Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Conscience as the Rational Deficit of People with Psychopathy

This post is by Marijana Vujošević (pictured above), who is working on a project on Immanuel Kant’s moral psychology at the University of Groningen (The Netherlands). In this post Marijana summarises her approach in a new paper 'Conscience as the Rational Deficit of Psychopaths'. 

While writing my paper on Kant’s theory of conscience ('Kant on Conscience: The Judge in the Mirror'), I had become very interested in issues regarding lack of conscience and immorality in psychopathy.

Psychopaths are commonly described as individuals without conscience. Even if we weaken this claim by stating that they possess an underdeveloped conscience (which I propose we do), we still need to explain whether this impairment affects their competence in judging moral issues and in being motivated to act morally, and if so how. In spite of the usual portrayal of psychopaths, moral psychologists do not find the link between psychopaths’ impaired conscience and their moral dysfunction worthy of examination; conscience is hardly ever mentioned in the current debate between rationalists and sentimentalists as to whether the immorality of psychopaths presents a case in favour of sentimentalism.

Drawing on a conception of conscience found in the work of Kant, I develop a theoretical framework in order to examine whether the moral flaws of psychopaths are traceable to their dysfunctional conscience. According to my Kantian account, conscience is the capacity of moral self-appraisal that triggers certain emotional responses. It is to be identified neither with our moral intuitions about right and wrong, nor with certain self-evaluative feelings.

Kant holds that we are incapable of knowing through our feelings whether a particular action is morally right or wrong, and he does not identify conscience with guilt and relief. When understood as the reflective capacity for moral self-assessment that triggers certain feelings, conscience proves to be a fruitful tool for explaining psychopathic moral incompetence. The explanation based on this understanding of conscience finds its evidence in related empirical studies.

In my paper, I first show how the unrealistic moral self-assessment of psychopaths affects their competence in judging moral issues and in being motivated to act morally. Then, I highlight how focusing on this specific rational deficit of psychopaths significantly modifies the status of rationalism within the contemporary dispute as to whether psychopathy supports sentimentalism alone. When conscience is understood as the capacity for moral self-assessment, the specific rational deficit which has remained unheeded in the debate between rationalists and sentimentalists, becomes fully visible. I identify this deficit in the body of empirical and theoretical literature on psychopathy and show that it offers a possible explanation of moral incompetence in psychopathy.

The Kantian model for understanding conscience supplies a novel rationalist account of psychopaths’ moral incompetence, which is, for example, different from the one provided by Jeanette Kennett. Paying closer attention to psychopaths’ impaired moral self-reflection therefore puts a new tool in the hands of rationalists to defend their position against the objections raised by sentimentalists. A telling example is Shaun Nichols’s (2002) criticism: He claims that rationalists fail both to explain what kind of rational capacity underlies the capacity for making the moral/conventional distinction, and to determine the cognitive mechanism that psychopaths lack, which is needed for the correlation between moral judgement and moral motivation.

Nichols argues against rationalist attempts to provide these explanations in terms of perspective-taking ability, general rational ability, or the idea that psychopaths just have to be convinced of the claims of morality. By appealing to the Kantian conception of conscience, I reply to Nichols’s arguments and demonstrate how rationalists can account for that cognitive mechanism. In my opinion, that mechanism is conscience.

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