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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Psychopaths' "Empathy Switch"

The BBC reports on a recent study that indicates that psychopathic criminals are not devoid of empathy - rather they have a "switch" that can turn empathy on or off.  This switch may be activated if the psychopath is directed to consider the feelings of others.

This finding contradicts a common assumption that psychopaths simply lack the ability to empathize with others.  Furthermore, because this switch can be activated under certain conditions, this may point therapists in the direction of finding a way to shift psychopaths' empathy switch from its default "off" condition.

This finding has important implications in the fields of philosophy and, by extension, certain aspects of criminal law.  Psychopaths are a common thought experiment in philosophical discussions of moral responsibility.  The common question is: can psychopaths be morally responsible for their actions if their lack of empathy prevents them from understanding the full import of their actions' effects on others?  This finding indicates that psychopaths may present less of a moral problem.  If psychopaths can, in certain conditions, empathize with others, holding them responsible for harming others is an easier task, since it is possible for psychopaths to understand the full import of their actions.

By extension, this finding may reconcile some tension between the philosophical questions of moral responsibility and the practical questions of criminal responsibility.  Criminal law's intent requirements operate whether or not the defendant is capable of empathizing with the victim - if the defendant knows the criminal nature of what he or she is doing, he or she will be punished.  This approach seems to require a compromise with the notion of the pure psychopath.  The psychopath who cannot feel empathy seems to be punished disproportionately compared to other actors because this psychopath will probably view his or her actions as less morally wrong compared to an actor who can empathize with the victim, and nevertheless harms the victim.

If, however, psychopaths have the ability to switch their empathy on or off, the fact that psychopaths do not feel empathy at the time they harm their victims becomes less of a problem.  In light of this new research, it is not correct to say that psychopaths cannot view their actions in the same moral light as other actors - the psychopaths simply don't view their actions this way as often.  If lack of empathy is more of a choice than a condition, then psychopaths' failure to grasp the moral import of their actions follows from something that is (potentially) within their control.  It seems much more intuitive to fully punish defendants who choose not to understand the full moral import of their actions as opposed to those defendants who cannot understand the full moral import of their actions.

Hopefully this research leads to further techniques that can ensure that psychopaths' feelings of empathy become an obvious choice to them.  Once this choice is apparent, psychopaths will cease to be defendants who cannot feel empathy and will instead be defendants who choose not to feel empathy.

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