Psychopaths should not be punished
Lincoln Frias – member of the International Neuroethics Society, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (CAPES, NEPC-UFMG), Brazil.
Please focus: now, imagine a cute little child with her curious big eyes, her surprising funny remarks, and out of blue kindness. But now imagine her being kicked in the head to death, blood all over the place, despite her helplessness and her painful screams. If you really imagined this scenario, you probably experienced a revulsive feeling in your guts, tension in the jaw and maybe even a bitter taste in your mouth. Now, change the perspective: now it is you who is kicking her, causing her teeth to break, and all the blood coming out of her little body while she cries with a squeaky voice. This new vision probably brought even more aversive feelings, something similar to disgust, and it is possible that you are frowning right now, maybe even considering stop reading. To make things worse, imagine that your mother saw you doing that. This elicits a powerful feeling composed by anxiety, horror and intrusive thoughts of guilt and inadequacy, leaving you in a submissive state of mind.
If you really experienced those feelings, you felt empathy, and something similar to disgust, guilt and remorse. Psychopaths don’t feel any of them. In view of this, the most controversial moral question involving psychopaths is: Should they be punished like ordinary criminals? Or should we feel compassion toward those who perform the cruelest atrocities? Some days ago in this blog Paul Troop was looking for a third way to deal with them. A third way should include:
a) Intensification of research on identification and treatment tools. The lack of mobilization to support research on psychopathy as compared to other psychiatric disorders is striking. This is probably due to the fact that we celebrate hate toward psychopaths and discourage empathy toward them, despite the fact that their condition might be as much out of their control as is the case with Alzheimer´s patients trying to recall recent events and also despite the tremendous losses that psychopaths cause to themselves, in addition to their victims and society as a whole.
b) Creation of programs for early identification and management (and treatment when possible) of psychopaths (an example, although contentious, is The Offender Personality Disorder Strategy of the UK government). Instead of a cure, maybe it is more realistic to aim for ways of reducing their dangerousness. The harder moral questions are: How to avoid false positives? From which age should we start looking for – avoiding creating stigma and self-fulfilling prophecies? The podcast by Gwen Adshead and the post by Tom Douglas published here some days ago shed some light on these questions.
c) Preventive commitment of dangerous psychopaths, but avoiding two moral pitfalls. The Clockwork Orange Pitfall is to try to turn the psychopaths into subhumans, to diminish even more their control over themselves. The aim of criminal policy should be to create or restore their autonomy, not to reduce it even more. The Minority Report Pitfall is to punish someone who hasn’t committed a crime yet. As unfortunate as it is, in the case of dangerous psychopaths indefinite detention could be the only current way to reconcile their interests with the interests of society. Obviously, they ought to be incarcerated, not because they deserve it for what they have done in the past, but because of what they could do in the future.
The central idea is to move away from retribution toward psychopaths. Punishment may not be the best strategy and might not even be morally supported – at least, if punishment is understood as infliction of suffering to compensate for what they have done. As strange as it may sound, psychopaths deserve our compassion. Retributive impulses probably developed during natural selection as a way to deter free-riders. But psychopaths are not sufficiently sensible to threats to be deterrable. They can’t resist their impulses to hurt others as we can.