Understanding psychopaths
June 23, 2011 3:18 PM   Subscribe

Is it possible a psychopath can be a "good " person? Or at least ethical? By this I mean purposefully moral.
posted by beckster to Human Relations (24 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
If I understand correctly, if they had a desire to be a "good person" it would mean they weren't actually a psychopath.
posted by geegollygosh at 3:24 PM on June 23, 2011

I once knew a psychopath with a dual diagnosis of ASD who had a strong Christian faith. He desperately craved to kill someone - a woman or a child - but knew that doing so was against the rules in a big way. He had to exercise a great deal of self-control all the time and isolated himself at home playing his violin. He begged to be incarcerated as criminally insane, but this wasn't possible as he hadn't committed any crimes.

I would describe that man as "purposefully moral" though he was extremely antagonistic and unpleasant to be around.
posted by tel3path at 3:24 PM on June 23, 2011 [15 favorites]

See: The Psychology of Dexter.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:26 PM on June 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

It's my understanding that psycopathy is defined by irrational and impulsive behavior. Antisocial personality disorder definitely requires behavior that discounts the idea of a subject being a consistently, purposefully moral person.
posted by SMPA at 3:27 PM on June 23, 2011

I would think this is going to heavily depend on your own set of ethics and morals, and also upon your perception of "good". How do you define these things? In my own opinion, if said psychopath does not cause harm to living things/beings, I might define him/her as "good".
posted by AlliKat75 at 3:28 PM on June 23, 2011

DarlingBri brings up an interesting point... If your psychopath is killing for 'good', does that mean s/he is still a good person?
posted by AlliKat75 at 3:31 PM on June 23, 2011

posted by novalis_dt at 3:33 PM on June 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

No, murder is murder. Also, Dexter isn't *killing* because they are bad people, he is killing them because he wants to. He chooses bad victims because he was trained to do so, and because it makes it easier to get away with.

A psychopath can be a good person if they figure out and decide not to hurt people. There are probably plenty of them among us, we only ever hear about the ones who do go on killing sprees.
posted by gjc at 3:34 PM on June 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Impulse control difficulty is a marker for psychopathy, but so is acting in one's best interest. If it was in someone's best interest to follow the rules (whatever rules those might be) and act in a way that might be commonly defined as "good", then yes, it's certainly possible.

You might be interested in the "Tony" segment of this episode of This American Life. It raises some questions that are similar to your questions.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:37 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think it's possible for a psychopath to feign morality and 'goodness' in order to get away with certain things more easily. A knight in shining armor kind of thing if it serves some kind of purpose.

But in terms of really feeling those emotions / having those morals - I don't think so.
posted by mleigh at 3:45 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think there's a compelling argument that a person's "goodness" is defined only by their actions, not by their thoughts. So if someone who was diagnosed as "psychopathic" only did things you would otherwise consider moral, than I would say that yes, they are a moral person.
posted by auto-correct at 3:50 PM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is it possible a psychopath can be a "good " person?

I once saw a documentary about "The iceman" Richard Kuklinski. In the end the psychiatrist explained to him, that he is a psychopath (e.g. does not feel the pain of others and in his case, does not know fear) but that the path he chose was not obligatory. There are people with his condition that are able to perform in useful ways to society. I think he even mentions that he could have made a career in law enforcement...
posted by yoyo_nyc at 3:51 PM on June 23, 2011

Yes, but in the case of Kuklinski, if he'd chosen a different path, he wouldn't have been a diagnosable psychopath.

On the other hand, the outward good behaviour of a psychopathic person is always done for self-serving reasons and in practice this means inevitable harm. This is actually very well portrayed by Dexter. He doesn't want to do harm to anyone but his victims. On the other hand, he doesn't deceive himself that his killing is driven by any prosocial instinct, the criminality is just an excuse for killing people while maintaining the illusion of doing no harm. Interestingly, the principle of doing no harm actually does seem to hold some meaning for Dexter. Unfortunately, by the end of the fourth season, seeing the sum total of the devastation around him, Dexter has to face facts: "I'm what's wrong."

I've known people who I think had strong psychopathic tendencies, though that's just my suspicion. One of them was very stealthy and conniving and seemed to enact very carefully thought out plans that could be pulled off in plain sight but detectable only to the target; and if the target wasn't emotionally engaged according to plan, well then they would never even notice they were being targeted and would be completely unaffected. Suffice it to say - didn't work like that.
posted by tel3path at 4:03 PM on June 23, 2011

You might want to read/listen to these NPR pieces that aired somewhat recently:

Can A Test Really Tell Who's a Psychopath?
This piece covers the PCL-R test and the controversy behind it.

Creator of the Psychopathy Test Worries About Its Use

A Psychopath Walks Into a Room, Can You Tell?
This piece discusses the possible effect of psychopaths on society when in positions of power, among other views on the disorder and whether psychology is really the best way to address or define it.

Unfortunately, the staticians that study psychopaths would say the answer to your question is pretty much a resounding "no" as psychopaths released from jail are MUCH more likely to return to crime than those that are able to genuinely feel emotions that help prevent harm to others...like empathy...or in other words, if there is progress of reform it is likely faked.

In the fictional case of Dexter, he can be a "good" person in the sense that he is somewhat an arbiter of justice, but much of the empathetic good in him is often faked or mimicked as a means of survival and fitting in with society. Because Dexter does feel a sense of empathy for his sister, he might be somewhere in between a sociopath and psychopath, as both disorders are the degrees of similar traits.

Wishful thinking on your question really wants me to say "yes." However, if it is true that the traits of a psychopath are inherit to a person rather than learned (and unlearned), being diagnosed as a psychopath would mean it is a trait that has existed since birth. That assertion would then directly challenge the premise of the ability to reform, as the results of a test would dictate that reform is not possible.
posted by samsara at 5:17 PM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

The TAL ep sort of ties in with Jon Ronson's book (which is excellent) The Psychopath Test.

I think he comes to conclusions that would be of interest to you vis a vis this question, but I also don't want to spoil it for anyone. It's fantastic!
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:33 PM on June 23, 2011

Since a psychopath, by definition, is a person with a diagnosed mental health disorder, and since diagnoses can be wrong: Yes. See also No true Scotsman.
posted by flabdablet at 6:10 PM on June 23, 2011

A psychopath fakes empathy in order to take advantage of people. Part of faking empathy involves being nice and doing nice things for people, until the psychopath decides otherwise. This form of morality is debased.

I am fairly skeptical of the concept of using the fictional Dexter as a thought experiment, seeing that there are virtually no examples of this sort of character in real life.

In real life (sigh) I have been reading about genocide. Charismatic tribal leaders will encourage us to "exterminate the vermin" who are not of our tribe. Within the twisted conceptual lens of the tribe, this is their moral frame of reference.
posted by ovvl at 6:19 PM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Well I'm of the view that morals are evolved rules to encourage social cohesion and that those who live on their own without a society (e.g. hermits) don't have as much of a need for morals. Generally speaking antisocial behaviour is immoral behaviour. That's not to say that anything labeled "antisocial" is immoral, or that anything is excusable if a society deems it so but rather that genuinely destructive actions that harm individuals and society (murder, etc.) are immoral whereas moral behaviour comes from a survival instinct to take care of the group which involves an empathy and understanding of others needs (food, health, shelter, education, technology, etc.).

So with this definition of morality it's probably more difficult for a psychopath/sociopath to take moral actions, however they could for other reasons (perhaps a belief in a supernatural surveillance system, as mentioned above).

Sam Harris talks about it like this,
psychopaths generally fail to distinguish between conventional and moral transgressions. When asked, “Would it be okay to eat at your desk if the teacher gave you permission?” vs. “Would it be okay to hit another student in the face if the teacher gave you permission?” normal children age thirty-nine months and above tend to see these questions as fundamentally distinct and consider the latter transgression intrinsically wrong. In this, they appear to be guided by an awareness of potential human suffering. Children at risk for psychopathy tend to view these questions as morally indistinguishable.

[studies show (Blair et al., 2005) that psychopaths are often unable to recognize expressions of fear and sadness in others, suggesting that the negative emotions of others, rather than parental punishment, may be what goad us to normal socialization:]

Blair [...] observes that if punishment were the primary source of moral instruction, children would be unable to observe the difference between conventional transgressions [...] and moral ones [...], as breaches of either sort tend to illicit punishment. And yet healthy children can readily distinguish between these forms of misbehavior. Thus, it would seem that they receive their correction directly from the distress that others exhibit when true moral boundaries have been crossed. Other mammals also find the suffering of their conspecifics highly aversive. We know this from work in monkeys (Masserman, Wechkin, & Terris, 1964) and rats (Church, 1959) that would seem scarcely ethical to perform today. For instance, the conclusion of the former study reads: “A majority of rhesus monkeys will consistently suffer hunger rather than secure food at the expense of electroshock to a conspecific.”

[Genuine psychopaths, on the other hand, are born with mental defects that make it impossible for them to value the right things. Like those who are congenitally deaf or blind, they don’t know what they’re missing.]
posted by holloway at 7:08 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

A psychopath fakes empathy in order to take advantage of people.

Not necessarily. A psychopath who doesn't know he's a psychopath can fake empathy because he assumes that's what empathy is--ie, he sees that other people are empathetic, doesn't feel the emotion himself, but exhibits the behavior because to not do so exposes the lack, both to the observer and the psychopath. He can also be unaware that others aren't faking it (since his experience comes from within and he doesn't feel it) and can therefore be unaware that faking it isn't part of the emotion.

in terms of really feeling those emotions ... I don't think so

To everyone but the psychopath the distinction of "really" feeling those emotions is irrelevant and unprovable, same as it is for non-psychopaths.

If I understand correctly, if they had a desire to be a "good person" it would mean they weren't actually a psychopath.

Again, it depends on where the "actions" are being judged. If I do something good--whether I "desire to" or not--the thing is done. My motivations are irrelevant to the act being complete. In other words, one doesn't have to "desire to be a good person" in order to be so any more than someone has to desire to be a bad person in order to commit bad acts or have bad thoughts.
posted by dobbs at 9:36 PM on June 23, 2011

I am fairly skeptical of the concept of using the fictional Dexter as a thought experiment, seeing that there are virtually no examples of this sort of character in real life.

I thought about this, and might disagree. The psychological profile of Dexter is somewhat modeled after what it is like to be a psychopath...and unfortunately there are cases where the show might be a little too influential to others with the same tendancies.

The show is essentially a character study that sets Dexter apart from most psychopaths, in that he is aware of what he is...and has been given a "code" that he forces him to prevent himself from being a full on serial killer. In Dexter's mind, it's still not inherently wrong to take another's life to fulfill an urge to kill...the code is a set of rules that must be followed almost religiously...rules that his father Harry set for him at a young age in order to keep him out of trouble with society.

Sure there isn't a case out there that fits Dexter exactly. But I doubt real life psychopaths fit each other exactly either...it's more of the thought process and lack of empathy that's being focused on. For example, if you stand him in line with other known psychopaths...in particular serial killers...the rational thought processes, the internalization and interpretations of reality are strikingly similar. Still, it's TV, and is just a character study....it's also unlikely that the real world personas would be as interesting to watch. But I give credit to the writers for keeping the definition of psychopath with Dexter largely intact.
posted by samsara at 6:20 AM on June 24, 2011

"code" that he forces
posted by samsara at 6:33 AM on June 24, 2011

If you judge a person's moral worth by internal motivations, then no, it's not possible for a sociopath to be "good."

If you judge based on the person's actions, then yes, theoretically, it's possible for them to be good -- but only as a thought experiment. Because the hallmark of sociopathy or psychopathy is a lack of empathy, it's inconceivable that our psychopath isn't going to take some actions that cause harm to others because (1) you can do some bad things (if not serially killing a la Dexter) without getting caught and suffering consequences and (2) there's no conscience to stop him when the preconditions for (1) are met.
posted by J. Wilson at 10:22 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

A psychopath fakes empathy in order to take advantage of people.

Note: I'll stand corrected by dobbs. I was using a misleading figure of speech, or wrong. Psychopathology is complex, and technically a psychopath does not really fake empathy, but sometimes will behave in a pattern that might suggest this.
posted by ovvl at 8:31 PM on June 24, 2011

I am fairly skeptical of the concept of using the fictional Dexter as a thought experiment,

But I won't stand corrected here. Television scriptwriting can have interesting insights reflected in well drawn characters, but when television scriptwriters delve into the mechanics of psychology, it often devolves into drivel.
posted by ovvl at 8:53 PM on June 24, 2011

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