Monday 25 October 2021

Psychopaths as Extreme Future Discounters

This post is by Jane Kisbey, PhD student at the University of Birmingham. Jane talks about her research on psychopathy and moral responsibility in this video interview.

Jane Kisbey

Some philosophers have recognised that in psychopaths there appears to be a failing in prudential concern. Philosophers characterise this in various ways, however I offer a new conceptualisation of the psychopath. My hypothesis says that we can best understand psychopaths as extreme future discounters.

This account draws upon Neil Levy’s (2014) account to substantiate my hypothesis. However, there is a crucial difference between mine and Levy’s view. Whilst Levy thinks that psychopaths are unable to imagine what it is like to be a future person, it seems that this is not the case. It is rather that psychopaths cannot see why they should care about their future self, because for psychopaths, it is only what happens now they should care about.

Levy argues that psychopaths have an impaired ability to mental time travel (MTT). Because psychopaths possess an inability to MTT they fail to appreciate prudential reasons. In other words, they cannot understand reasons to act for their own future’s sake. Levy follows Suddendorf and Corballis’s definition of MTT:

[T]he ability to project oneself into the future or the past: to recall, in a distinctively first-person manner, past episodes and to simulate possible future scenarios in which one is personally engaged. (Suddendorf & Corballis, 2008)

MTT is analogous to episodic memory – ordinary people can not only remember that an event occurred, they can remember it “from the inside”. MTT includes imagining, remembering, and projecting oneself in the future.

Unlike Levy, I think that psychopaths are capable of MTT, it is just they do not care about their future self when they do. The main reason why I think that psychopaths retain the capacity for MTT is that when we examine the case studies in the psychiatric literature, it seems obvious that they are able to figure out and understand the consequences of their actions. However, what is striking is their reaction to those consequences. They do not seem to care about those consequences. Hervey Cleckley’s case studies support this idea:

The consequences occurred to him, but rather casually. (Cleckley, 2015)

The essential difference [between psychopaths and non-psychopaths] seems to lie in how much the consequences matter. (Cleckley, 1988)


It strikes me that the problem for psychopaths is not that they cannot conceive of themselves as a persistent being, but instead that they do not care about that future being. They conceptually know that they will be a future being but they just discount that. They care more about the state they are in now. 

So, it is not an inability to imagine what it is like to be a future being. Rather, it is assigning a lower value to that future than the value of your current states. So, psychopaths are extreme future discounters in the sense that they only value their current interests, and as such discount their future interests. They live in the present moment and do not care about their future self. 

Psychopaths can recognise what they will feel at a later stage, however their future feelings are not ‘real’ to them now. What they lack is normal appreciation of anything outside of their current mental states which explains their lack of prudential concern.

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