Philosophy In Action All the ideas and discussions
33 votes Vote

Are "psychopathy" and "sociopathy" distinct from evil?

Many psychologists and psychiatrists want their disciplines to be "value-free," and they claim not to make moral judgments. However, they call behavior destructive to self and others psychologically unhealthy and pathological, with the cruelest sorts of people being called "psychopaths" or "sociopaths." Are those merely euphemisms for evil -- or do they have a distinctive psychological meaning? Also, what do you think of the claims of psychologists like Robert Hare that diagnosed psychopaths and sociopaths are physiologically different from the general population? Does that make a difference?

legendre007, 14.07.2013, 18:23
Idea status: under consideration


DianaHsieh, 16.07.2013, 07:31
I shortened this question hugely, but I hopefully I captured the essence of it! Here's the original version:

Are the terms 'psychopathy'/''sociopathy' merely euphemisms for 'evil,' or are they distinct from a mere pattern of evil choices?

Have psychiatrists and psychologists concocted the terms "psychopath" and "sociopath" as euphemisms for evil? Or is there a legitimate scientific distinction between a psychopath/sociopath and someone who consistently chooses to harm others? Do psychopaths/sociopaths possess some unique quality that places them beyond the category of someone who is merely consistent in choosing to do evil?

Many psychologists and psychiatrists want their disciplines to be regarded as a "value-free" descriptive science. Therefore, qua psychologists and psychiatrists, they claim to avoid making moral judgments altogether. However, it seems to me that such psychologists and psychiatrists still see a lot of harmful behavior that they disapprove of, and they still feel the need to negatively stigmatize it. Hence, when they see hurtful behavior they disapprove of, they do not call it immoral but instead call it psychologically unhealthy and pathological, with the cruelest sorts of people being called "psychopaths" or "sociopaths." In so doing, I think psychologists and psychiatrists find a way to smuggle their own moral judgments back into their discipline under the guise of "value-free" descriptive science.

However, I have difficulty squaring this view with the claim by psychologists like Robert Hare that diagnosed psychopaths/sociopaths are indeed physiologically different from the general population. When fMRI scans are made of the general population and then of diagnosed psychopaths, neuroscientists find that in cases where a stimulus activates the amygdala in a normal person -- indicating strong distress at the prospect of harm to another person -- there is no such amygdala activation in the brain of a psychopath. Still, I am not yet fully convinced that the differences in amygdala responses between psychopaths and normal people have to do with inborn physiological differences, as opposed to their having cultivated a lifetime's worth of different values. I wonder if it is a lifetime's worth of ingrained philosophic premises that now causes the diagnosed psychopath's brain to respond to stimuli in a fashion dissimilar to that of non-psychopaths'?
legendre007, 16.07.2013, 07:36
I'm sorry the question was so long. I thought that if I didn't write the latter two paragraphs, it would be unclear as to why I'm so conflicted on this issue. :-/
DianaHsieh, 16.07.2013, 07:37
No problem! I often appreciate the extra context of a long question... it's the too-short questions that leave me scratching my head!
Tjitze de Boer, 21.08.2013, 04:20
If a psychopath held a morality where others are arbitrarily ascribed value above him he'd probably be inclined to ditch it.
If they intellectually understand the idea of a harmony of interest between the rationally self interested, others can be of actual values to them.
I'm somewhat emotionally stunted myself and Objectivism has seen me give to charity for the first times in my life.

I still close the door on any house to house collectors and ignore people with petitions who walk up to me though, the seemingly intentionally inefficient disturb me.

Leave a comment