A Philosopher Talks with Psychopaths


“One of the striking features of people on psychiatric wards is how much their conversation is about topics also discussed in philosophy journals.” One thing they have in common is an awareness that “the common-sense interpretation of the world is not the only one”.

That’s Jonathan Glover (King’s College London), quoted in a review at New Scientist of his latest book, Alien Landscapes? Intepreting Disordered Minds

Glover decided to take [the Socratic method] to Broadmoor Hospital in the south of England. There he probed a common stereotype about psychopaths – that they lack a conscience – by discussing ethics with them…. Many of the men had a “vocabulary of moral concepts”, and by carefully directing his questions, he found ethical qualities mapping onto those concepts, such as fairness and respect. For Glover, it was a bridge between psychopaths and the rest of us, because it showed there are many dimensions to the disorder, and most of them overlap with personality traits of some people deemed normal.

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NoticingStudent
NoticingStudent
6 years ago

I’m not sure how closely this is related, but I have noticed that philosophy professors love examples featuring what could be psychopaths — people who have tied up others to train tracks, or who push people off bridges, or blow up people in caves, or poison them with gas…Report

dmf
dmf
6 years ago

maybe the link is that both groups treat as conceptual abstractions (rules, etc) what most people do without much in the way of conscious thought?Report

Zara
Zara
6 years ago

The post’s headline sounds like a description of a Department meeting. Of course, I’m the Philosopher and my colleagues ….Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

The final lines of the review seem relevant here:

“What delusional people lack, Glover posits, is ‘the emotional ‘feel’ of an idea’ much as their ’emotional ‘feel’ for other people is often weak’ Delusions, in other words, reveal the powerful role of emotion in acquiring knowledge, challenging the notion that epistemology is purely rational.”

When philosophers entertain moral rules abstractly, they intentionally try to detach themselves from this “emotional feel,” on the assumption that it is a likely source of inconsistency or error. One way to do that it to use farfetched examples that are harder to personally feel emotionally invested in, which happen to be the kind we can only imagine possible for psychopaths.

(Reminding me of the recent post about x-phi, where the guiding assumption, which turned out to be false, was that common intuitions about compatiblism were due to emotional factors.)Report

Crimlaw
Crimlaw
6 years ago

The author did talk with psychopaths. He also talked to lots of others classified as mentally disordered but not classified as psychopaths. It’s a far more wide ranging work than this headline suggests.Report

Steven
Steven
6 years ago

Just read some of this book and felt the most interesting part re psychopaths was around their own pain, anger and neediness over riding or killing off sympathy/caring for others. This makes sense to me rather than the idea that some people are born without a capacity for empathy etc.Report