Thursday, 11 September 2014

Being Amoral

Being Amoral
by Thomas Schramme
This post is by Thomas Schramme. Thomas introduces his new edited collection, Being Amoral: Psychopathy and Moral Incapacity (MIT Press).
It would be useful to know what kind of capacities human beings require in order to be moral. This piece of information would have tremendous practical significance, as we could try to organize institutions, such as education, to provide an environment where these capacities can develop and flourish. It would also be an interesting theoretical piece of information, as philosophers have for a long time quarrelled over the issue whether moral capacities are mainly due to reason or emotion.

One way of making progress in this debate on the necessary faculties in becoming a moral person is to study people who apparently lack morality; who are, in philosophical parlance, amoral persons. There seem to be indeed real-life exemplars of such amoral persons, and to study them might lead us exactly in the desired direction. The really amoral people seem to be psychopaths. So to scientifically study psychopaths' lack of capacities might well help us to solve theoretical problems. But we cannot simply apply such empirical research to solve philosophical riddles, because the conceptual basis of the construct of psychopathy is shaky. It is simply not always clear what phenomenon psychiatrists talk about when they refer to psychopathy. Yet, philosophers cannot decide either, by conceptual stipulation, what is means to lack moral knowledge or to be amoral. So both psychiatry and philosophy can benefit from working together in this area of research, but it requires genuine interdisciplinary research.

The collection sets out to clarify different defects or disabilities involved in psychopathy in order to learn something about required capacities for moral agency or "taking the moral point of view". The main research idea behind the proposed collection is that psychopathy is constituted not by a single defect, such as lack of empathy, but by a range of deficits. These can be distinguished for analytical purposes, but they will very likely be linked in reality. Psychopaths seem to have cognitive, affective and volitional deficits and these different incapacities lead to different results in evaluating their moral deficit. For instance, the philosophical debate concerned with internalism vs. externalism about moral motivation is strongly linked to hypotheses about the status of cognitive and conative elements. A finding of the book is that these viewpoints are too restricted, because they tend to focus on only one element of moral motivation.

The book will be instrumental in discussing and identifying the specific dysfunctions or deficits that are manifest in cases of psychopathy. In adopting this focus, the articles comprise ground-breaking work in both philosophy and psychiatry. The discussions come up with fresh ideas about what a person needs in order to be capable of acting morally by using a real life test case. Hence the book contributes to the most basic questions about the nature of moral agency. In addition, the philosophical debate on a lack of moral sense will be an invaluable contribution to the clarification of a notoriously contested psychiatric category.

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