will find that promiscuity, property ownership, the consumption of pork, beating disobedient children, the use of drugs, blasphemy, gender and racial equality, swearing, theft, the consumption of human flesh, homosexuality, forced marriage, sex with children, sex between children, slavery, politeness, war and the killing of animals (among many, many others) have no universal or even majority consensus on their moral status. So which is true? Is it the case that pigs are inherently dirty creatures and eating their meat is disgusting, or are they simply another animal to be eaten? Is it perhaps the case that pigs are fine to eat, but the animal you really mustn’t touch is the cow, but not because they’re dirty but because they are sacred? Is it in fact true that all animal life is valuable and vegetarianism is the only moral eating choice? Or is it veganism which is the more moral? To argue that one of these options is the ethical solution and that all other interpretations are wrong is cultural arrogance and your only basis for claiming so is based on the insupportable claim that your way of life is better than any other. On the other hand, to mince around by claiming all views on the matter are true is patently false, since “It is wrong to eat pork” and “It is okay to eat pork” directly contradict one another. They cannot both be true. My solution is that no claims about eating pork, or eating meat in general or any of the other issues listed above have any truth to them. The only truth is that people’s beliefs vary. Statements that e.g. “drug use is wrong”, “men should take multiple wives” or “slavery is unethical” holds as much truth as that animated gentleman’s empty assertion that “drugs are bad, mmkay. If you do drugs, you are bad, mmkay, because drugs are bad”.
This being the case, individuals and groups are free to decide that they do not like a particular action and they are free to take any action within their community to discourage said action, even make laws against said action. But they are not free to claim moral superiority.
There is, however, a very small list of actions which are wrong in almost every society. Murder is one. Rape is another. It is hard to think of a third one, perhaps lesser kinds of assault. Even these three have their exceptions. For murder, it is generally okay to kill enemies, be they members of a rival tribe or soldiers from a hostile country. Some societies accept the killing of criminals as punishment for their crimes. Some cultures allow ritual sacrifice. Certain governments give themselves the right to kill their own citizens. But almost everywhere the random murder of one person by another within a society is considered wrong. Many societies condone rape within marriage and some support the ritual rape of children as a rite of passage. It is often the done thing to rape the women of a conquered society. But at the level of somebody prowling the neighbourhood looking for people to force into sex, rape is almost always seen as a bad thing at a societal level. The same goes for assault. Many societies encourage corporal punishment as a form of discipline: whipping, caning, forced amputation, “an eye for an eye”. Few or no societies encourage random acts of violence in the street.
It is important to draw a line between actions which are arbitrarily right or wrong (like theft, homosexual acts, eating meat) and actions which are ‘universally’ wrong (murder, rape). The former we can call morality; it is vague, inconsistent and highly subjective. The latter can be labelled ethics; they are unambiguous and objective, at least within human society. So in many cultures, slavery is immoral (i.e. contrary to the morals of that culture) but it is not universally unethical because there are some cultures where it is moral. Ted Bundy’s brand of serial murder and rape, by contrast, is both immoral and unethical, in any society.
Given the fact morality differs from culture to culture, it is likely to be true that morality arises from culture. For example, not eating pork is a morality which stems from Jewish and Islamic culture. But if ethics remain broadly unchanged, regardless of the culture, they must come from something deeper. There is clearly a definitive answer to this somewhere, though as of yet there is no consensus on what that answer might be. This being the case, I am free to propose my own theory for the origin of ethics, which does not claim to be either scientific (I have not conducted any experiments to test my theory) or unique (while I devised this theory entirely independently, I am not under any delusions that I am the only person ever to do so).
Theory of Ethics
Humans are social animals. I am no sociologist, but the importance of this fact cannot be understated. We evolved from apes which lived in small-to-medium-sized family groups into living in societies of varying sizes from tribes with a few dozen members to continent-spanning countries with hundreds of millions of people. But for most of human history, everyone lived in small tribes, so much so that this has had a deep impact in evolutionary terms. Even with today’s megacities and social media connecting us to literally millions of people, it is still the case that humans can only maintain a stable social circle of around 150 people – a number not dissimilar to the population size of prehistoric societies. But where do ethics come into this?
In order to maintain a society, there has to be a minimum level of understanding and cohesion between its members. And that must surely include trust that the people who defend the village you live in, hunt the game you eat, make the clothes you wear, build the hut you sleep in, grow the crops you use to make bread and brew beer, are not going to kill you in your sleep or rape your loved ones. There is a third ethic, as we have already noted, which incorporates murder and rape as well as adding other less serious acts: violence in general is not tolerated within a society, because a group that is at each other’s throats is not a society. So in order to reduce infighting and promote unity, empathy developed. And people generally have an innate bad feeling about killing and violence, even if killing and violence is fairly common. This also explains why people seem to have one rule for those they care about (those within the group) and another for people they don’t (those outside). After all, while tribes thrived on internal co-operation, they could only survive to begin with through conflict with other tribes for resources. War is grudgingly accepted as a necessity (and hence immune to ethics) in the way that killing your children, your neighbours or other people in your society is generally not.
Enter the psychopath
But even these so-called “universal” ethics are only universal to 95% of the population. There are, of course, those of us who do not feel bad about killing and violence, and entirely uncoincidentally do not have a great deal of empathy or interest in social unity either. Yes, we are finally talking about psychopaths. What is one adjective which can describe all psychopaths? Anti-social. Psychopaths may live in society, but they’re not really part of it. Sure, they make use of society’s benefits and they may even contribute to the overall benefit, but fundamentally psychopaths are in it for themselves and have no problems breaking societal rules, either of the ethical or moral variety, when it suits them to do so.
Why do psychopaths exist? Well, when psychopathic traits are rare, there is a definite evolutionary advantage to possessing them. Here comes the bragging. We are smarter and more aware than you. We are willing to do anything to succeed, whereas you are limited by your ethics and morals. We understand enough of your society to exploit it without needing to betray ourselves to its service. We are better liars, better leaders (these two not being mutually-exclusive) better seducers, than you will ever be.
But there’s a catch. The more successful an evolutionary trait is, the more common it becomes and the more common it becomes the less of an advantage it is. Psychopaths can easily become victims of their own success. And though it pains me to admit it, a society with too many psychopaths is a society that will fail. Society needs empathic people who believe in ethics and morals otherwise it will collapse. Great for those psychopaths already on the very margins, just getting away with murder or else currently incarcerated. Not so great for those of us who reap the benefits that come from living within society.
That psychopaths do not have ethics should presuppose an absence of morals too, but this is not necessarily the case. I don’t have any ethical sense in that I do not feel that murder and violence are wrong. But I do have a set of morals within which I try to live. The two differences between my moral code and yours are that I do not feel bad about breaking my own moral code on purpose when the ends justify the means (doing so accidentally, on the other hand, does cause me some discomfort) and that some of my morals would only be shared by somebody like me.
An example of the former is that I am, for all intents and purposes, a utilitarian: the action which has the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people is the correct (or “morally right”) action to take. This gels very well with my logical mind; in every day life I decide what to do based on a cost-benefit analysis. When the benefit is there, using utilitarianism as a moral compass to live as easy as possible is very useful indeed. When the cost is more significant (for example when utility would demand a very great sacrifice on my part for the overall benefit of others), utilitarianism can be abandoned for something altogether more selfish. Another example, I view some friendships as a contract whereby as long as they are providing x, I will make sure I y (e.g. If I find their company stimulating or entertaining, I will actively seek to benefit rather than harm them, the logic being that if they enjoy my company too, they will continue to be an enjoyment to me). Due to my nature, I sometimes unintentionally break these contracts due to selfishness and that bothers me because it causes me to lose the friendship. In doing so, I demonstrate my capacity for regret, which is as selfish as it sounds – I regret losing that which made me happy- but is regret nonetheless.
An example of the second difference (morals that only a psychopath would have) is “to thine own self be true”. Whereas most people would view this statement merely in terms of self-identity, I take it altogether more literally. My primary function is to help myself. Ergo, where helping others takes precedence over helping myself, I am being true not to myself but to the weakness of others. Altruism is self-betrayal and time spent helping others when you could be helping yourself is shameful weakness, and morally repugnant to me. Another related example, religious worship whereby you degrade yourself into servitude of a ‘higher power’ is akin in my mind to selling yourself into slavery. I am aware that my principles are very probably different to yours, but they are my principles and I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t hold them.
So where does the existence of psychopaths leave ethics and morality? Well, morality is relatively unchanged, in that psychopathic morality can be considered just another perspective, another falsehood if you will. My selfish morality has no objective superiority or inferiority to any other morality. It is true for me in the way that Catholic morality is true to the Pope, but it has not higher universal truth.
On the other hand, the universality of ethics are challenged by the reality that they are not shared by everybody, i.e. they are not, in fact, universal. Since ethics come from people and not all people are privy to ethics, ethics are not universal. Why is universality important? Because without it, ethics are no truer than morality. Unsurprisingly, I am perfectly fine with this. But you, as an ethical human being, may find that troubling. But there are three ways you could perhaps overcome this universality problem:
- Claim that universality can only ever mean the vast majority (95%+ of a population), rather than absolutely everyone. This is a decidedly weak claim.
- Concede that universality has to mean 100% of a given sample size, but that it doesn’t really matter that ethics are not universal, the importance is they are held by the majority. Not as weak, but if you accept this, you might as well no longer draw any truth distinction between “murder is wrong” and “eating pork is wrong”.
- My personal favourite, an elegant solution which distinguishes itself from the subtly different options 1 and 2. Claim that ethics are universal, to the social community. This social community makes up the 95% of the human population that is not psychopathic. They are likewise universally absent from the anti-social community (the 5% who are psychopaths). Happy? 🙂