Thoughts about Psychopathy and the Moral Law

Hi, everyone, I’m back after a long gap.  Hopefully in this new format the waters will be calmer than they were at the end of last year.

Here are some thoughts I’ve been having recently that surely touches the interface of science and faith, but is not one I’ve seen discussed much as the usual favourites (evolution, climate change, the environment etc).

C.S. Lewis writes in “Mere Christianity” of what he calls the “Moral Law” – the innate sense of right and wrong that we seem to have instilled in us – which gives us a conscience.  Francis Collins, in his book “The Language of God” writes that it was the existence of this Moral Law, and indeed our awareness that we often break this law wantonly, that shattered his atheism and ultimately brought him to faith in Christ.  He argues that it is a pointer towards the existence of God, but warns about falling for the “God of the Gaps” analogy.

I think Paul is writing about the same thing in Romans 2:14-15 thus:

(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)

(I find it wonderful that such a large grain of wisdom is contained in a parenthetical comment!)

However my thoughts have been stretched recently into thinking about psychopathy, and how this fits into the picture.  Psychopathy is characterized as an inability to feel remorse, guilt, conscience, empathy towards victims, and also severe emotional detachment.  Many psychopaths are of course in jail – and it is common to hear a judge condemning a serial killer or rapist as not showing any remorse for their crimes, as if this somehow makes them more evil.  Such people are often condemned as “evil” especially by the press, and of course the acts they commit are indeed evil.

But is this all just a symptom of an illness, which they can’t help?  Dr. Kent Kiehl is a cognitive neuroscientist who is researching into psychopathy using fMRI scanning techniques, on prison inmates, to see if one can find specific brain abnormalities that lead to psychopathic behaviour.  It  is hoped eventually that this might lead to possible treatments to reduce psychopathic tendencies.  The work is described in this New Yorker Article.

I am wondering where all this leaves the moral law argument?  If psychopaths are people without a functioning conscience this is a kind of disability – and it points to the idea that not all of us have an innate sense of right and wrong as Lewis suggests.  The problem is perhaps wider than just prison inmates – prisons contain  “failed psychopaths”, but it is believed there are many more successful psychopaths out there who have succeeded by manipulating and exploiting other people without the normal pangs of conscience and the constraining aspect that most of us feel guilty when we do something wrong.

I don’t have any real answers to this, or indeed any firm conclusion, but I’d be interested to see if anyone else has some interesting insights into this.

10 comments to Thoughts about Psychopathy and the Moral Law

  • Jon Tandy


    I believe this is why Francis Collins warned about a “God of the Gaps” argument in this arena.  If we hang our hopes for the existence of God on a “universal moral law”, and then find out that that law isn’t quite universal, then our faith would be challenged.  Indeed, while I like the moral law argument and believe it has much truth in it, I am uncomfortable with it for other reasons that may be more difficult than the psychopath example. 

    For instance, there are and have been cultures with a radically different sense of moral law, such as those where cannibalism has been accepted as normal.  How can we dismiss these examples as having been inherited by cultural factors, and hold that other cultures receive their “acceptable moral law” from a supernatural source, rather than the other way around?  I believe Collins’ and/or Lewis’ answer to this has been that each of these cultures has an innate sense of right and wrong, even if the specific “right actions” are different.  But this may be begging the question.

    As regards psychopaths, if it turns out that their behavior and corrupted sense of right and wrong is due to a broken pathway in the brain or some other abnomality, I don’t think it does much damage to the “moral law” argument.  In that case it would be seen as simply an abnormal deviation from the norm.  In the same way, God made the eyes for seeing, but some people are born blind.  These are genetic or disease-caused deviations from otherwise working structures.

    But if it turns out that psychopath brains are just the result of different evolutionary developmental pathways, normal but different developments in the brain instead of an obviously “broken” structure in their brains, it could be more damaging to a moral law argument.  I sort of doubt this will turn out to be the case, because I don’t know that there is evidence that psychopathy is genetically heritable. 

    Even if it were heritable, it might still be the result of a broken gene that is passed on, but at what point does a “broken gene” get distinguished from a “normal but different” gene transmission?  Is it in the eye of the beholder, so that those with a “normal” sense of morals get to decide what is normal?  I don’t have the answer to this, without relying to religious or moral law arguments as self-evident.

    Jon Tandy

  • Iain Strachan

    Thanks, John, for the input.
    I think as my ideas continue to evolve on this subject, there are two somewhat different threads to explore, one from the Christian/ethical point of view and one from the scientific point of view.
    (1) From the ethical point of view, it always seems the case that we (the world) regards criminals as somehow more evil if they show no remorse for their crimes.  Here is a typical example, of an 18 year-old who stabbed a drama teacher 21 times.  A Texas ranger who interviewed him commented: “I didn’t know what to expect … There was no remorse; he wasn’t crying. It was more like he was proud of what he had done. I couldn’t believe he had no remorse.”  Interestingly one of the comments on the article says “He’s a psychopath, Duh!”.  But rather than the thinking folks are more evil if they show no remorse, perhaps one might argue (from the Moral Law perspective) that the person who shows remorse was more evil in committing the crime, because they deliberately didn’t listen to the voice of their conscience at the time.  But if the psychopath didn’t have a functioning conscience mechanism to provide moral guidelines, then that seems less culpable rather than more.
    (2) As regards to whether psychopathy is an evolutionary development, that also is an interesting question.  I think one might well argue that a conscience is an evolutionary development (though this does not exclude the idea that it is a gift of God as well).  There is considerable evidence that elephants, who have large brains, can act in an altruistic fashion.  But if the genes (if there are such) that lead to a functioning conscience get corrupted and become pseudo-genes, leading to psychopathic tendencies, the scientific question is does this lead to an evolutionary advantage?  It is believed that there are many more “successful psychopaths” out there than the failed psychopaths one finds in jail.  I understand, for example that many successful entrepreneurs tend towards Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), which appears to be somewhat related to psychopathy, in that such people can be quite ruthless, emotionally manipulative, and lacking in empathy.  A successful psychopath can appear charming and take a lot of people in. This article argues (perhaps somewhat controversially) that women are particularly vulnerable to being taken in by psychopaths.  They have a confidence with women that normal nice guys don’t have because they don’t have a conscience and know how to manipulate people to get what they want.  It is my experience as a volunteer at Samaritans that certain women tend to go from one abusive relationship to another – as if the psychopath knows who is most likely to fall for their charms, and hence propagate their genes.  If it is a heritable trait (which it would be if it is down to a pseudo-gene), then who knows where it may lead?  Various estimates give between 1 and 4 percent of the adult population as being psychopaths.  The majority of these are NOT locked up in prison because they don’t commit crimes such as murder, but get away with telling lies and manipulating vulnerable people.
    Iain Strachan

  • Jason Hine

    In his book People of the Lie, M. Scott Peck explores the notion of evil as seen through his psychiatric practice.  What he finds disturbs him in much the same way that C.S. Lewis was disturbed by the writing of The Screwtape Letters. As I recall, Peck doesn’t explore the possibility of genetic disposition, but he seeks to understand the ethical landscape of people under the influence of evil.  What I noticed when reading People of the Lie was that, for many of his patients, evil seemed to gain control through a series of choices on the part of the individual, with it becoming more and more difficult for them to make (or even discern) “the right choice” as time went on.
    I was able to relate to that experience in both simple and profound ways.  The example that comes to mind is a time when, as a teenager, I lied to my parents about something relatively trivial, but in order to keep the charade up, the lie quickly had to become more elaborate and involved.  Luckily, I was found out and reprimanded.  The first trivial lie seemed harmless, but it was merely the lip of a slippery slope of deception that ensnared me so quickly and effectively that I remember being amazed and reflecting deeply on what had happened (while sitting in my room, grounded).  I remember, too, that at each choice to lie further, I was aware that I also had an “out” — to admit all, to turn myself in, to tell the truth and accept punishment.  But oh, was my mind filled with many seemingly good reasons not to do that, and carefully crafted alternatives that seemed much easier and sure to get me in the clear.  As a result, the “right path” seemed an impossibly thin and rather undesirable way, like the eye of a needle.
    Through my own experience and through works like The People of the Lie, I have repeatedly been amazed at the subtlety with which temptation can present itself, rationalize itself, and unfold itself into full-blown evil. I think that most (but perhaps not all) people do (or did) have a choice to make at one point, on the lip of the slope, but chose wrongly and continued to do so.  It’s possible they did not have caring people close enough to see their descent and intervene; more likely, those close to them encouraged their fall.  And “the right choice” quickly became a faint, seemingly impossible way, one that might require more willpower than most of us possess.
    Jason Hine

  • Wayne Dawson

    Reflecting on this, I was thinking about how such a behavior could even have been (and may even be) a selective advantage in certain contexts.  For example, war.  The sanguine soul can do pretty well as a soldier of fortune, as a cruel dictator, and probably many other “occupations”.
    In China: Tradition and transformation (Houghton Muffin, Boston, 1989), Fairbanks and Reischauer write  
    Thus Chinggis [Genghis Khan] before his death in 1227 had established the basis of a far-flung Eurasian empire by conquering its inner zone across Central Asia.  Many have speculated as to Chinggis’ true personality.  For all his ability, his motives apparently were simple.  “Man’s highest joy,” he reportedly said, “is victory: to conquer one’s enemies, to pursue them, to deprive them of their possessions, to make their beloved weep, to ride on their horses, and to embrace their wives and daughters.” Both in Europe and in Asia the Mongols have been remembered for their wanton aggressiveness, and this trait was certainly present in Chinggis.
    For that time and circumstance of Europe and Asia, the Mongols’ war strategy, attitude and social structure was, in effect, a true “selective advantage”.  This was not unique to the Mongols either.  The cruel and ruthless brutality of the Assyrians was notorious and earned a place in the book of Nahum.  Rome was not exactly a prime example of humanistic rule.  Also, recall the statement by Lemech in Gen 4:24-25.  All through history, and everywhere in the world, I am sure we can find examples of this.  Whatever version of Adam you wish to uphold (physical or figurative), collectively, we are sinners and sin pervades at the periphery of all of our thoughts and actions.  We honor “courage”, and such a person would probably be seen as “courageous”.  It is such as these that often receive honor and praise, wine, women and power in our societies. 
    However, just as Paul wrote in Rom 3:1-8, we are responsible for our deeds.  Our genes are not an excuse for doing evil.  Though, as Christians, we have to hold to a faith that God works through everything for good, it is certainly not because we are good.  Though Samson is given an important place in scripture, he is not particularly honored.  Though we may not have the same problems as Samson, we are born with other problems we must struggle to overcome or work around. A wise Samson would see his folly and seek ways to avoid repetition of the same mistakes.  Yet rarely in our youth, do we perceive what our pea-brained lack of foresight will incur and inflict on the world we live in.  Usually, it is when we are finally humbled that we look up and realize that it is right to live a life of repentance.
    So, whereas we may have some supposed malady, it is still our responsibility to seek ways to overcome it.  Most supposed “maladies” have instances where they are productive.  For example, persistence verse stubbornness, ingenuity verse indolence, frugality verse greed, etc.  It’s also a reflection on how we should consider honoring behaviors that may, in some circumstances, prove right (courage for example), but in other instances could prove detrimental to society (wanton destruction).  Both instances require the setting aside of normal social restraints.  It is courageous to rescue someone from a burning building or free someone from false accusation and imprisonment.  It is depraved to commit untold violence and murder.  Jesus writes that if your eye makes you sin, cut it out.  What he means is don’t actively and intentionally put yourself in situations where you know you will sin.  He who hears his words and does them will obey. When confronted with a tough situation, it’s who you think of first that matters the most.  Let’s hope we all remember our Lord in those moments.
    By Grace we proceed,

  • Thomas Pearson

    It’s not just psychopaths that may confound the “moral law” argument, although they are a profoundly indelible example of the problem.  If we take the reality of sin seriously — including the notion of original sin — then all of us are morally blinkered and unable to discern clearly the precepts of the moral law.  I think Lewis is far too optimistic — and far too Pelagian — in his assessment of human possibilities for lives carried out in accordance with the demands of the moral law.  On a related point, it seems to me that a murderer (say) who shows no remorse might in certain cases be an example of someone who has a highly refined conscience attuned to the requirements of the moral law.  Such a person might show no remorse because, in committing the murder, the person has done precisely what he believes the moral law mandates.  Consider, for example, those who have bombed abortion clinics or killed abortion providers.

    Tom Pearson

  • Mervin Bitikofer

    I seem to recall that Lewis wrote in the “Abolition of Man” about the bleak prospects that would ensue for humanity if we ever reached a state of giving clinical explanations for all our sins.  If a man is diseased in the mind, then we don’t grant him responsibility; we instead try to give him a clinical cure.  Lewis saw this as a robbery of humanity.  Punishment implies there was responsibility.  “Cure” implies that there was disease.  If we ever reached that point, then whoever the practitioners were who would get to decide what is “normal” or “non-deviant” behavior and thoughts would wield immense power, and perhaps the “cure” would even be mandatory.  He vividly pictured just such a state in which Christians (should they be considered deviants by the powers that be) could be put away until they demonstrated recovery (if they ever do) to the satisfaction of those in power.  I know this isn’t quite on the issue of psychopathic or sociopathic behavior, but I think the danger is the same since it is difficult not to see all of ourselves caught under this philosophy of pathology.
    If I wrong my neighbor; please do me the dignity of scolding me — even punishing me.  But don’t inflict on me the cruelty of gently telling me I can’t help myself because my brain chemistry isn’t quite right.  The moment you persuade me of the truth of that you have robbed me of my humanity and ushered me into a helpless and permanent state of victimhood who must then just sit and wait for my pharmaceutical  salvation.
    It is easy for each of us to wish this for ourselves; but when there are obvious and extreme pathologies, [always in someone else, of course, which in itself tells us something] how do we go about encouraging them to get necessary clinical help while at the same time preserving as much responsibility for them as possible so as to preserve their human dignity whether they want it or not?  I struggle with this.

  • Scot Sutherland

    It might not be particularly helpful to measure brain function of already identified psychopaths.  It appears more and more certain that brain function changes with behavior and that brains are much more plastic than we thought.

    An interesting study of brain activation patterns during math related tasks found a significant difference between late adolescents (17-19 years) and adults (28-30) years.  A look at the corpus of brain function studies that attempt to identify math learning disabilities in various countries yields a variety of findings that implicate different neural systems and areas. Assessments of reading disabilities clearly identify phonemic awareness and interventions produce clear positive effects. It’s not surprising that reading curricula and practice across educational systems are quite similar. This is not the case for mathematics. Curricula and practice vary widely and we see the same sort of diversity in brain activation patterns depending upon the country.

    Studies of memory and reflection seem to show that both remembering and reflecting involve inhibitory control (suspension of reaction to a stimulus) that is activated by the same neural systems as emotion.

    If brain function changes with behavior, and both memory and reflection seem to activated in the same brain systems as emotion, it would make sense that repeated acts of violence against others could lead a “hardening of the heart” and lack of remorse. Perhaps this is why childhood cruelty to animals appears to be a marker of psychopathy. It also makes sense that drugs that influence the functioning of these systems would produce different behavior. Does that necessarily mean that the psychopath is not responsible for his/her psychopathic brain function?

    -Scot Sutherland

  • Mervin Bitikofer

    Perhaps the “hardening of the heart” is the equivalent of God “giving them over…” to a way of living.  The only trouble with this is that it happens to infants before they could ever be considered culpable for anything.  Following their “crime” of being born in an orphanage of a war-torn country, many understandably grow up with psychopathic tendencies.  We can certainly trace this to other sin (our failure as cultures and nations to care for each other and our investment in war instead.)  Individuals pass along their victimhood.  I guess there isn’t anything new in that story.  Maybe we’re too focused on the individual and should be looking at our collective culpability that produces such individuals.

  • Scot Sutherland

    There are also people who emerge from those very same environments that do not perpetuate the evils practiced in that environment.  We see this in families of disadvantaged children through the schools.  The existence of individuals that confound the stresses imposed by the environment leads to the question.  “Why do some children in the same environment and who share similar experiences end up committing murder and others end up ministering to murderers in prison?”

  • Mervin Bitikofer

    Noting that it *can* be done [overcoming enormous environmental disadvantage] is certainly a critical step to empowerment.  We teachers employ much the same as we discern whether to attribute a student’s failing performance to a deficiency in our teaching method or exam or instead to insufficient effort by the student.  If everyone in my class misses an exam question, I lean toward the former.  If some got it (especially some for whom math isn’t easy -but they worked hard); then I lean toward the latter explanation.
    But it still plays in the back of our minds whether or not there is more environmental consideration to be had.  Why do some folks emerge nearly unscathed from accidents while others are killed?  Some may chalk it up to chance –others to a sovereign (or capricious?) God, and still others wonder about environmental things we just can’t measure.
    I find the Proverb (6:30) fascinating that tells us men don’t despise a hungry thief, but if he is caught he still must pay back  dearly for his crime.   –sort of an acknowledgment of a desperate situation, yet followed by a refusal to be lenient on the principle of the thing.   Certainly we would never grant sympathy to a psychopathic murderer for his deeds –yet should there be any understanding or at least no surprise from us that some prove capable of such horrible action?

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