Fearlessly Amoral: Psychopaths, Autistics and Learning with Emotion

In “The Emotional Construction of Morals”, Jesse J. Prinz suggests that the reason for the inability of psychopaths to learn the moral/conventional distinction is because morality is essentially emotion-based.  “If moral properties were not essentially emotion involving, there should be a way of drawing the moral/conventional distinction without appeal to emotions.  Psychopaths should be able to learn the difference. … The fact that they fail to master the moral/conventional distinction suggests that there may be no way to draw that distinction without averting to or experiencing emotional responses”[Prinz, The Emotional Construction of Morals, pg 46] Ultimately, Prinz notes psychopaths are generally of at least average IQ, and some are quite intelligent.  Moreover, psychopaths get much aid from others – including parents, teachers, and psychologists and psychiatrists – in learning morality.  They also seem to have an interest in learning these distinctions since much of the time their amorality lands them in prison or psychiatric hospitals.  That they continually fail to learn morality seems to indicate that they cannot, which may suggest that they cannot because they lack emotional mechanisms [ibid].

This essay will examine the question of whether it is simply or primarily the lack of emotions that makes it so that psychopaths fail to properly learn morality.  The main thrust of this examination will be comparing psychopaths to their classic foil in this area: autistics.  Autistics seem to have emotional deficiencies, and certainly share the lack of empathy that characterizes psychopaths, and yet they seem to perform significantly better on almost all moral measures than psychopaths.  Why would this be the case?  Also, this essay will tease out the distinction between learning about morals – and thus, for example, the moral/conventional distinction – and acting on them.  Psychopaths clearly do not perform well morally, but their failure to understand the moral/conventional distinction suggests a failure to learn basic concepts of morality.  Is their problem performance, learning or both?  Could the combination of performance and learning disabilities be responsible for their characteristic amorality?  Could it be a general learning disability that is causing the problem for psychopaths, one that autistics do not share and can work around?  If not, what exactly is the difference between psychopaths and autistics that allows autistics to be moral where psychopaths are not?

Before getting into these issues, though, it must be established that autistics really are moral and psychopaths really are not.  The latter seems to be well-established, but the former may be questionable.  However, in order to determine if autistics can be a valid case study for morality it must be established what should be used to determine what counts as, at least, moral enough.

The first thing to take into account is, in fact, moral performance.  As stated by Prinz in the quote above, the moral/conventional distinction is a key indicator of moral performance.  The moral/conventional distinction is the ability to tell a moral rule from one that is merely conventional.  The normal way to test this is to test for authority-independence.  Moral rules hold independently of any authority, while conventional rules do not.  Thus, asking someone if the action would be okay if the most directly relevant authority said it would be okay – like, say, a teacher in a classroom – is a good way to test for this distinction.  Psychopaths do not pass this test.  In fact, their responses demonstrate their complete lack of understanding of this distinction.  Prinz cites a study by James Blair that demonstrates that adult criminal psychopaths respond as if both moral and conventional rules are authority-independent, while psychopathic children answer as if neither are.  Prinz points out that Blair suggests that the psychopathic criminals are trying to make it appear like they understand what things are moral and understand why moral rules are bad, but fail miserably, while the psychopathic children are perhaps giving a more genuine reply as to how they view the moral and the conventional.  But in all cases, what is important is that neither can see any distinction between moral and conventional rules. [Prinz, The Emotional Construction of Morals, pg 44].

Autistics, however, do seem to perform relatively well with respect to the moral/conventional distinction.  Frederique de Vignemont and Uta Frith cite R.J.R.Blair’s 1996 study that demonstrates that autistics perform about as well as non-autistics on determinations of moral or conventional violations, despite – as they note – having sharp deficiencies in theory of mind [De Vignemont and Frith, Comment on McGeer, pg 276].  Thus, when we appeal to the moral/conventional distinction as a measure of moral performance, autistics – at least, high-functioning autistics – generally succeed, while psychopaths generally fail.  Thus, in terms of moral performance, autistics are far ahead of psychopaths.

De Vignemont and Frith, however, challenge the claim that autistics do perform better on that scale in an interesting way: by challenging if they really and truly understand the distinction.  They bring up two issues.  The first is that while autistics can identify faux pas, they may not properly understand them.  When asked why one should not commit faux pas, they appealed to rules instead of the pain of the victim.  The second issue asks if the autistics were really treating moral rules as authority-independent, or if they were just appealing to another authority than the one presented in the test (so, say, instead of it being dependent on the authority of the teacher it was dependent on the authority of their parents, even though they were not present) [De Vignemont and Frith, Comment on McGeer, pg 277].  Both of these challenges appeal to the basis of the judgement, as opposed to simply getting the answers right.   However, to suggest that having a different basis for their moral judgements must exclude autistics from being moral would be to beg the question against them, and  is outweighed by the fact that even getting that level of performance is beyond the capacities of psychopaths.  Even if the basis of moral behaviour in autistics is one that could be judged as not a proper moral basis, at least autistics present a fairly good facsimile of moral behaviour, a facsimile that one can only wish psychopaths could achieve.

However, the challenges do raise a second concern, which is that while we need not be overly concerned here about the basis of their moral performance, it does in fact matter why they report those distinctions.  Ultimately, the judgements need to be genuine, in the sense that we would have to believe that psychopaths and autistics really do think that the distinction really is a meaningful one.  It cannot be the case that our contenders are, in fact, faking their moral views just to make other people think better of them or to achieve some goal.  What is interesting is that, as seen earlier, when psychopaths try to fake performance on the moral/conventional distinction they still perform poorly.  They would sound more moral, but still clearly demonstrate that they do not understand the moral/conventional distinction.  Autistics, on the other hand, do seem to genuinely hold the distinction.  Temple Grandin in her book “Thinking in Pictures: My Life With Autism” learned in college that there were some rules defined as “sins of the system”, and that as long as those major rules were followed, minor ones would be ignored.  “Students got into trouble for smoking and having sex.  If a student could be totally trusted not to break those two rules, she could break some of the minor rules with no consequences.”[Grandin, Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism, pg 108].  Ultimately, this led her to hold three categories: “really bad”, “illegal but not bad”, and “sins of the system”.  For her, stealing, destroying property, and hurting others are “really bad”, slight speeding and illegal parking count as “illegal, but not bad”, while the “sins of the system” were for things that were punished harshly for what seemed like illogical reasons [ibid, pg 109].  Translating this to the moral/conventional distinction, the “really bad” category is the moral, while the latter two seem to be conventional.  And Temple Grandin seems genuine in these classifications; she does not seem to be just saying that for personal gain.   Thus, Grandin gives us proof that autistic performance on the moral/conventional distinction is, in fact, genuine; she really does hold that distinction in her own judgements.

The conclusion, then, is this: autistics are, in fact, good enough at morality to be our example.  They succeed, generally, on both performance and on genuineness, while psychopaths succeed at neither.  If psychopaths could learn to be even as good at morality as autistics that would be a massive improvement in their moral knowledge and behaviour.  However, they do not seem to even be able to get to that point.  Why is it that psychopaths cannot even achieve the level of autistics with respect to morality?

The first thing that can be eliminated is empathy.  While it seems that most people do rely in some way on empathy in their moral reasoning, both psychopaths [Blair, The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain, pg 53-56] and autistics [Yirmaya, Empathy and Cognition in High-Functioning Children with Autism, pg 150-160] demonstrate a deficiency with respect to empathy.  So, while a popular explanation might be that psychopaths lack empathy and therefore lack the ability to be or learn morality properly, the fact that autistics lack empathy as well belies this.  Note that this seems to be in relation to a specific sort of empathy, that which involves actually feeling the emotions.  Yirmaya et al demonstrated that high-functioning autistics perform better on empathy tests as their IQ increases, suggesting that they are using a more cognitively based model for empathy than non-autistics do [ibid, pg 157].  This could, then, suggest that autistics are substituting a cognitively based empathy for the more emotionally based one, which allows them to learn morality where psychopaths do not.  However, this is belied by the fact that psychopaths are generally both manipulative and successful at manipulating others.  In order to manipulate people and succeed in social situations, psychopaths have to in some sense be able to recognize and manipulate the emotions that people are and will feel.  Simply having a good, solid theory about what people will feel in certain situations would provide this, and that is a more cognitively based approach to empathy.  Since they are better at such manipulation than autistics, it suggests that their cognitively based empathic abilities are at least as good as that of autistics, if not better.  Thus, it is unlikely that the reason for the improved performance of autistics with respect to morality is due to their superior ability at cognitive empathy.

It is worth taking a deeper look at the evidence that psychopaths lack empathy, to see if it might be the case that the most indicative studies detailing their lack of empathy might be focussing on emotional empathy, rather than cognitive empathy.  Blair outlines three different types of studies that are used to test empathy in psychopaths.  The first is to give the subjects a questionnaire, asking them to self-report on their empathy.  The second is to measure the subject’s autonomic responses to the distress of others.  The final type of study is based around identifying emotional expressions vocal effect [Blair, The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain, pg 53-55].  Blair notes that psychopaths do poorly at the last two paradigms, and declines to discuss their results on the first because of potential confounds with verbal and linguistic capacity.  Specifically: “Those who wish to look more empathic can learn to parrot empathic verbal responses.” [ibid, pg 53].  However, it is interesting to note that the latter two cases explicitly measure emotional empathy, by either directly measuring the emotional affect of psychopaths or by asking the psychopaths to relate an expression with the emotion felt.  The first type, however,  could be answered using cognitive empathy as well as emotional empathy.  While more detailed analysis would be required, that the clearest cases of lack of empathy in psychopaths explicitly measure emotional empathy coupled with the earlier arguments about how psychopaths do seem to require at least a cognitive understanding of empathy in order to succeed at their manipulation makes it quite likely that psychopaths – like autistics —  lack emotional empathy but retain at least some cognitive empathy.

Thus, the lack of emotional empathy is common between autistics and psychopaths, and thus is not likely to be the explanation for the morality of autistics and amorality of psychopaths. And neither seem to lack cognitive empathy, so that being lacking in psychopaths does not seem to be the explanation either.   However, this would not rule out a difference in emotions being the cause.  As Prinz says: “Children with autism do not exhibit the characteristic signs of guilt, but they do exhibit aversive emotions when they violate rules … “[Prinz, The Emotional Construction of Morals, pg 117].  Could they be using a different emotion or set of emotions to achieve the same results?

It seems that the key might well be the aversive emotions.  Temple Grandin has stated that when she breaks a moral rule – like that of lying – she feels incredibly anxious [McGeer, Varieties of Moral Agency: Lessons from Autistics (and Psychopaths), pg 244].  A large part of this is because of the social uncertainty and expectations, which is referenced by Heidi Maibom: “It is not hard to see that having to function in a society that one does not comprehend can be anxiety inducing” [Maibom, The Will to Conform, pg 268].  Their anxiety over social situations gives them motivation to learn the social structures that others follow and that anxiety carries over into their behaviour.  As part of that, they learn the moral/conventional distinction.  After all, not being able to tell the difference can lead to many errors in the social sphere.  First, one might treat moral rules too leniently, and be criticized for not being good enough.  Second, one may take conventional rules too seriously and thus refuse to participate in social situations – eating or singing in class, for example – because of an over-extension of those conventional rules.  Autistics, then, are motivated to learn these distinctions properly and have aversive emotions that tie into their understanding of these motivations.  If anyone can learn the moral/conventional distinction, it seems that they can.  And they do.

Thus, autistics do indeed have aversive emotions, and at least one of them – anxiety – ties directly into not only their behaviour, but their motivation to learn proper behaviour including the moral/conventional distinction.   What can be said for psychopaths?  It turns out that the very emotion that autistics can rely on is not present in psychopaths.  While autistics clearly experience anxiety and may even in fact experience it more strongly than non-autistics (as evidenced by Grandin’s extreme anxiety when lying, which is above and beyond what most non-autistics experience) psychopaths seem the exact opposite: cool, calm, collected and unaffected.  On many measures, they seem to demonstrate reduced anxiety [Blair, The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain, pg 47 - 50].  Thus, there is one critical difference between autistics and psychopaths: anxiety level.  So Prinz’s suggestion has some merit.  Autistics may be using a different aversive emotion as the underpinnings of their morality.  This would seem to be anxiety.  Psychopaths are missing anxiety.  Anxiety, then, might be the answer.

Or, it might not.  Or, at least, not the whole answer.  What is it about being anxious that allows autistics to learn the moral/conventional distinction and hold it genuinely while psychopaths do not?  Prinz’s initial question is still unanswered: if there is some way of telling which rules are “really bad”, “illegal but not bad”, or “sins of the system”, why are psychopaths unable to learn that, at least to the point of being able to convincingly answer therapists about what counts as each, even if they cannot legitimately hold those distinctions themselves?  Anxiety gets us the genuineness factor for autistics, and perhaps without that psychopaths need something else to get that genuineness factor.  But the problem is still one of general performance.  Since psychopaths can generally learn, why can they not learn this well enough to fake it?

Thus, we must turn to learning in the psychopath, and there we discover that they indeed have a learning disability that seems to be tied to their levels of anxiety: psychopaths have serious problems with aversive conditioning and instrumental learning.  Aversive conditioning is conditioning a fear response to a stimulus that the subject had not previously been afraid of before, by delivering a punishment when that stimulus is experienced.  Blair cites a study by David Lykken which paired a buzzer with an electric shock to try to see if psychopaths would start sweating in response to the buzzer, which is the normal response to the electric shock.  The reactions of psychopaths were impaired with respect to the sweating reaction [Blair, The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain, pg 49].  More interestingly, they also seem to have greatly reduced anticipation of negative events.  If someone knows that they will receive an electric shock in five seconds, as that time approaches their anxiety level should increase.  This is not the case for psychopaths; the measurable qualities of emotional anxiety do not increase and certainly start far closer to the actual shock than they do for non-psychopaths [ibid].  This would seem to relate both to their reduced anxiety in general and perhaps to a deficiency in being able to anticipate that a shock will occur; at a basic level, they may not really believe that they will be shocked when the buzzer stops, even if they are intellectually aware of it.

Instrumental learning is also interesting.  “Instrumental learning involves learning to commit specific behavioral responses in order to gain reward or avoid punishment.” [ibid, pg 51].  Psychopaths have issues with specific forms of this, particularly passive avoidance and response reversal.  In passive avoidance, the subject must learn to avoid responding to thing that will give them punishments, while response reversal is when the subject must stop responding to a stimulus that was once a reward but now punishes.  The impairment of the first has been repeatedly demonstrated, while Blair uses the example of a card game developed by Joe Newman to demonstrate the second.  In that game, participants must decide whether to play a card or not.  At first, playing is always rewarding, but as the game goes on the probability of playing being rewarding decreases, and eventually it will be primarily punishing.  While most non-psychopaths do learn to stop playing once punishment becomes too likely, psychopaths do not, to the point of losing all of their points [ibid, pgs 51 - 52].

This also ties in nicely with the results from Antonio Damasio and his card game, applied to acquired sociopaths and psychopaths.  In that game, Damasio had decks of various risk/reward ratios, and participants were given a small amount of money to start.  Their goal was to finish the game with the highest amount of money they could, but they did not know when the game would end.  At the beginning, all of the subjects sampled all of the decks evenly.  However, once they had done so, eventually the non-sociopath/psychopath participants stayed away from the high risk deck, while the sociopaths and psychopaths continued to select from it.  And for them, the results were the same as in the experiment above: they ended up having to “borrow” from the experimenter to keep themselves in the game. What is particularly interesting about this is that Damasio had his participants hooked up to a skin capacitance test in order to measure their emotional responses.  The non-sociopaths/psychopaths had an emotional response immediately before selecting the higher risk decks, which explains their reluctance to select that deck, and their lower incidence of selecting that deck.  The sociopaths and psychopaths, however, were missing that emotional response, and so continued to select that deck. [Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, pgs 212 - 216].

This, then, relates the deficiency in their instrumental learning back to the passive avoidance case, and ultimately back to the reduced anxiety in psychopaths.  It is quite likely that it is some sort of fear or anxiety response that is at work when most people select the higher risk decks, or when they start getting punished for playing cards, or when they start to hear the buzzer.  But for psychopaths, this reaction is either non-existent or at least greatly muted.  And this would contrast sharply with autistics, whose anxiety reactions –  it can be presumed –  are in no way impaired.  Moreover, those anxiety reactions are an important part of both how autistics act in the social sphere as well as their learning how to act in the social sphere; they are motivated to learn by their anxiety and anxiety holds them to the rules they learn.

So this seems an incredibly good candidate for what autistics have that psychopaths do not.  However, what Prinz noted about all the help psychopaths have in attempting to learn about morality still stands.  Arguably, they have far more help in that regard than autistics do.  Is this lack of anxiety enough to ensure that psychopaths do not learn the moral/conventional distinction?

To understand this, it is best to start with the normal practices for learning about morality as children.  Blair identifies two main ways that this can be taught to children.  The first, and the most effective, is to ask the children how they would feel if someone did the thing to be considered bad to them.  The second is to have it imposed in some way by an authority through punishment, where the authority simply punishes them when they do something wrong.  Blair argues that the second is not effective because it tends to associate to fear of the authority as opposed to any real moral learning [Blair, The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain, pg 42].  It would be clear that that method, then, would not allow a proper learning of the moral/conventional distinction, as it would make morality tied to the authority of the punisher, and not to anything independent of authority.  That being said, even that would seem to be immensely better than what psychopaths currently have, especially if it was associated with a more general authority, like that of the police.  So, then, keeping in mind the deficiencies of psychopaths, can psychopaths use either of these methods to learn the moral/conventional distinction, and morality in general?

When trying to teach morality by asking the child to think about how they would feel if that was done to them, the first reaction would be to tie that method to empathy.  After all, it does seem very much related to understanding what the other person would be feeling and quite possibly feeling it yourself.  As such, the fact that psychopaths have a deficiency in empathy would close this option off from them; they cannot engage emotional empathy to be able to properly gather in how the other person would feel.  However, that analysis would leave autistics out as well.  Thus, perhaps it is not really empathy that is engaged in that method, but is instead some sort of appeal to the feelings and fears of the individual making the judgement, a pure simulation case.  Temple Grandin, in fact, deliberately simulates and puts herself in the position of the person in order to do what she calls empathy [Grandin, Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism, pgs 97 - 99].  In this case, then, the psychopathic lack of empathy cannot be a factor, since it is not for autistics.  However, the issues with instrumental learning may be an explanation here.  Are psychopaths able to anticipate harms or punishments to themselves before they occur?  Their issues with anticipation in aversive conditioning experiments and with instrumental learning seem to suggest that they do not.  The anticipation of future punishments does not seem to strike an emotional chord with them, and so they do not get the anxiety or fear responses that can be used to condition against those future harms.  In this case, then, they are unable to learn morality because they are unable to attach their feeling of their own harms to that of the action they are not to commit – if they even feel the harm at all.

The second is more direct.  It involves using a fear of punishment to condition children away from doing immoral things.  But psychopaths have problems applying a fear of punishment to learning what to do or what not to do.  In a real sense, they are not in fact afraid of punishment, even if they still find it punishing.  Because they are not afraid of punishment, they cannot learn not to do things because they will be punished for doing so.  Because they cannot learn not to do things because they will be punished for doing so, they will not even be able to learn by the less effective of the two main ways children are taught morality.  Our psychopaths, then, cannot succeed when taught the way most children are taught about morality.

This eliminates the help they get from parents and teachers.  However, the influence of professionals must still be considered.  Psychopaths, once discovered, are brought in and treated by psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers.  While some may attempt to use the above methods, it is unlikely that those are the only tools available.  So, then, why do professional attempts fail to teach the psychopath morality?

The first thing to note is that any methods that rely on punishment or the realization of punishment if the psychopath does not either learn what morality is or applies morality in their decisions is not likely to work, for the reasons that have been discussed earlier.  Psychopaths do not properly learn from either punishments or even the anticipation of punishments.  However, there are two techniques that showed promise and yet did not actually result in successful treatment which shall be examined in detail here.

The first is therapeutic communities.  “Hare (1970) suggested that the reshaped socal millieu of a therapeutic community might alter the basic personality characteristics and social behaviour of psychopaths.  Although lacking comparative data for untreated psychopaths, there were several early positive reports … “ [Harris and Rice, Treatment of Psychopathy: A Review of  Empirical Findings, pg 556].  To this end, an intensive community was evaluated.  This community had been held in a maximum security prison for over a decade, and involved group therapy of up to 80 hours a week [ibid].  However, the results were poor.  “… treatment was associated with lower violent recidivism for nonpsychopaths but higher violent recidivism for psychopaths (emphasis in original)” [ibid].   Even in the program, “Psychopaths showed poorer adjustment in terms of problem behaviours while in the program, even though they were just as likely to … to achieve positions of trust and early recommendations for release.” [ibid].  Ultimately, the authors believed that while the psychopaths did indeed “ … learn more about the feelings of others, taking others’ perspective … and delaying gratification” [ibid] instead of using that to allow them to behave better  “ … the new skills emboldened them to manipulate and exploit others.” [ibid].  So, it seems that they learned the skills that would allow them to act more morally, but never bothered to use them for that purpose.

The other approach is cognitive-behavioural therapy, and just like therapeutic communities it showed initial promising results, and yet its usefulness was also challenged in very similar ways.  For example, in a study of sex offenders being treated with cognitive-behavioural therapy “High psychopathy offenders who were rated as showing the most improvement (as measured by conduct during the therapy sessions, quality of homework, and therapists’ ratings of motivation and change) were more likely to reoffend than other participants … “ [ibid, pg 557].  This result should look very familiar.  As with therapeutic communities, psychopaths seem to be able to represent themselves as picking up the skills and knowledge they need in order to overcome their psychopathy.  However, they do not seem to apply that in any situations outside of the therapist’s office.  In fact, studies suggest that not only are they no better off than psychopaths who are not treated with cognitive-behavioural therapy, they are worse than psychopaths who were not treated. [ibid].

These results, then, are very interesting.  While it must be noted that it is unlikely that the moral/conventional distinction is monitored in these studies – which, recall, is the main criteria for performance in this paper – it seems that psychopaths can indeed convince professionals that they are at least showing moral improvement in the treatment programs outlined above.  And in so doing, they get rewarded, with positions of authority and early release.  However, at that point it all goes askew and psychopaths reveal that while they did gain some knowledge from the treatments, they did not really learn a thing about morality.  Or, at least, nothing that led them to act more morally themselves.

So, what, if anything, did they learn?  Taking Temple Grandin’s categories, it seems that one might be able to learn how to classify things into her three categories rationally, perhaps by appealing to actual loss or some other criteria to outline the category of “really bad”.  So, for example, one could dispassionately note that all of the really bad categories involve actual loss from someone (even if that was not the subject), while the other two categories do not, and from there that the “sins of the system” are treated in the same manner as the “really bad” things while not containing any actual loss.  From there, one could easily imagine deriving the authority-independence angle, since what is “really bad” has to hold even if the system that has the sins or the legal authority goes away.  So, while it may be difficult to do, autistics do seem to demonstrate that at least some loose categorization system can get at least a decent understanding of the moral/conventional distinction.  Thus, it is possible that psychopaths could at least improve their performance with that distinction through a building up of categories in the same way, but without relying on emotion in any way.  And it is quite likely that the methods outlined above would, in fact, help them do so.  However, it is abundantly clear that if that occurred, the psychopath’s behaviour would not improve.  So, if their performance on the moral/conventional distinction would improve, but their moral behaviour would not, what are psychopaths still missing?

It appears that the answer is genuineness.  Recall that autistics seem to both understand the distinction and also adopt it as a guide to their behaviour.  With respect to the treatment methods outlined earlier, psychopaths seem to gain the knowledge to perform better, but only seem motivated to perform according to that knowledge when they see an explicit reward for doing so.  Under normal circumstances, psychopaths simply do not and cannot see why they should apply those behaviours, and so they do not.  Autistics, on the other hand, clearly see why they should apply those behaviours.  Why are they different?

And the answer seems to lead right back to instrumental learning: autistics not only can see how acting morally prevents them from accruing negative outcomes, they are also in a unique position where those negative outcomes are particularly salient for them.  Heidi Maibom appears to be correct when she argues that the driving force behind the autistic sense of morality is social concern [Maibom, The Will to Conform, pg 268].  Autistics are well aware that if they do not act according to the rules that everyone else follows, there will be negative consequences.  Autistics desperately want to ensure that they are, indeed, accepted into social groupings.  However, their mindreading abilities are deficient, and they thus quickly learn that they do not understand the rules, roles and conventions that will gain them social acceptance.  Therefore, they must strive to learn all of these distinctions in any way they can, and stick to them.  To do otherwise risks their exclusion, a negative consequence that they desperately wish to avoid.  This, then, is why Temple Grandin faces such anxiety whenever she wants to break even the smallest moral rule: every such break runs the risk of social ostracization, and it is only those rules that prevent that for her.

So, in order to ensure that they remain part of the social grouping, they have to learn all of the relevant behavioural rules and act on them at all times.  And one key distinction there is the moral/conventional distinction.  An autistic who protested that they should not eat in class during the school Christmas party would be laughed at and cut off – at least potentially – from the social grouping.  So the autistic person must learn when rules are simply based on authority and when they are really bad.  Since that is likely learnable, autistics at least learn a basic categorization of that distinction, which allows them to perform sufficiently when faced with that distinction.  But their acting on it is enforced by their understanding that there will be great negative consequences if they do not follow those rules.

Psychopaths, on the other hand, have none of this.  Even if it was the case that they had negative consequences from not following that distinction – which is not normally the case – they are not motivated to learn or act based on punishments applied to them.  Their issues with aversive conditioning and instrumental learning prove this.  However, when they can see a reward for the appropriate behaviour, they do indeed act appropriately.  This is why they can convince all of those professionals that they are, in fact, learning how to be better morally when in reality they are not improving at all.  In a sense,  psychopaths “fake” moral behaviour because they can do nothing else; they can only act morally when they get an explicit reward for acting morally.  Ultimately, they can only fake moral behaviour because there is no way for them to develop genuine moral behaviour.

Comparing, then, psychopaths and autistics to those who are not, we can see that autistics are far closer to the norm than psychopaths are.  While one may get a warm, fuzzy feeling from acting morally good, in general morality stops us from doing things that may harm ourselves or others.  Emotional empathy gives people a direct negative to guide their behaviour; if you take an action that might hurt someone, you may feel at least part of that hurt yourself through empathy.  That would be a negative reaction, and so you will be inclined to not take that action.  This also accounts for why we are more willing to help people we know and care about than strangers; the negative response is stronger in those cases, even as it likely still exists in the other cases.  Failing that, the negative consequences of having people dislike us or even the possibility of us being sent to prison are sufficient to moderate our behaviour, and make us act moral.  Autistics are clearly on the same side as non-autistics in the latter, even as they are generally incapable of the former.  Psychopaths, however, are missing both.

Ultimately, Prinz is right that there is something missing emotionally that contributes to the amoral behaviour of psychopaths.  The first is that they lack emotional empathy, but that in and of itself is not sufficient to cause their amorality.  The second is that they have a deficient fear/anxiety system, which makes aversive conditioning and instrumental learning difficult.  Even if psychopaths had emotional empathy, being unable to be driven by punishments would still be sufficient to cause their amorality.  At the end of the day, the problem with psychopaths is that they have a learning disability in instrumental learning caused by reduced anxiety/fear response that means that they simply cannot learn to avoid negative consequences, and so cannot learn to be moral on the basis that bad things will happen to them if they do not.

So, what does this mean for psychopaths?  Well, it means that clearly simply giving them the knowledge of moral rules like the moral/conventional distinction is insufficient.  Psychopaths need to genuinely adopt that knowledge as the way to best live their lives, but they cannot do so if the only reason for them to do so is only to avoid bad consequences.  Thus, the best approach to treating psychopathy might be to make acting morally directly rewarding, instead of indirectly rewarding by avoiding negative consequences.  This is quite difficult to do in the every day world, since in general morality works to stop us from achieving our maximum perceived rewards because of the negative consequences associated with being immoral.  Morality only matters when it stops someone from getting the most gain for themselves at the expense of others.  Thus, a new way of getting psychopaths to genuinely adopt moral rules is required, although there do not seem to be any particularly good candidates at the moment.

Now, Prinz introduces psychopaths in an attempt to show that emotionism is correct and rationalism is flawed.  At this point, it is clear that Prinz’s specific form of emotionism is not supported by psychopaths, because the difference between them and autistics is not one of moral emotions.  Anxiety for autistics is not a moral emotion in the way Prinz wants it to be.  But can that be used to argue that morality for autistics is still an emotional attitude?  This does not seem to be the case.  Autistics do indeed simply have a set of beliefs that they cleave their behaviour to in order to gain social acceptance, but emotion is only involved as a tool.  It motivates them to learn those moral beliefs and to always follow those moral rules, but what is moral to the autistic is not what makes them anxious; breaking any of the rules might make Temple Grandin anxious, but she still considers the “really bad” a distinct, identifiable category apart from the level of anxiety it fosters in her.

This might, however, lead one to question an internalist account of morality, by recognizing that psychopaths could very well have the knowledge of what is moral but would still lack the motivation to be moral, thus separating moral beliefs from moral action.  However, it seems more likely that there are still some beliefs missing.   Autistics genuinely believe that they should follow those rules; the rules apply to them and it is much better for them if they follow. The psychopath may be able to come to believe that when people talk about “moral” there are certain things they mean by that and that certain rules follow, but the psychopath seems unlikely to be able to come to believe that they, personally, should act morally and that those rules apply to them. What they lack is the understanding that it is better for them to follow those rules and/or that they ought to follow those rules.  Without that, they are not motivated to follow them, but without that it seems unlikely that anyone would have any motivations whatsoever.

Prinz is somewhat right to tie psychopathy to an emotional deficiency, but it is not the sort of deficiency that supports his case.  The difference between psychopaths and autistics is not in the emotions that Prinz would consider moral, but simply in fear and anxiety.  That autistics have functioning fear and anxiety responses allows them to see that they ought to be moral because there are bad consequences for them if they are not, which drives them genuinely adopting moral rules and conventions.  Psychopaths, on the other hand, do not genuinely adopt behaviour on that basis; for them, punishment is irrelevant, and only reward matters.  Since acting morally is not generally rewarding except in the sense that acting morally means avoiding punishments, psychopaths have no reason and no ability to adopt moral behaviour.  Ultimately, they are unable to learn through aversion a field that generally only generates aversive consequences for failure, and a field where violating its rules at least generally seemingly leads to the greater rewards.  In short, psychopaths are amoral because without considering the negatives acting immorally or amorally seems to pay off better.  That it generally does not when the negatives are considered explains why psychopaths so often end up in prison or therapy, with a much worse life than they could have had if they had only been able to overcome their amorality.

Blair, James, Derek Mitchell and Karina Blair.  The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain.  Oxford:   Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2005.

Damasio, Antonio.  Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain.  New York: The Penguin Group, 1994.

De Vignemont, Frederique and Uta Frith.  Comment on McGeer in Sinott-Armstrong, Walter (ed).  Moral Psychology Volume 3: The Neuroscience of Morality: Emotion, Brain Disorders and Development.  Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008.

Grandin, Temple.  Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism.  New York: Vintage Books, 2006.

Harris, Grant T. and Marnie E. Rice.  Treatment of Psychopathy: A Review of Empirical Findings.  in Patrick, Christopher J.  Handbook of Psychopath.  New York: The Guildford Press, 2006.

Maibom, Heidi. The Will to Conform  in Sinott-Armstrong, Walter (ed).  Moral Psychology Volume 3: The Neuroscience of Morality: Emotion, Brain Disorders and Development.  Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008.

McGeer, Victoria. Varieties of Moral Agency: Lessons from Autistics (and Psychopaths)  in Sinott-Armstrong, Walter (ed).  Moral Psychology Volume 3: The Neuroscience of Morality: Emotion, Brain Disorders and Development.  Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008.

Prinz, Jesse J.  The Emotional Construction of Morals.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Yirmaya, Nurit, Marian D. Sigman, Connie Kasari and Peter Mundy.  Empathy and Cognition in High Functioning Children with Autism.  Child Development, 63(1), 150-160.

20 Responses to “Fearlessly Amoral: Psychopaths, Autistics and Learning with Emotion”

  1. Learning Theology … « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    [...] lots of examples of these, but if you want something accessible you could do worse than my essays on psychopaths, which is empirically minded moral philosophy and aesthetics, which is pure [...]

  2. Autistics are Kantians; Objectivists are Hobbesian Egoists … « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    [...] As seen in the essay here, people like Heidi Maibom argue that autistics tend to act like Kantians — follow the rules without exceptions — than Humeans — let emotions guide your morality — when it comes to morality. From this, you might get the sense that autistics lack empathy and even, in some cases, compassion. And they at least lack empathy. But that isn’t what Objectivists hold. And you might also argue that autistics have a tendency to be self-absorbed, in the sense that they can be unaware of the world or those that exist outside of their direct experience. But that’s not even “self-interested” as per the Objectivist view, let alone “selfish”. [...]

  3. Julia Says:

    Autistics and and people with Asperger’s ARE able to empathize with people they just do not know how to express it or do not care to express it. This idea that we do not empathize is a MYTH. STOP spreading this myth and get it out of your special theories.Read articles on this site and dispel your myths http://www.autismandempathy.com/?p=391

    This site exists to undo the myths about autism and empathy that have stigmatized autistic people for so long.

    It features writing by autistic individuals, by autism parents and family members, by autism professionals, and by others who understand that autistic people, all along the spectrum, can experience the world in highly empathetic and sensitive ways. Telling our stories, describing our experiences, and speaking the truth in our own voices, we can break dehumanizing stereotypes and increase understanding.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Well, first, I’ll be more than happy to read that site if you can tell me what I’ll find in there that I couldn’t find by reading Temple Grandin’s book and the studies and papers I referenced in this paper.

      Second, I find it odd that you’re associating me with promoting dehumanizing stereotypes when the crux of my paper is that autistics are, in fact, moral (to contrast them with psychopaths). Note that this was challenged in one of the sources I used, which I argued against.

      Finally, there is much evidence that autistics lack empathy as defined by being able to determine what other people are feeling. Autistics have issues with mind-reading in general (meaning the ability to predict and understand other people), and particularly with empathy (the Yirmaya paper is a good source). Additionally, it does appear that autistics have deficiencies in their mirror neurons, which are associated with empathy. That they are deficient in empathy — defined as knowing what other people feeling — seems pretty reasonable. Does this mean that they can’t do it at all? No, and I explicitly granted them cognitive empathy, reasoning out what people were thinking instead of feeling it themselves. Could it be the case that autistics can have emotional empathy for cases they understand well? Yes, and some things Grandin says suggest that. It’s not really relevant for my paper, though, and we would have to be careful to separate empathy from sympathy for the purposes of this paper. I say nothing about sympathy, just about empathy. I am totally willing to concede that what you say is true for sympathy, but not for empathy as I defined it above.

  4. Scientism 101: Philosophism and Religionism … « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    [...] concerns can help us tease out ethical concerns, then there’s no problem with doing that (My essay on psychopaths does just that). And if concerns about things like epiphenomenalism may raise issues for straight neuroscientific [...]

  5. Controversial Controversies? « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    [...] by my post about some complaints that seemed to not be about things that were unreasonable, my essay on the morality of psychopaths and autistics and rounding out the top 5 my response to calls asking theists what would convince them that God [...]

  6. Héctor Muñoz Says:

    Psychopaths cause great social and personal harm because they will steal, lie and hurt other people whenever they think they can get away with it. They are also very manipulative and will exploit every person they can trough deception.

    I think the society needs to be warned about these individuals. Flagging psychopaths might be a way to control the consequences of their amoral way of being.

  7. Viktor Czernin Says:

    Unless you’re willing to offer a justification as to why moral facts objectively exist, it might be more intellectually precise to use neutral words like “internalize the moral/conventional distinction” rather than “learn…” That one can “learn” something implies that it exists, and if you’re not prepared to justify that, it would be dishonest to use the word.

    A sort of agnosticism to the existence of moral fact is probably the only stance that agrees with the precepts of empirical science. Especially if you’re going for a descriptive approach.

    Other than the linguistic nitpicks, stimulating stuff. Don’t agree with all of the conclusions, but they are compellingly argued.

    If we focus more on the normative aspects of moral philosophy, psychopathy poses a fair problem for eudaimonists and rational egoists. If the statement “their life would be improved, on the whole, by adherence to altruistic rules” doesn’t hold true for a given person, what can we say about morality for them? Do we conclude that altruism is immoral for psychopaths? Quite counterintuitive, especially in the context of the idea that moral judgment reinforces moral behavior which reinforces the individual and the social good. The relationship seems to break down into a muddle of inelegant (yet logically sound) deceptions. Example – it’s morally right for the psychopath to con the old widow, but it’s morally wrong for us to publicly announce this moral truth and thus reinforce the psychopath’s harmful (to us) behavior. On the other hand, it is morally right to generally maintain open and truthful communication with other people. Ugh.

    Needless to say, this particular mental deviance is a minefield for any purported rationally compelling morality. A fruitful minefield, yes, but a minefield nonetheless.

  8. verbosestoic Says:


    Sorry for not replying earlier, but things have been quite hectic the past few weeks, especially this past one. Things have settled down a bit now.


    I don’t need to prove objective morality here because my claim is not that psychopaths fail to learn any kind of “right” morality, but that they don’t even learn, naturally, the moral/conventional distinction that everyone else — including autistics — learn. Whether that division of rules in moral and conventional is arbitrary or whether those moral rules are any less conventional isn’t really a concern here. The key is that due to their inability to learn from negative conditioning psychopaths just don’t pick up the distinction, and moreover even if you teach them that distinction they never internalize it, which explains why they are amoral and autistics aren’t.

    As for morality, I am an objectivist but think that science has little to do with morality, mostly because I deny that morality is descriptive (I am firmly on the normative side of the line).

    As for the last part, you are right that psychopaths cause major problems for moral theories that are based on well-being. However, there are many moral theories that don’t do that. Kant, for example, would have no problem with psychopaths and would probably simply declare them incapable of being moral. The Stoics, as well, would have no issues with psychopaths, and both of these insisted that they were describing THE rationally compelling morality. Virtue Theories also won’t have too many issues with psychopaths beyond perhaps claiming that they are incapable of getting the virtues. So, if that minefield ends up blowing up well-being theories, we aren’t licked yet.

  9. I Lost on Empathy … « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    [...] suggesting that people with an ASD don’t have empathy. This was also mentioned in a comment on my essay about morality, psychopath and autistics. However, that essay clearly establishes that science says that, yes, they do have problems with [...]

  10. Phil Mathers Says:

    I have finally got professionals to acknowledge that my son has difficulties and they are intimating Asperger’s. His mother will not accept this. I always thought she was a psychopath but having read yours and other information sites I am now not sure if she is also autistic although she is very maniplulative and “evil”.

    Is it likely that a psychopath mother would have an autistic child. My son certaily seems more of a normal devcent person than his mother. Mother father and grandson all seem to have similar symptoms.

    How key is inheritance?


  11. verbosestoic Says:


    Well, I’m a philosopher and not a psychologist, so I might not be the best person to answer this question. You can look at some of the sources in the paper to see if they give better answers. That being said, it seems that autism and psychopathy have different causes, so it isn’t that likely that they are the same, and they both relate differently to moral questions, so that sort of heredity doesn’t seem to match much. We don’t know entirely what causes either psychopathy or autism, though, so we can’t say for certain.

    You can be manipulative and evil and not be a psychopath, though, so it’s more about the specific symptoms than just having bad behaviour. The “conventional/moral” distinction, it seems to me, is one of the key differences, because people who are truly “evil” would know that the actions are morally wrong but wouldn’t care. A lack of emotional empathy might help with this if one was never given a reason to care about others … but that would require them to be in a position to get what they want no matter how badly they treated others, which in and of itself can lead to that sort of manipulative and “evil” behaviour.

  12. Jesse Lykken Says:

    My father, David Lykken, believed that psychopaths could in fact be socialized through effective parenting. He would often illustrate this through his experiences raising bull terriers. One of his uncompleted projects was to develop a screening tool to identify psychopaths at an early age, and that once identified, utilize effective parenting techniques (house parents) to socialize these children. A socialized psychopath could make a wonderful soldier, astronaut, explorer or president (TR) for that matter.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Part of that is covered where I talk about CBT and its impact on psychopaths. The problem is that it seemed to generate the right behaviour in the specific cases but outside of that it not only didn’t improve their chances of reoffending, but increased it. I posit that in those cases the psychopaths still don’t genuinely adopt the rules as real important rules, but adopt them as behaviours that it benefits them to adopt in those cases, to be forgotten outside of that. Autistics, on the other hand, adopt them as moral rules genuinely and so apply them in all situations … and, in fact, in cases where they DON’T apply. So I guess the difference is that psychopaths apply them because it seem to work for them in certain cases, while autistics apply them because they accept them as rules that must be followed.

  13. Jesse Lykken Says:

    I am David Lykken’s eldest son, and actually was a test subject of the aforementioned electric shock test. I also score quite high on the Psychopathic Scale (although am not diagnosed as a full psychopath) while my best friend is a psychologist and a diagnosed psychopath. Furthermore, I am the parent of three autistic children. Some quick points and observations. Re. the lowered anxiety on the shock test. I obviously knew when the shock was coming, but I knew the pain would not injure me, so why worry? It was just pain. As far a morality goes, the whole subject is so subjective. My friend and I have chosen our own individual codes of behavior and live by them quite strictly. These codes are by in large not “instinctive” but rather learned/copied from other individuals that we respect, such as our parents. Is that so different from what typical folks do? I do have an instinctive reaction to bullying behavior, which includes child/animal abuse. If I were to see somebody violently abusing an animal or a child, I would most likely kill them. Cheating/stealing/sexual mores are all copied from respected adults. Two of my own autistic children seem to have moral codes hard-wired in their brains. They never, ever, cheat, lie, steal. Just not an issue. The third child, the most profoundly autistic, is manipulative, will lie and steal, and basically do whatever she has to to obtain my doughnut (yes, she invariably gets it, being smarter than I). As far as a psychopath’s ability to “learn moral behavior”, learning is one thing, demonstrating it is another. Understanding how typical humans behave is just another tool in the toolbox. Replicating it is another matter. Think of acting on the stage. Some can, some cannot. Same with psychopaths aping human behavior.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Welcome back.

      For some of your comments, you might want to read the Damasio reference. For example, in the card test he demonstrated that when picking the higher risk deck most people had an emotional reaction even though, presumably, they thought it was the right thing to do. This sort of reaction is, I think, what would be lacking in the shock test and something that most non-psychopaths would have, even if they used the same reasoning you did. Also, this seems to be the case for making decisions, as Damasio gives an example of a person who is emotionally impaired who cannot decide what day to schedule the next appointment for, even though they obviously don’t care about it. Moral dumbfounding also seems to indicate that most people decide what is and isn’t moral based not on a set of rules, but on a set of instinctive reactions, which also explains why autistic moral reasoning is far more rules-based than that of others.

      As for the last point, remember the main thesis of this paper: that the difference between autistics and psychopaths is that autistics genuinely adopt moral reasoning while psychopaths only adopt it as a means to an end. Thus, it’s only when psychopaths see acting morally as benefiting them that they do it, while autistics adopt it “wholeheartedly”. So reasoning ability and the like would play into being able to “fake” being moral better or worse, true, but that is in line with my thesis, I think.

  14. Phil Mathers Says:

    Jesse’s comments and my observations seem to indicate that psychopaths and autistics perhaps have the strength to say no or not comply with peer pressure when others go along with it to keep the peace. If so maybe they have a better outlook on life that the rest?

    Phil Mathers

    • verbosestoic Says:

      That doesn’t seem to be the case. Autistics seem to care about what other people think — which is the main reason people give in to peer pressure — but usually don’t know how to actually act according to the social rules. See Temple Grandin’s work for more on that, I think. As for psychopaths, they in general don’t seem to care about what other people think because they don’t, in general, seem to care about people. But that’s hardly a good outlook.

      Note that the underlying presumption here is that not complying with peer pressure is a GOOD thing, in general. The problem is that it isn’t necessarily so, because “giving in to peer pressure” is the other side of the coin to “follow the unspoken social rules”. And what we can see from psychopaths and autistics is that being unable to understand or follow those unspoken rules causes them much grief when the rules really do need to be followed. Surely you’d agree that while it is bad to jump off a bridge just because everyone else is doing it that not following the rules about, say, not picking your nose in public is, in general, a bad thing.

      (As an aside, the comment would have shown up earlier, but I thought it was already approved.)

  15. Peta Barber Says:

    Interesting. I’m a psychologist working with an adolescent who after being taken into Public Care for being out of control as a 9-year old was subsequently diagnosed with Aspergers. This has somehow never felt right to me and I have long experience of young people with ASD. Now aged 16, he is at high risk of offending, aggressively and/or sexually if not closely supervised. I m thinking I will explore your thesis and see if if I can assess his fear/anxiety response to moral behaviours. I am also considering genetic factors – his natural father has been diagnosed schizophrenic – and early developmental factors – a mother with learning difficulties who suffered from post-natal depression, so an Attachment Disorder might be in there as well. A complex case study.

  16. What Sam Harris Gets Wrong. | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] people side with the Utilitarians, but there is a group of people who don’t: autistics [see http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/fearlessly-amoral-psychopaths-autistics-and-learning-with-emotion/ for details]. They tend to side with saying that it isn’t right for the parent to steal the […]

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