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Are Psychopaths Responsible for their Actions?

Jul 8, 2013

Psychopaths lack empathy. They can't identify with your suffering. If you and I were to view photos of people with horrified facial expressions or of mutilated bodies after terrible injuries, our brains would immediately respond with strong activation of the amygdala. This amygdala activation would cause our blood pressure to rise, our heart to beat faster, our muscles to tighten, and we’d feel an emotional disturbance that for us is a normal reaction to the images. In fact, the amygdala triggers these emotional responses before we’ve even had time to consciously process the details of the horrors we’re viewing. The amygdala of the psychopath does not respond to these photos. His blunted emotional response is not the result of cynical reasoning. The presence or absence of an amygdala response is determined in less than ¼ of a second, long before one would have the chance to do any reasoning at all. On tests of psychopathy, those with a blunted amygdala response score high on "callous/unemotional” personality traits. In everyday life, they show little or no empathy for others.

Twin studies have shown that anti-social behavior in 7 year old children involves a combination of genes and environment. But for the anti-social children who also show specific callous/unemotional psychopathy traits, the genetic contribution is remarkably high. Psychopathy appears to be largely genetic.
Are we responsible for the brains we are born with? Time magazine conducted an interview in November 2012 with Kevin Dutton, the author of a book called The Wisdom of Psychopaths. He recounts an interview he conducted with a psychopath who said:
‘If you had a deaf guy standing watching a building burn down and had a child in the building screaming in pain and the deaf guy didn’t go in, you wouldn’t hold him to blame. Imagine if you’re emotionally deaf. You can hear the sound, but it doesn’t do anything for you. You don’t feel that emotional kick in the backside to go in and do something.’ 
The author notes that the psychopath may have been speaking honestly, or may have been trying to manipulate him. Nevertheless, the blunted amygdala response in individuals with high psychopathy scores supports the account.

How should we feel about the moral responsibility of a psychopath who commits a horrendous violent crime? On one hand, the crime is likely to have been carried out in a cold calculating manner. He is unlikely to have been blinded by emotion.  He's also likely to have shown disregard for the suffering of the victim.  Disregard for the suffering of others is at the essence of what we consider evil, and it's one of the hallmarks of the psychopathic personality. And yet if signs of psychopathy are largely genetically determined, present in 7 year olds, and tied to abnormal functioning of the brain, how do we think about personal responsibility?

Not all psychopaths are violent, and not all commit crimes. Perhaps this might be an argument for personal responsibility. Perhaps we can tell the criminal psychopath that someone else with the same kind of brain abnormality was able to control his behavior, and you ought to have done the same. On the other hand, self control, like empathy, is a function of brain activity, and is subject to genetic as well as environmental influences. It is entirely possible that two individuals whose brain function is identical, abnormal in exactly the same way, will necessarily respond to a situation in the same way. We can easily imagine an individual born with callous/unemotional traits, violent impulses, and very little self control. A perfect storm. If so, who's responsible for the shipwreck?


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