Do Psychopaths Know Right From Wrong?
The experts all agree that psychopaths are criminally responsible. They understand that they are breaking the law, and they know that the justice system punishes that behavior. But what a lot of people overlook is that knowing legal from illegal is quite different from knowing right from wrong.
Intuitively, the majority of people get the distinction between illegal and wrong. They know something can be illegal but not wrong (eg stealing a loaf of bread when you're starving) and that something can be wrong but not illegal (eg pretending to be someone's friend so you can set them up for humiliation).
Psychopaths don't get this distinction. Fisher & Blair (1998) did an interesting study into children with psychopathic tendencies. Boys (8-16 years old) at boarding schools for children with emotional/behavioral difficulties were divided into two groups - psychopaths and non-psychopaths - based on their scores on a questionnaire filled out by their teachers. Each child was told stories about a character breaking the rules. Four of these stories involved harm to another person, such as an aggressive act or the destruction of other people's property. The other four were things like walking out of class halfway through or talking while the teacher is talking. Both psychopaths and non-psychopaths agreed that each story involved someone doing something wrong. Then they were told that one day, the teacher said that the particular behavior was OK. On that day, would that behavior be morally permissible?
Here's where the difference showed up. Non-psychopaths said that hurting others or destroying property was wrong, even if the teacher said it was OK, but that things like walking out of class or talking in class were only wrong if the teacher had a rule against them. Psychopaths made no such distinction - if the teacher said it was OK to hit your classmates, they thought it was OK to hit your classmates.
And it's not just that they don't care about right and wrong, or have an unconventional moral code. Blair (1995) administered the same test to adult violent criminals (mostly murderers) who scored high or low on psychopathy. Unexpectedly, many of the psychopaths said that harmful actions were still wrong, even if they weren't against the rules. But they said the exact same thing about the non-harmful rule infractions as well. These psychopaths, in hopes of getting parole, were trying to present themselves as reformed. But even when they tried to fake morality, they still didn't get the basic idea. They didn't understand what made hitting someone different from leaving class halfway through.
I don't think psychopaths choose to be bad instead of good. Instead, I think psychopaths don't understand what 'bad' and 'good' actually mean. Not that this means we should tolerate their behavior - it's important to protect victims whether or not the perpetrator understands what they're doing. But there's a difference between stopping someone from doing harm and condemning them for bad choices. I really don't think psychopaths have a choice about being bad, because in order to chose not to be bad, you need to understand what 'bad' is. The world must be confusing to them, with people shrugging off some things and getting very upset about other things, when those things really don't seem all that different.