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Sociopathy and Ethics

You sometimes hear it said from ethicists of a certain Kantian stripe that anyone who is rational has to acknowledge some basic truths of ethics, and, contrariwise, that one test of an ethical maximum is that it be universalizable: i.e. that it be binding on all rational agents.

Supposing though that there are two sub-species of Homo sapiens: regular Homo sapiens, and Homo sapiens sociopathis.  The two subspecies can interbreed but the latter one, act with a depraved indifference to the feelings of other people.

Do we know that that’s not the case?  No.  It seems like it might well be from a reading of true crime stories, or even Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where he discusses the depraved female who eats her own young.

It follows from the conceptual possibility of a sub-species of sociopaths that it’s not a requirement on an ethical maxim that it be universalizable.  The golden rule, or the Kantian categorical imperative will not be recognized by sociopaths.

Of course we could water down the requirements of universalizability and say an ethical maxim only needs to be universalizable across people who are not defficient in their ability to be ethical.  We could do the same thign wtih rationality and deny that sociopaths are rational. But that makes the connection between ethics and universalizability (or rationality) trivially true, and therefore uninteresting.

Maybe this view of sociopathy is wrong, and sociopaths are not a separate species, and are susceptible to therapy and education.  But if it’s wrong that is just our good luck.

Right?

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11 thoughts on “Sociopathy and Ethics

  1. ht says:

    Hi there,
    The cool (as in not warm and fuzzy) thing about Kantian ethics is, that they don’t need feelings at all for their foundations. A sociopath is just as bound by the categorical imperative as the most empathetic do-gooder.
    Now, if that special species were just as indifferent to their _own_ feelings, that would make for some very interesting universalisations.
    Or so I think.

    • A sociopath is just as bound by the categorical imperative as…

      I’m not sure why you’d call that ethics. It’d be like calling one of those line following robots as having a categorical imperative.

      • ht says:

        Sure that’s ethics. Figuring out what to do by reasoning. Sociopaths can do this, some of them are very good at it. The question is whether you accept Kant’s reasoning as valid. No question for the robots: either they have it in their programming or not.

        Further, even if you do, you still have a choice to follow the CI. That widens the gap between automata and agents even more.

    • Sure that’s ethics. Figuring out what to do by reasoning.

      So does that leave ethics as a branch of computer science?

      No question for the robots: either they have it in their programming or not.

      ? So is the line following robot ethics or not?

      Further, even if you do, you still have a choice to follow the CI. That widens the gap between automata and agents even more.

      Perhaps if choice means not to be bound to the CI – perhaps a sociopath just doesn’t have a CI to be bound to to begin with?

      • ht says:

        no. ethics are more fundamental. should be taken into account in computer sciences though.

        robots aren’t bound by reasons at all. they don’t even need them.

        then he either denies being rational, being bound by reasons, or Kant’s reasoning. Being bound and complying are not the same.

    • Hi HT,

      should be taken into account in computer sciences though.

      Sounds like ethics is just a sub branch of computer science if the line following robot has ethics.

      then he either denies being rational, being bound by reasons, or Kant’s reasoning. Being bound and complying are not the same.

      Just to check, were not treating physics as reasoning here? Or even biomechanical processeses as reason? No? Okay.

      Why would someone have to deny anything, to be outside reason? That’s assuming everything happens at the talky-talky level we…talk at. That’s hardly the only level out there. Indeed, it’s hardly even a level itself (it’s going back to the mime thing. Miming a level)

      I’m assuming you’re going for the self referential affirmation of ‘Hah, by the very act of denying, it’s using an act of reason! Therefore it comes from reason!’.

      So I’m questioning why something has to deny it comes from reason in order to be in the state of not using reason?

      • ht says:

        Hi Callan,

        “Sounds like ethics is just a sub branch of computer science if the line following robot has ethics.”

        as I said, it hasn’t/is not an ethical subject. it’s not a rational agent.

        “Just to check, were not treating physics as reasoning here? Or even biomechanical processeses as reason? No? Okay.”

        No, we’re not. We – that’s Kant and me here, strange company – are treating minds as irreducible to physical entities. I have different reasons for that though.

        “That’s assuming everything happens at the talky-talky level we…talk at. That’s hardly the only level out there.”

        It’s not. But it’s the only level at which reasons mean anything. Thoughts need to be expressible to count as rational thoughts. Doesn’t mean every agent can always express all her thoughts, but that’s a contingent restriction.

        “I’m assuming you’re going for the self referential affirmation of ‘Hah, by the very act of denying, it’s using an act of reason! Therefore it comes from reason!’.”

        No, denying do be bound by the CI, even if one accepts the arguments for it as sound, is just challenging the _authority_ of reason. And as such I count it as irrational.

        Don’t be upset if I don’t reply in the following days, I’m going to China and will be without internet access most of the time.

  2. that one test of an ethical maximum is that it be universalizable: i.e. that it be binding on all rational agents.

    Who stated that that’s a test? And what backs up that statement beyond raw assertion?

    Or is it self referential – it’s a maximum binding on an individual, so to speak, therefore using a sort of word play, it’s taken it must be a maximum binding on all individuals?

    Light controversy(?): Sociopathy is not binary. There are degrees of it. Play chess and your own inner sociopath probably comes out to play.

    The controversial part – perhaps someones inner sociopath came out to play by demanding an ethical standard be universalizable (dang that’s hard to spell), or otherwise not recognised. Because…that’d suit a sociopathic inclination, wouldn’t it? To undermine moral barriers.

    Not that I think ethical/moral barriers exist – I think they are simply a mental projection that enables tribal activitie (which itself is effacious towards survival). Kind of like a boardgame.

    Doesn’t mean I think sociopaths get to cheat at the game, though.

    • ht says:

      Well, it’s backed up by some fancy reasoning, not all of which I’m willing to subscribe to, mostly found in the “Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals”. But even with its flaws it remains one of the most convincing theory on ethics to me.

      And yes, it is kind of self-referential. That’s not a flaw in my opinion though. All reasoning must find its foundations in reason itself if it wants to be valid no matter the circumstances.
      And yes, I agree that this can be seen as word play. Nothing wrong with that either, words are fun and playing is fun, and both are important I think.

      I further concede that sociopathy comes in degrees, as psychological features tend to. All the more reason to discard these factors from ethical reasoning, where strict categories are often desirable.

      • Yeah, but it’s like were both mimes and working out a quiet agreement between us to pretend there’s a door there, or that a really strong wind is blowing. That’s where the self referential and wordplay and fun end up at.

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