Robert Hare is one of the world’s leading experts on psychopathy. In his book Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us (New York: Pocket Books, 1993), he provides an in-depth profile of the psychopathic personality based on thirty years of clinical study. In the next couple posts I’m going to springboard off of his discussion to explore some of the disturbing aspects of psychopathy.
One fascinating and deeply disturbing aspect of the psychopath is an inability to experience emotion. Three times in the book Hare refers to a telling phrase describing a psychopathic personality as one who “knows the words but not the music.” In other words, they can describe their interior life in emotional terms and they can describe the emotions of others but they cannot themselves experience emotion (or to the extent where they can it is emotionally stunted and narcissistic). As concrete evidence of the fact Hare refers to research in which EEG graphs record brain activity when the psychopath is shown different words. When the normal person is shown emotionally charged words like “DEATH” there is a noticeable difference in brain activity versus neutral words like “TREE”. But when the psychopath is tested their brain activity between the two words is indiscernable. In other words, they have as little emotional investment in “DEATH” as in “TREE”.
How do we explain this? The psychopath is apparently blind to a fundamental aspect of what it is to be human. He is, as Hare says,
like a color-blind person who sees the world in shades of gray but who has learned how to function in a colored world. He has learned that the light signal for “stop” is at the top of the traffic signal. When the color-blind person tells you he stopped at the red light, he really means he stopped at the top light. He has difficulty in discussing the color of things but may have learned all sorts of ways to compensate for this problem, and in some cases even those who know him well may not know that he cannot see colors.” (129)
While this is a helpful analogy, it also will mask an important disanalogy if we’re not careful. In the remainder of this article I’m going to flesh out the analogy a bit further and then close by highlighting the disanalogy.
A crucial part of moral perception is our knowledge of acquaintance of moral facts. Think of yourself and a psychopath sitting in a chair by the fireplace. I open Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil, a harrowing account of the Rwandan genocide from the perspective of the leader of the UN peace-keeping forces, and then begin to read the following passage:
“Across the street from the mission, an entire alleyway was littered with the bodies of women and children near a hastily abandoned school. As Brent and Stefan were standing there trying to take in the number of bodies, a truck full of armed men roared by. Brent and Stefan decided to head for the church. Stefan went inside while Brent stood by the door to cover him and to keep the APC in sight. They confronted a scene of unbelievable horror–the first such scene UNAMIR witnessed—evidence of the genocide, though we didn’t yet know it call it that. In the aisles and on the pews were the bodies of hundreds of men, women and children. At least fifteen of them were still alive but in a terrible state. The priests were applying first aid to the survivors. A baby cried as it tried to feed on the breast of its dead mother, a sight Brent has never forgotten.” (279)
The passage unsettles you deeply. It does so because of your acquaintance with certain moral facts. You don’t simply grasp propositional content about the inherent evil of the events described and regret for the victims. You also experience a profound revulsion toward the description and an agonizing compassion to help those victimized. Your aquaintance with those moral facts as I read the passage is analogous to the sensory experience of seeing the color red on the streetlight, a fact that is complementary to your perception of the proposition “The light is red”.
Your psychopathic companion’s experience is fundamentally different. He knows that the action narrated in Dallaire’s text is properly described as “wrong”. He readily perceives that fact. But he has no acquaintance experience with the facts. He lacks the revulsion and the compassion. His hearing of the text is flat and monochromatic. Consequently, while that horrific passage impacts you deeply, for the psychopath it rolls like water off a duck’s back.
It is at this point that the depth of the disanalogy becomes clear. A person who lacks an acquaintance knowledge of seeing the color red is clearly lacking something and their conscious life is somewhat impoverished as a result. But a person who lacks an acquaintance knowledge of the horror of the Rwandan genocide, the one for whom the word “genocide” invokes as flat an emotional response as the word “tree”, is a person egregiously impoverished in one of the most basic characteristics of what it is to be human.