If we are to think correctly about the challenge of psychopathy we should seek as close an analogy of the condition as we can to illumine it from the inside. Yesterday I considered the illustration of colorblindness. But as I have reflected on the inadequacies of that analogy it now seems to me that a far better illustration is the condition of ageusia, the inability to detect taste. (To the extent where a person is able to detect some limited emotion the more apposite analogy may be hypogeusia, a partial loss of taste.)
Think of the visceral reaction people have to flavors. In my essay “Vomit flavored jelly beans and other offenses to the natural order” I sought to argue for a parallel between a certain normativity of taste perception and moral perception:
Here’s a simple example. You like peach flavored Jelly Bellys? Good on you. They’re not among my favorites but they are pretty good. You like licorice? I don’t particularly care for them, but I see where you’re comin’ from. But you like vomit flavored Jelly Bellys? You hunt for them in the bowl of novelty beans and your face screws up in disgust every time an anticipated vomit bean turns out to be peach?
Dude, get away from me. There’s somethin’ wrong with you. Really. There is.
The great thing about appealing to perception of taste rather than color is the visceral reaction that comes with our perception of taste. The mere thought of certain flavors set our mouths watering (mmm, peach, vanilla, cinnamon) while the thought of other flavors leave us recoiling in disgust (sour milk? gross! caviar? bleech! vomit? yuck!).
And where does the psychopath fit into all this? In case you were wondering, no he isn’t the one who craves vomit flavored jelly beans. Rather, he is the one who has no taste to guide his way. He follows our lead when it suits him by offering a half-hearted mimicry of our reaction to various flavors. But whether a jelly bean is flavored peach or vomit ultimately makes no difference to him since he is unable to taste either. So if he is looking to snack on something he is as likely to pop one into his mouth as the other.
And that’s what makes the psychopath such a terrifying reality. A world of rich and revolting flavors is inaccessible to him.