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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.


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23 Comment on this post

  1. Christopher Wareham

    Psychopaths appear to lack a basic condition of being a member of a moral community – the ability to grasp and apply moral reasons. In this way they appear not to be ‘persons’ in the full sense of that word as commonly applied in ethics. Why should we treat them differently to other non-person transgressors, such as animals that attack humans?

    This is not to say we should treat them inhumanely, but instead to say that we should not treat them as especially morally privileged just because they are members of the human species.

    You’re right that retributive motivations are not strictly appropriate because psychopaths are not morally responsible for their actions. But punishment might at least provide some small solace – even if irrational – to the victims of psychopaths.

    Compassion, in addition to being psychologically difficult for victims, also seems inappropriate. Why should we feel pity or sorrow for humans that are contemptuous of moral persons, and who often don’t feel their condition as bad? What good does compassion do?

    This is perhaps a bit rhetorical, but I would be particularly interested to hear why you think lack of moral responsibility makes compassion appropriate. This doesn’t seem to follow.

    1. Well put: lack of moral responsibility ought not to make compassion appropriate –this would be a sound, normative take on moral responsibility vis a vis social ethos. “Compassion,” for most Brazilians, is taken for granted as a “social virtue” (“solidarity”) that is subtly extended to thugs, crooks, criminals, and law breakers overall simply because of their social status or some haphazard, lottery-like condition. Most Brazilians have thus a hard time making sense of Rawls’s contrast between social and natural lotteries as opposed to the institutional, juridical, political arrangments that should account for the rule of law in a constitutional democracy.

    2. Lincoln and Christopher.

      I think we should make clear from which kind of psychopaths we are talking about.
      Just those that kill, beat and hurt phisically other people?
      But there are some person that do more significant and bad things and we don’t consider them as psychopaths. For example, who are the responsible for the actual economical crises?
      I think that some persons who sold houses for person that really didn’t have conditions to pay them, have done immoral acts. The banks either, because they know that it could be risky. Don’t they?
      And the debits that were sold from one bank to the others what was that?
      Taking some risks, is something common in the marketplace, but there were in this case people that gambled very high and compromised the live of many others that are loosing their jobs now.
      I thing many of these sellers of houses in the States might have known that they are doing something immoral. Many of them can be very dangerous people.
      Aren’t they psychopaths?

      1. Hi Ricardo, thanks for your remarks. Your are right in pointing out that not all psychopaths are violent. In the text, I restricted myself to “dangerous psychopaths.” There is some evidence that there are many psychopaths among high executives. You could take a look at Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare (one of the most influential in psychopathy studies).

    3. Hello Christopher, thank you for stopping by to share your point of view. I think you are right in suggesting that compassion is psychologically difficult for the victims (and I would add, also for third parties) and their lack of feeling their condition as bad is a complicating factor, but I don´t think those reasons make compassion inappropriate. My central idea is that psychopathy should be treated as other mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and severe cognitive deficits. These patients also commit violent crimes, but people usually balance their anger with pity for the offender mental impairments. However, the wickedness and coldness of psychopaths cancel out this attitude in us in their case, I consider this to be inappropriate. So we should feel pity or sorrow for humans that are contemptuous of moral persons, and who often don’t feel their condition as bad because they didn´t choose to be like this, just as schizophrenics didn´t choose their condition. The good compassion does is to help us keep a mind not obliterated by anger and an attitude of empathic concern, what seems to be necessary in devising ways to study, prevent, manage, treat, and minimize the effects of that mental condition.

    4. Persons accused of crimes should be treated equally under the law, including as to sentencing when convicted. We can’t make an a-priori assumption that a given offender may have had diminished capacity in whatever way, though we can take testimony from psychiatrists in particular cases, and use it in judging the cases at hand.

      That said, the legal concept of diminished capacity, at least in the United States, is that the individual is unable to “determine right from wrong,” by which is meant, determine that an act is unlawful and will incur a penalty. Here we are not interested in someone’s emotional capabilities or lack thereof, only in their capacity for the very simplest of reasoning: understanding that a rule exists and that breaking the rule incurs penalties.

      As for “solace for victims,” no, we can’t make that part of the judicial process. The reductio ad absurdum is obvious: “I am so distraught that the defendant murdered my child, that the only way I will have any solace is for him to be tortured slowly to death!” “The court hereby rules that, pursuant to the Victim Solace Act of 2014, the defendant is sentenced to be tortured slowly to death.”

      Compassion for offenders does not entail the necessity of softer penalties for those whose offenses were impelled by innate characteristics (shall we apply that to child molesters?).

      The rational criteria for criminal sentences are, a) protection of the public from further acts of crime that the defendant has demonstrated the capacity to commit by having done so, and b) deterrence of others from committing similar crimes.

      If anything, a crime impelled by an innate characteristic that constitutes a danger to others, should be grounds for indefinite detention in a psychiatric hospital. This on the grounds that the defendant has shown the incapacity to restrain themselves from criminally harming others, thus they are an active danger to others until they can gain the capacity to restrain their own behavior.

      I believe it is highly likely that research on entactogenic (empathy-inducing) drugs will lead to the development of medications that can treat sociopathy and possibly psychopathy. At that point it will be possible to forego lifelong detention of criminal sociopaths in hospital (or life sentences to prison for crimes that might otherwise merit shorter sentences), in favor of lifelong mandatory outpatient treatment.

  2. Excellent posting, Lincoln ! The problem we face in Brazil, though, is that impunity is the rule and punishment the exception. Before you even get to that level of rescuing, through public policies, the autonomy and dignity of psychopaths –as suggested in (c)–, such policies still need to ensure the minimum standard of public safety for a civil society that has become hostage to thugs and crooks — and one cannot even speak of “thugs,” “crooks” or “criminals” in Brazil’s academia (esp. in our Law Schools) without being challenged to justify the very taxonomy and use of basic concepts such as punishment, retribution, penalties etc. Thus metaethical and normative-ethical discussions seem totally out of touch with our social reality in Brazil — very different from English, American or any other society with a consolidated rule of law (I believe this is definitely not our case down here!)

    1. Thank you very much for your comments, Nythamar! I agree with you that this is not the more pressing Brazilian criminal policy´s issue, but I disagree that it is practically irrelevant. The slowness of Brazilian judicial system turns it inefficient even in relation to deterrable people. On the opposite side, the illegal drug trade is so profitable and attractive, that around 50% of our 500.000 prison population are there for crimes related to illegal drug trade. Beside this, there is social inequality, a well-known powerful criminogenic factor. So, you are right in defending that reform of criminal policy should look at actions such as the speed of sentencing, drug legalization, and social inequality (all three of them have improved in recent years). But the movement from a backward-looking criminal policy (retributivism) towards a forward-looking one (deterrence and rehabilitation utilitarianism) is also essential to improve the situation here – especially preventive measures. And the psychopaths are just the more evident mistake of retributivism.

  3. The relevant question is: can psychopaths’ criminality be somewhat prevented by the application of laws to them? If so, the laws should apply to them equally. Free-will is an illogical thing, what we have is a will dependent on the physical constraints of our decision-making machinery. For this reason, there is no real guilt, and therefore the question of having guilt or not isn’t relevant, but rather the capability of laws to prevent crime.

    The intent of incarceration and punishment should never be to inflict suffering, but just to serve as a psychological deterrent to the practice of crimes, and to prevent further crimes from dangerous individuals (who already commited them). Many psychopaths don’t commit crimes, though.

    1. I completely agree with you Jonatas, thank you for stopping by. The answer to your question is: some psychopaths are deterrable by the threat of punishment for prudential reasons. But as a group they are less deterrable than the general population because they have deficits in fear responses. The hard problem is to identify those who are not sensitive to threats.

  4. Just for the sake of contextualization: in Brazil, as far as I know, psychopaths are considered legally responsible for their actions, while those suffering from schyzophrenia are not (thus having the legal status of “incapable” , just like children do). I personally have some difficulty understanding the criteria for that.

    1. Hi De Pietro, thanks for your comment. I completely agree with you. The difference between psychopaths and schizophrenics for the general public and the judicial system seems to be that wickedness seems to be a property of the character of the psychopath not a transient condition or an impairment. And the advance made by neuroscience is to make salient that psychopaths really have serious mental deficits outside their control and not by their fault.

  5. I think you brought in a good point here. I totally agree that the ultimate “intent of incarceration and punishment should never be to inflict suffering, but just to serve as a psychological deterrent to the practice of crimes.” Now, I’d go on to say that the “question of having guilt or not” is to be differentiated from the procedural, juridical assessment that, in light of evidence, fair decision-making processes, and scientific analyses, concludes whether a person is “guilty or not guilty,” meaning that she or he must be punished. I think that Antonio Damasio’s takes on emotions, reason, and consciousness are extremely enlightening for this kind of social, existential predicament. I wrote a short essay on the cultural, subjective sense of guilt, available here.

    1. Nythamar, I would say that Ricouer´s compatibilist proposal – endorsed in your essay – of a passive responsibility (“victims in the very act that makes us guilty”) is interesting as a description of how subjects usually feel about their actions, but that that this experience of guilt should play no normative role. Imagine a father have killed his daughter in a terrible and inevitable accident, it would be strange (even immoral) if he didn´t feel any guilt, but he should not be punished neither by the accident neither by his not feeling guilty.

  6. Marco Antonio Oliveira de Azevedo

    Good thought! But I don’t think that if psychopaths were not indictable that the consequence would be “compassion” to them. There still be a case for justice, compensatory or restorative. Let’s think about the problem of retributive justice again.

    Perhaps “retributive impulses” are evolved mechanisms aroused by empathy and directed to persons with a same capacity. As Nietzsche thought, one of its goals is to produce resentment and guilt. If it is true, then retributive impulses directed to psychopaths are in fact equivocal (an error theory could be applied here). But a social practice can have an original function, and further be adapted to another social function (like in biology, a wing can have an original function, but can be adapted to another, like what occurs with ostriches).

    Today, it’s very plausible that punishment in criminal law does not have the social function of retribution anymore (at least as its main function). Some nations and States still punish in a retributive way persons with severe mental disorders if there is evidence that the criminal defendant knew what that she was doing a crime and its consequences. For example, in 1999, a schizophrenic pushed a woman to death onto the New York City subway tracks in front of an oncoming train. The jurors considered him mentally ill but guilty since he understood the nature and meaning of this action and he said to the police that he knew that his action was wrong. In some sense, the jurors treated him like they would treat a psychopath. They decided for a retributive punishment. But even if the man weren’t considered convicted by the jury (suppose we turn to accept that even psychopaths are not indictable), they could impose that the man should be confined for treatment of his mental disorder (being it schizophrenia of a psychopathic disorder) in a judiciary institution, perhaps for his entire life (suppose that the mental disease is incurable, as it’s true about schizophrenia and psychopathy). One can argue that the outcome is the same: the man should be imprisoned anyway (in a penitentiary in the first case—if the jury think he is indictable for the case; or in a forensic mental hospital if he is not indictable). But if the man should deserve our compassion, what should we recommend for his case? Anyway, we likely would recommend forced treatment, and since it’s forced— perhaps against the man’s will—it should not be done in a regular mental health institution. Since it’s forced, it wouldn’t be socially acceptable to obligate parents or relatives for the responsibility of ensuring that the man is not free.

    The conclusion is that the retributive part of punishments is one besides other aims, and perhaps in some cases only a secondary effect, of the penalty of imprisonment in criminal law (and not its main aim, even in felonies). In restricting freedom, the jury is actually trying to prevent the occurrence of new crimes. What we should think is: why to punish with imprisonment crimes that we are convinced that the likelihood that the indicted will commit the crime again is low or bellow a normal threshold? See the case of a man that commits a homicide in an exceptional moment of fury, or by the exceptional effect of alcohol. This is perhaps a candidate for mere retribution. But perhaps judges could devise other better ways of punishment for those cases (think about the ideas of the restorative justice in criminal law or in another compensatory means, including money, for the sake of attaining retribution to offenses). The case is worst for the mental diseased, for the condition is not under her voluntary control. A mental diseased can be a candidate then for both kinds of punishment, the retributive and the preventive. If we had effective treatments, compensatory or restorative punishments would be the only just punishments for those cases.

    1. Thanks for your excellent comments, Marco. I agree with you that retribution is not the only reason capable of justifying punishment understood more broadly (as an answer to a crime). Actually, I am very sympathetic to compensatory or restorative justice, and they would certainly apply in the case of psychopaths – especially due to the educational intent this kind of system includes. My point was just that punishment – understood as the infliction of pain in response to past act (retribution) – is not morally appropriate in case of psychopaths, and that we should look to more efficient and rational ways of dealing with them. But you are certainly right is calling attention that this does not exhaust the reasons for punishment broadly understood (as the answer to a crime).

  7. A great many people are psychopaths! Philosophers should spend more time reading the news:

    Most people do not react to young children being harmed even when they are conscious of it, I think one has to examine a person’s development of individuality–marquis de Sade even once saved a child from being run over by a cart drawn by forces and he was punished for most of his adult life for being a ‘psychopath!’

    Not many philosophers actually care about pain or do much to stop it. Pretend logic arguments do nothing


    Dear Colleagues,

    I don’t know if I am jumping too late in the discussion. I was out of home giving a short course and an invited talk in Neuroethics at the Federal University of Uberlândia. I am very busy but I will jump into the discussion. Maybe I will start a paper on the subject based on my post. As Lincoln sent an email to the list of the Work Group on Epistemology of Neuroscience and Neuroethics, I presume he is authentically interested in our position. So, I will make an effort to answer his posting taking in consideration the ethical importance of the subject.

    First of all, in the very conceptual level Frias’ original post strikes me as very counterintuitive. The post name is “Psychopaths should not be punished”. Later on, the author states “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”. In my view, (and I believe this view is shared by numerous people), no punishment stronger than incarceration could be seriously taken in account, even for murders. Thus, if incarceration can be understood as the stronger possible penalty (as it is the case in any juridical system that avoids penalty death, torture etc – the great majority in Western Countries), they are already being punished in the total extent of our morally defensible juridical power. I partially understand the motivation of the post, despite the lack of clarity of its line of thought: a defense of a non-retributive model of justice towards psychopaths. Ok. I completely agree with that. And I agree mainly because a retributive model of justice sounds primitive to me. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and, eventually, a electrocution for a shot…

    The problem is the way in which this idea is defended, sounding contradictory, if Frias’ above-cited two sentences are simply taken together. If someone aims to defend a non-retributive model of penalty, penalty death seems to be excluded. The only theoretical option (an exception) would be a non-retributive but strongly utilitarian account that does not seem to be defended by Frias. The same would apply to any pain infliction as can be noticed by the following Frias’ assertion on the original post: “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.” Thus, I believe Frias would better like to defend psychiatric facilities for treatment of mentally ill in-patients, in the case of the very dangerous subjects. Maybe, institutions designed with especially secured wings for those indeed dangerous, but obviously with a more humanistic structure and trying to offer the possible treatments. But this is not incarceration in a default correctional facility. And, probably, in the case of less dangerous patients some form of lighter surveillance with treatment, could be what Frias’ would like to imply.

    Even in the U.S., there are various emerging alternative judicial strategies for the Mentally Ill. A crescent number of Mental Health Courts are being created in different jurisdictions, being Broward County the first Mental Health Court in the U.S.
    As Okasha states:
    The US Bureau of Justice reports that an estimated 16% of the two million prisoners in the US are mentally ill, often because there is nowhere else for them to go. So serious is the problem that one jail in Los Angeles has become in effect the biggest mental institution in the country”. (World Psychiatry. 2004 February; 3(1): 1–2.).
    Thus, the recently created mental health courts are trying to minimize this abusive reality towards the mentally ill.
    So far, I have not said a word on my point of view on psychopaths’ judicial strategies. I was helping the author of the original post to rearrange his own arguments. The only statement expressing my opinions was a very general one, concerning lifelong incarceration as the maximum morally acceptable punishment. And indeed, I believe the author of the original posting must feel compelled to agree with me considering all his statements in his original text.

    Now, let me attack the question in a slightly more technical way.
    First of all, I think it is very coarse-grained in terms of ontology or taxonomy to talk about psychopaths as unique category. It is even permissive, ethically speaking, to use such a hypernym to characterize a whole group of similar but not identifiable subgroups into a unique category. Why? Because they will probably be treated as a whole if they are defined as a unique juridical category. Thus, disentangling and categorically dissociating types and subtypes of Psychopathy is important not only for getting knowledge of its various forms, etiologies and possible treatments but as well to avoid labeling anyone with the slightest similarity to stereotype, stigmatizing people for not being precise. Koenings et al. have published a brilliant paper (Mol. Psychiatry, 2011) in which they deal with those categorical problems:
    “(1) the use of between-group analyses (psychopaths vs non-psychopaths) as well as correlational analyses (normal variation in ‘psychopathic’ traits), (2) discrepancies in the criteria used to classify subjects as psychopaths and (3) consideration of psychopathic subtypes”.
    Just to give a clue on that ( mostly based on the above-cited paper but also in other various references I came across), just in terms of etiology, there are two types of psychopathy – primary and secondary – being the first attributed to innate causes and the latter considered an acquired feature due to social-affective problems. Beyond the different etiology – which means philosophically a different origin or a different causal structure (and exactly because of this factor) we could observe some different ways of treating those two types of patients and I would say that they could have different levels of authorship of their crimes.

    In terms of its relationship to anxiety we have the low and highly anxious Psychopaths. And they have various differences in various lab measures suggesting again that their levels of instinctual and emotional processing, memory and frontal capabilities could be considerably different . Those evidences suggest that those two subtypes are not only physiologically but also behaviorally different.

    Beyond the serious problems of false positives raised by Frias, we still have the false negatives. If the first affects wrongly diagnosed people, labeling them with such a detrimental identification, the latter can generate two types of bizarre consequences – punishment of people with basis in their wrongly diagnosed normality or, worse, lack of care and surveillance toward real psychopaths that somehow were not mapped by the tests. The PCL-R, a checklist for diagnosing psychopathy has been strongly criticized and appears to be very problematic. There is a bunch of literature showing its limitations, notwithstanding it still being considered the juridical and even clinical gold standard.

    Something that struck me negatively as well in Frias’ description of a psychopath crime was the complete lack of consideration of frontal capabilities or impairments in psychopaths. Maybe that is due to a recent trend to overemphasize emotion to the detriment of reason in allegedly experimental philosophy (sometimes still based on purely ideological armchair arguments and oriented by modern empiricism instead of being empirically de facto oriented). Nevertheless, emotion is surely fundamental to morals, despite the hasty hype with any emotional explanation that thrills the old style empiricists disguised (maybe with Groucho Marx nose and glasses) as experimental philosophers. Naturally, psychopathy is first and foremost related to the emotional incapability. Nevertheless, recent studies (as for example Shamay-Tsoory et al. 2010) had shown the role of OFC (orbitofrontal cortex) impairment (especially in its connection with amygdala, as expectable) in criminal offenders with psychopathic traits.

    Previous publications as Tassy et al and Glenn at al. (both from 2009 in Mol. Psych. Letter to Editors) trigger a load of controversy on that theme as well. Although, psychopaths (in the great majority of studies with lab measures) do not differ from control (normal) people in terms of their frontal capacities. More acute experimental design is needed to effectively identify the extent of higher-control capacities and veto in psychopaths.
    And this last point makes me think about the case of imputability of schizophrenics. Some of their subtypes have less brain activity in higher-control or repression areas them psychopaths (some subtypes have more activity – it is necessary to make the categorical separation to understand what is going on in each of the cases) due to their hypofrontality, but as they express their emotions, provoking anger in so-called normal people, they are sometimes not so protected by laws (as it is the case in Brazil) concerning imputability and non-imputability, as psychopaths. Why? Because we can negatively empathize with people that had strong emotions and could not control them. At least, once in the life we felt that we could be more controlled and we felt guilty because of that. But we feel that we never crossed the boundaries of abuse and those who crossed must be punished. In the same line, most of those severe cases of schizophrenic people, under pressure, would show some psychological guilt, differently from severe cases of psychopathy. At the same time, lay people, exactly for understanding schizophrenics as closer to them, think that they have to be punished. In their simpleminded reasoning if they were capable of controlling their own selves, those schizophrenics, more similar to them and thus more empathically viable, would have to whether be capable of controlling their selvesas well or have to face the law. Summarizing, lay people would say something like “I’ve got so mad with my husband as the guilty part of the case did, but I didn’t shot him to death even with all his hanky-panky with the neighbor” But the cold-blooded psychopaths generate the opposite response: “Don’t you see that young guy is mental? He described the murdering of his whole family without any trace of emotion in court. He is obviously abnormal. He does not even understand what was going on!” Empathy of so-called normal people or the lack of it by allegedly abnormal subjects cannot be the only judge for such an intricate moral dilemma, otherwise we will generate a “GOOBLE-GOBBLE – ONE OF US! PITFALL”!
    Let me clarify that I am not stated yet anything that could be a definitive expression of my belief whether or not psychopaths should be incarcerated. My conditional judgement is the following: First of all, if they could be incarcerated that would be the most radical punishment or correctional measure I can possibly admit in any case. If it is possible to manage their risk of being violent towards others in a more humanistic type of mental institution, that would be commendable. Nevertheless, psychopaths are closer to what Freud calls criminals than schizophrenics:
    “Two traits are essential in a criminal: boundless egoism and a strong destructive impulse. Common to both of these, and a necessary condition for their expression, is absence of love, lack of an emotional appreciation of (human) objects” (Dostoievsky and Parricide, 1928).
    If Freud is minimally correct we are abusive towards schizophrenics and permissive towards psychopaths.
    In order to solve this kind of moral puzzle we need serious interdisciplinary work, made by philosophers with profound technical knowledge of the state of the art in neuroscience and psychology in collaboration with neuroscientists and psychologists with deep ethical and meta-ethical acquaintance with the best conceptual work. Best-sellers reading will not suffice.

  9. Mograbi, thank you very much for such a careful answer to my post – three times its length! Unfortunately I could not do justice to the richness of your comment here, maybe we could read each other article later. However, here are some remarks:
    – I agree with you that it is really possible that “psychopathy” is not the best construct we could come out with, and the PCL-R really has its enemies. Notwithstanding, both yield good predictive power in the lab, in the clinic, and in courts. Let´s continue to monitor the development of new constructs. By the way, psychopathy will continue to be absent in DSM-V.
    – You are right in stressing that I focus in emotion, and I am still unconvinced of the role of reasoning deficits in psychopathic traits. Evidence of the role of emotion comes not only of self-report and structured interviews (PCL-R), but also from physiological studies (e.g., skin conductance), lesion studies, and fRMI. Some parts of the psychopath´s brain which are especially linked to emotions in normal controls show decreased activity and there are also fewer connections between them. Parsimonious theories try to explain psychopathy as an impairment in attentional mechanisms (Newman) or in fear response (Blair). Other theories propose that it is necessary to investigate more distributed processes, such as those of paralimbic structures (Blair) or even the whole moral brain (which is composed by a fronto-temporo-subcortical system; de-Oliveira-Souza) (see references below).
    – I completely share your concern about the differential treatment between schizophrenics and psychopaths.
    – Concerning retribution and incarceration, I am very satisfied with your supposition that “Frias would better like to defend psychiatric facilities for treatment of mentally ill in-patients, in the case of the very dangerous subjects. Maybe, institutions designed with especially secured wings for those indeed dangerous, but obviously with a more humanistic structure and trying to offer the possible treatments. But this is not incarceration in a default correctional facility. And, probably, in the case of less dangerous patients some form of lighter surveillance with treatment, could be what Frias’ would like to imply”. I would only add that the move away from retributivism implies several changes: careful monitoring of recidivism (Brazil does not have ANY national data on that – only this year CNJ commissioned a study by IPEA), simple measures such as hot water during shower in penitentiaries (not required by law here), stopping public celebrations of retribution by authorities and the media (this sounds very utopian) etc.
    Again, thank you very much for such a detailed assessment of my post.

    Anderson, N. E., & Kiehl, K. A. (2011). The psychopath magnetized: insights from brain imaging. Trends in cognitive sciences.

    de Oliveira-Souza, R., Hare, R. D., Bramati, I. E., Garrido, G. J., Azevedo Ignácio, F., Tovar-Moll, F., & Moll, J. (2008). Psychopathy as a disorder of the moral brain: fronto-temporo-limbic grey matter reductions demonstrated by voxel-based morphometry. Neuroimage, 40(3), 1202-1213.

    1. Dear Frias,

      – About the lenght of my post I already apologize in the jokingly corrupted form of my name in the way of a pseudonym (or a heteronym in the sense of literature, especially Pessoa) with each I sign it. lol. That was the minimal extent I needed to make any sense of such an intricate subject. I would like to write even more but time is becoming scarcer each day

      – About categorization: PCL-R is just one of the problems. More precise categories are necessary for new empirical studies and more precisely oriented design to address exactly the dilemmas and pitfalls of such an intricate subject.

      – On emotion and frontal lobes capacity – As said in my first post “Naturally, psychopathy is first and foremost related to the emotional incapability” But we cannot rule out other possible networks without further scientific inspection. My question was not with reasoning in a metaphysical sense but with frontal capacities in terms if its capability of modulating and controlling more basic stimuli, as I clearly stressed – and the papers you cited just emphasize my concern. The papers you quoted does not support lymbic system as the unique factor for psychopathy. They attempt to show a more complete network. Just to give a clue on that, the paper you cited (Oliveira-Souza, R., Hare, R. D., Bramati, I. E., Garrido, G. J., Azevedo Ignácio, F., Tovar-Moll, F., & Moll, J. – 2008) shows that anterior temporal cortex (aTC), medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC), lateral orbitofrontal cortex (latOFC), frontopolar cortex (FPC) and the superior temporal sulcus region (STS) can have a role in this equation. In case of Anderson, N. E., & Kiehl, K. A. (2011) the same perfectly applies -the orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala, and the anterior and posterior cingulate and adjacent (para)limbic structures are addressed. So some more frontal areas are involved in connection to the lymbic system. And your description I criticized seems to be covering only the lymbic system. The connectivity I was concerned is clearly showed by the papers you cited and they just favor my views! Nevertheless, more and more reseacrh is necessary to address this intricate subject. The relationship of emotions and capability of control is a very intricate subject that connects different levels- instinctual processing (in a lower level) and more frontal processing as forms of higher-cognitive control (in a higher level) . Yet, I agree that emotion is a central and fundamental key to psychopathy – but refining the understanding of networks connectivity and addressing the role of higher-control areas can help us understanding the possibility of imputability or not.

      – I think we could make some progress at least in defining the variables in our equation…



      1. Yes, sure emotion should not be understood as limbic “free-floating” states . According to the fronto-temporo-mesolimbic integration model of moral sensitivity proposed by Moll et al. (the framework of de-Oliveira-Souza, 2008), moral emotions are composed of basic emotions (ultimately derived from attachment and aversion instincts) plus context-dependent representations in the PFC plus social knowledge (thus the activation of right superior anterior temporal lobe, for abstract concepts, and STS, for perceptual social knowledge – facial expressions etc.) – speculatelly, these regions are functionally linked by temporal binding. The specific moral emotions depend on simultaneous activations on more specific regions (guilt on frontopolar cortex, indignation on DLPFC etc.).
        So, morality (and psychopath´s disfunction) is emotion-driven, but emotions are not arbitrary bodily states, they incoporate many information processing resources (what is sometimes called “cognitive” or “rational” capacities). By the way, I am currently fascinated by results such as this.

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