Psychopaths, Judgements, and Motivation: The Internalist Challenge?

Psychopaths have long presented a dilemma for moral psychologists and meta-ethical commentators. From both a psychological and philosophical perspective, the evidence about psychopaths seems to create more questions than it answers.  Psychopaths are certainly different from healthy individuals in important ways, but is there one ultimate explanation? Can we gain any insight by trying to fit our conceptual theories so that psychopathy doesn’t seem so out of place?

It seems as if many problematic aspects of psychopaths can be explained in slightly different terms, in order to arrive at a more practical view which does not entail treating psychopaths any differently from other violent criminals with personality disorders. It seems as if as opposed to being a discrete group, psychopathy is a dimensionally measured disorder. The PCL-R  uses twenty, but it seems as if the clinical diagnosis for psychopathy is made up of two general factors. The experimental evidence shows that factor 1 traits seem to have a more profound effect on someones ability to empathize in an emotional fashion.

If either factor could render someone incapable of making moral judgements, it would be factor 1. But we see that non criminals can in fact score fairly high on factor 1 psychopathy traits. It does not make sense to say that factor 1 traits make someone incapable of making moral judgements. Factor 2 traits have a similar story, with many otherwise healthy individuals exhibiting them without factor 1 traits. If neither factor 1 nor factor 2 traits are responsible for a loss of moral judgement ability, It stands to reason that psychopathy in general does not cause someone to lose the ability to make moral judgements. Where psychopaths fail is in making an emotional connection to other-regarding intuitions. This specific defect seems to be part of a more general deficit in forming all emotional intuitions.

Psychopathy and Quasi-Psychopathy

Factor 1 traits seem to be more indicative of the pop culture notion of the psychopath. These are emotional factors, and they seem to be deeply related to emotional intelligence, and the ability to emotionally connect to other-regarding norms and judgements. Psychological testing has shown this to be something of its own discrete taxon. We have correlated neuropsychological deficits with these traits. We also have examples of non-criminals who test high for these traits.

The behavioral aspect of psychopathy, the factor 2 attributes seem to describe a general criminality, or willingness to transgress normative rules. These traits can also be found in the non-psychopath population, and tend to be highly correlated with incarceration or other previous engagement with criminal justice. These seem to describe a general taste for trouble.

A psychopathy diagnosis depends on testing high in both factor 1 and factor 2 attributes. This is why psychopaths are classified as emotionally cold and without empathy, but it must be added that they are likely to transgress normative and moral rules often and without regard for the safety or wellbeing of others. Their emotional deficit is responsible for a lack of remorse, and their need for stimulation is responsible for just how often they transgress. Just like isolated factor 1 or factor 2 subjects, psychopaths can make use of moral and emotional talk, and usually have a fairly well developed theory of mind, especially when emotions and morals are stated verbally, and not just taken from facial expressions(Blair 1995).

The externalist challenge is really two challenges: First, to refute/weaken Smith’s claims to diminish the problematic role psychopaths play. Second is to provide evidence which matches this alternate explanation more neatly than strict internalism. Many of the arguments and pieces of evidence could support other alternate theories, but the goal here is to find a theory which is practical, fits the evidence, and makes sense conceptually. After these terminological adjustments, we arrive at the less problematic view that Psychopaths do indeed make genuine moral judgements, but where they fail is properly internalizing those judgements.

Moral Judgements

The first term in need of redefinition is moral judgement. I will discuss Smith’s definition later, but my definition is the following: any normative judgement about a transgression which has one or more identifiable victims or potential victims. Why claim that a moral judgement has no association with emotional/motivating reactions? Because there is no universal set of rules which elicit the same response.

Some may say that a moral judgement carries with it the “moral” response pattern, but if that is how we classify judgements, we never end up with a definitive list, because so many people have the “wrong” reaction. Whether one believes it is okay to torture if the government says so, or that it’s not okay to eat a dead relative even if it is legal, these reactions are problematic when attempting to split the moral from the conventional.

So what is the distinction between the response patterns? The “moral” response pattern is experienced when one discusses or witnesses a transgression which they have an emotional connection to the cultural norm being transgressed.

It is my theory that the emotional response pattern to certain transgressions emerged over the course of millennia out of a growing sense of cooperation in human social life. At some point in our biological and cultural development, it became advantageous to have a stronger aversion to certain transgressions than others, and It was even more advantageous if the judge in question was convinced that their motivation to not transgress came from their own emotions, and not from any authority. This is when we began to internalize normative judgements.


Okay so what is this internalization I speak of? This can refer to two processes which happen to judgements in either the specific mind of one judger, or in the cultural practices of a civilization. In a single person, internalization is the process of making emotional associations with any judgement. This occurs much more often during development, and slows down in adulthood. I will refer to judgements which have been internalized as “emotional intuitions” And “ Motivating judgements”. They do not require any engagement with normativity or morality, but when fully internalized, the judgement will motivate the judge by itself, without necessarily appealing to an external reason which may have once been a motivating factor. I will also refer to rote internalization, in which the judgement becomes intuitive to the judge, but there is no emotional connection, and the judge can still identify the motivation as an external force.

In a culture, it is a more general notion, and only comes into play in a later explanatory section. This is the idea that certain judgements become “popular” for internalization. Over the course of centuries, popular judgements which lead to success or survival of the culture  become more and more ubiquitous.

This notion of internalization helps us classify just what psychopaths lack, and that is the ability to truly internalize normative judgements which are other-regarding. This does not impair their ability to make normative or moral judgements, It just means that these judgements are not connected to emotion or motivation.

Problems with “The Challenge”

I have several problems with Smith’s categorization of two key terms: Moral judgement, and rationality. He molds them to his argument, in order to make his conclusion airtight, but has miscategorized both, in my opinion. His definition of rationality will not allow for a rational, amoral person to exist, but the psychological evidence seems to show that these people do in fact exist. His definition of moral judgement also does not give the psychopaths and factor 1 non-criminals any wiggle room. His claim that “true” moral judgements are intrinsically motivating also spells many problems once the evidence on psychopathy is investigated.

It seems as though Smith has made an error which is easy to make during such a unique time in history. He seems convinced that the set of rules which people are expected to follow and which warrant disapproval if transgressed are universal across the human race. He is correct about how he has characterized the response patterns, but doesn’t take into account that a certain general set of intuitions has been internalized nearly ubiquitously in western culture. His arguments claim that this is a feature of human moral functioning, when it just happens to be a feature of most humans’ moral functioning right now.

Yet another problem in Smith’s line of reasoning is his categorization of the conceptual claim versus the substantive claim. He explains that the conceptual claim can be true without finding a universally prescriptive rule. But doesn’t this make the conceptual claim less interesting? It seems that if the substantive claim is false, he is describing a connection which never actually is made by anyone, since it requires an objectively prescriptive feature of the universe for the judge to find as the reason for action.

A Hypothetical agreement

“What grounds our expectation is not an agreement that rational creatures have in fact made, but rather an agreement they would make if they were… rational (241)”

This agreement he speaks of relates to approval and disapproval.  Approval and disapproval in healthy rational individual seem to be tied to internalized judgements of any kind, and not just moral matters. If someone is conservative enough, witnessing the transgression of social norms that that person has internalized their judgement of may cause them real and measurable physiological distress.

He claims that we “expect rational agents to do the right thing” (pg.239) and then defines “expect” as believing it is what they will do, as opposed to believing it is what they should do. This idea of expectation works great within the culture one is raised in. A rational person of one culture will do what is expected of them by other rational people within that culture(as often as is reasonable). Many cultural norms can present themselves as irrationality and immorality to an outsider. Who is Smith to claim that his ( or another westerner’s) expectations should be met by anyone in the world who happens to be rational. He has not set out a rule that is true of all humanity, he has set out a rule that is true of most of the people he has himself met, and most of the people who have been subjects in studies he has read.

When Smith refers to moral judgements and their universality for rational agents, I believe he is categorizing a different type of judgement, for the disapproval “of those who do not do what is morally required” can be observed in many normative, but not necessarily moral scenarios. If I were to show up for work in my underwear, this would certainly be met with disapproval from my co-workers. This disapproval would presuppose the legitimate expectation for me to show up to work in my regular uniform, and my coworkers may even call me irrational  ( in a colloquial sense), but I have not victimized anyone if we assume the restaurant doesn’t have any customers for me to traumatize when I arrive.

These criticisms are summed up well by Nichols (2002) who points to results from a study in which subjects were asked about two characters without empathy. While the first character was a psychopath, the second only had signs of factor 1 traits. Despite their lack of motivation in moral concerns, a large majority of test subjects said that both characters made genuine moral judgements.

Why Smith is an Externalist

Smith’s categorization gains some merit when these situations of approval and expectations are generalized to all normative judgements. In fact, even the practicality requirement and rationalism can be saved, to an extent.

If we allow that Smith’s original definition of moral judgements is the real problem, and go as far as to replace it with a more accurate term, his arguments begin to make more sense. I’m compelled to use the idea of “motivating judgements”, or “emotional intuitions” In place of moral judgements.

This switch is far from trivial, because it allows psychopaths to be considered moral judges, but also helps categorize healthy moral functioning as its own discrete group.

After the switch is made, rationalism reads like this :


“If an agent emotionally intuits that it is right to ɸ in circumstances C, Then they are motivated to ɸ in circumstances C, or they are practically irrational”.


This may seem, among other things, counter-intuitive, but its not, I swear. The type of judgement Smith has in mind and wants to call a moral judgement, is just a judgement worthy of the so called “moral response pattern”. As I have put forward, this response pattern can occur in multiple circumstances, and can not be correlated to moral rules in a general sense, but does seem to provide motivation which seems to come from inside the judge, and not due ( at least non-derivatively) to an outside force. This is very compatible with Smith’s account of how motivations change in accordance to changes in the information the judger has. These external factors change how a motivating intuition is applied in practice, but never change the original intuition. The easiest example is to think of a very general motivating intuition, such as “Attempt to prevent the harming of sentient lifeforms”. If this is where the “gut” motivation comes from, then of course adjusting external factors of a situation will result in a new intended outcome, but the motivating intuition remains unchanged. In fact the changes made in light of new facts will move ever closer to meeting the demands of the motivating judgement perfectly.

The Proof

If the rebuttal of Smith is to be accepted as more than just a trivial argument of terms, It is necessary to show in the empirical and correlative data that these new classifications are necessary in order to find a more cohesive explanation of moral faculty and motivation. The evidence about psychopathy, criminality, and emotional intelligence suggests that it is more practical to think of moral judgements as something that all rational agents can make, but to think of psychopathy as a deficit in emotional intelligence, but not in rationality or normative judgement.

What are Psychopaths?

Psychopathy, unlike psychological disorders(Ahmed 2007, Ruscio 2009), does not present itself as a discrete taxon in the prison population or the general public.

Using the PCL-R assessment, Guay, Knight, Ruscio and Hare (2007) demonstrate the statistical properties of psychopathy traits in the population of several north American prisons, and one group of ex-convicts. Their findings demonstrate that psychopathy follows a distribution which suggests “Dimensionality.” Dimensionality is not a philosophical term, however, In psychology, It is meant to mean that the trait( or traits) that the PCL-R tests for are not a packaged deal. There is of course, a threshold score which indicates a diagnosis as a psychopath, but one can attain this score without conforming to any one central pattern of  the traits in question.

This evidence is further corroborated by Edens et. al( 2006), In which the results also suggest dimensionality, and further dispel the rumor that there is a latent taxonomic structure to psychopathy. Hare & Neumann (2008) support this conclusion to an extent, but also support studying psychopaths as if they were a discrete group due to the similarities between all psychopathic patients, and the fact that scoring higher on the PCL-R can be correlated with distinct an observable differences in the brain and behavior.

It seems as though psychopathy as a construct is really two overlapping conditions, which other people have as isolated traits. It is unfair to call these people psychopaths, but we can gain insight by trying to compare and contrast these groups with psychopaths.

Well behaved psychopaths?

Smith’s idea of the amoralist does not have to be a psychopath. An amoralist, according to Smith, is someone who is unmotivated by moral concerns. Given the notion of internalization, an amoralist simply doesn’t internalize other-regarding emotional intuitions, and may have a problem with emotional intuitions in general.

These amoralists represent one constituent condition of psychopathy. Often referred to as non-criminal psychopaths, people who test high in factor 1 traits of the PCL-R seem a lot like their more violent counterparts. These individuals have an admitted lack of empathy, are superficially charming, and are emotionally unmoved by judgements which concern others’ well being.

Unlike psychopathy as a whole, factor 1 traits seem to represent a distinct  group of people( which psychopaths happen t be a part of), and these traits can be correlated with observable differences in the subjects’ neuropsychological functioning. The study carried out by Boccardi et al. (2011) demonstrates this correlation statistically. The results of their study showed size deficits in the cortex and amygdala of psychopaths. The cortex and amygdala are known to be highly involved in emotional intelligence and intuitive information processing.

May and Beaver (2012) found a similar link, but were able to correlate neuropsychological deficits with criminal behavior as a whole. This study did not identify areas of the brain which were smaller or misshapen (like in Boccardi et. al.), rather they used a series of cognitive skills tests, and were able to find that these neuropsychological deficits were found to be predictive of scoring in the top 5 percentile for psychopathy traits.

These brain deficits have also been correlated with genetics(Taylor et. al 2003). This study was able to find two separate genetic correlations. This data suggests that factor 1 and factor 2 traits are separate, and both highly effected by genetic inheritance. This suggests that psychopathy can be seen as an evolutionary trait, subject to selection pressures which emerge out of human social life.

Is there a treatment for having no soul?

There is a great deal of evidence which supports the notion that children and adolescents with psychopathic tendencies can be treated in order to overcome any genetic predisposition for psychopathy, and avoid becoming psychopaths later in life.  It seems as though around puberty the subjects ( particularly males ) learn to talk about emotions. Once they acquire this less effective cognitive empathy, their chances of emotionally internalizing those judgements goes down significantly (Dadds et al 2009). These findings are consistent with my notion of rote internalization. Once those with factor 1 traits begin to intuitively know the judgements in this rote way, they are unable to replace them with emotional intuitions.

This notion of cognitive empathy may not feel as urgent, but it gives people with factor 1 traits the ability to learn judgements that coincide with the emotional intuitions of their healthy counterparts. Where cognitive empathy gets its real legitimacy is when it coincides with a well developed violence inhibition mechanism. The idea of a specific mechanism which builds a general aversion to violence is very insightful, and is an example of a hypothetical cognitive mechanism which would have obvious adaptive success (In the increasingly cooperative social structures of proto-humans).

Although they do not call it this, Baardewijk(2009) and his team found that psychopathic traits early on in in development are correlated with aggression, but they are dynamic and fairly responsive to the victim’s reaction. The study goes as far as to suggest that forms of empathy therapy may serve as an effective intervention to prevent psychopathy. This idea of early intervention is shown to be effective in children, but not adults (Salekin 2010). The lack of success in treating adult psychopaths using empathy therapy is consistent with the theory that rote internalizations are difficult to break, or even prevent the creation of emotional intuitions.

The notion of a violence inhibition mechanism is also touched on in Blair et. al (1995). At first glance the results do not support the idea that psychopaths are capable of making moral judgements, but that is not what was tested for. The study was designed to use hypothetical scenarios to show whether a psychopath can recognize whether someone else would feel guilty about transgressing a rule. This does show their characteristic lack of empathy, but supports the idea that this is separate from their ability to judge the action as wrong. This is actually a very good example of an other-regarding emotion (guilt) which psychopaths fail to associate with correct moral judgements and intuitions.

The Half-Paths Among Us

Multiple studies were able to find factor 1 traits in non-criminals and non-psychopaths. These findings show that psychopathy cannot be described as just factor 1 attributes, but also point to factor 1 as more likely to cause the emotional deficits seen in criminal psychopaths.

The stereotypical corporate psychopath is not a true psychopath, but he is also not a myth. Results from leadership structures in corporations have shown that there is a quantifiable difference between a dysfunctional or mean boss, and a boss with psychopathic tendencies(Boddy 2011). The study was able to correlate efficiency and bullying with the presence of these quasi-psychopathic supervisors. This shows not only that these people are out there in the professional world, but also that their condition is maladaptive (the presence of psychopathic supervisors was correlated with decreased efficiency).

More conclusively, in DeMatteo et. al (2006), researchers were able to find non-criminals who tested high in factor 1 traits. Factor 2 traits were harder to find in non-criminals, which supports the theory that factor 2 represents  general taste for criminality. These findings show that there are people in the general population with very little emotional connection to other-regarding norms who have still managed to not transgress as many rules, and could be as morally upstanding as anyone with emotional empathy.

These results are corroborated in Mahmut et. al’s 2008 study on non criminals with high psychopathy traits. This study was also able to quantify a deficit which psychopaths have which is shared (to an extent) with many non-psychopaths : Poor emotional learning skills. They tested psychopaths using the Iowa gambling task paradigm. This test is used to find out if a subject is adept at emotional learning, and following intuitions in order to solve complex tasks. These results support the conclusion that non-criminals with psychopathic traits have a deficit which can be described without having to appeal to moral terms. Much like young adults with ADHD symptoms and college educated adults (Evans 2004, Suhr et. al 2006), psychopaths’ performance on the Iowa gambling task was poorer than controls. This shows a general emotional deficit, specifically the ability to work with one’s own emotions intuitively. Other groups that fail this test may have more general emotional learning or impulse problems, but it seems that for psychopaths it is specifically the ability to form and use emotional intuitions effectively.

These “half-paths” as I like to call them, seem to really have the lack of emotional empathy seen in criminal psychopaths. They are even referred to as psychopaths in some of the literature. So why does it make sense to say that they can in fact make moral judgements ? Because they follow these judgements. We have seen how they are able to pick up emotional talk(Dadds et. al 2009), but it is “empty”, and not connected to any emotions. These judgements can become intuitive in this same cold way, in what I earlier called rote internalization. these judgments will be remembered similarly to how one might remember and use a historical fact or mathematical trick. After long enough these judgments can become intuitive despite the lack of emotional connection.

Does this undermine the legitimacy of correct judgements? Not at all, they are just using different mechanisms to arrive at the same conclusion. There is strong evidence to suggest that the healthy adult population is filled with other quirks, in which there isn’t a universally used mechanism for a given problem, and decision making styles can vary greatly from person to person (Epstein & Pacini et al. 1996, Gross & John 2003, Suhr et al 2007). These findings suggest we may all have quirks or abnormal processes in certain domains, and there is no universal problem type which is solved by either emotional or deliberative decision making.

Half-Paths as Moral Judges

Factor 1 is certainly more compelling than factor 2, and if either were to cause an inability to make moral judgements, it would most likely be these traits. We can see that these traits represent a distinct set of genetically determined neuropsychological differences, which can be intervened upon during development. Without formal intervention, it seems as if many half-paths still manage to learn to behave like everyone else, out of  the egocentric goals of being liked, respected, or successful.

True psychopaths miss out on this intervention, and it is their impulsivity and proneness to boredom that makes them transgress so regularly. They still learn to talk the talk, and are probably aware of how they would go about becoming a half-path, but are compelled to make their life more interesting, and eventually transgress enough to become incarcerated.

The Criminal Element?

The Factor 2 traits seem to signify a general impulsivity in one’s behavior. Some of the dimensions of factor 2 include stimulation/novelty seeking, proneness to boredom, and irresponsibility. Factor 2 traits can be found in the general population usually in lower levels than factor 1 traits. Interestingly, non-psychopathic incarcerated criminals seem to consistently test higher than non-psychopathic non-criminals. Incarcerated non-psychopaths who test high for  factor 2 traits are never referred to as “psychopaths” in the absence of factor 1 traits. The general correlation is that people in jail have more factor 2 traits than people who have never been in jail.

There is strong evidence to suggest that factor 2 traits correspond to a general criminality in someone’s behavior and decision making.  In a study with psychopathic and non-psychopathic male murders, It was demonstrated that psychopaths only scored higher than non psychopathic murderers in factor 1 traits(Serafim et. al 2014).  To contrast this, studies taken out to find halfpaths within the general population found a relative absence in factor 2 traits in people who had never been to jail. This suggests there is a very strong relationship between transgressing normative rules and factor 2 personality traits.

These findings line up well with theories about a violence inhibition mechanism. It may in fact be that the violence inhibition mechanism is a more general impulse inhibition mechanism which is deficient in all subjects who test high in factor 2 traits.

This inhibition mechanism may also have an identifiable neuropsychological component. It seems as though disturbances in the functioning of serotonin in the brain can result in a deficit in impulse control(Retz 2004). These findings are fairly inconclusive, but point to factor 2 personality traits as a separate, but also distinct, set of traits, caused by a separate neuropsychological defect.

As with factor 1, it does not make very much sense to think that factor 2 personality traits cause an inability to make moral judgements. Tests on prison inmates have found the factor 2 traits in people that possess a perfectly healthy ability to empathize and make moral judgements grounded in internalized emotional intuitions.


Here we have hit an impasse in trying to find what could be responsible for a psychopath’s inability to make moral judgements. Neither of the constituent sets of traits seem to cause this inability, and there are people with one or the other that are indeed capable of making moral judgements. Some of these people are not as emotionally connected to these judgements (factor 1) and some of them find it hard to consistently act according to those judgements (factor 2). It logically follows that having both sets of traits would also not fundamentally change how one makes moral or rational decisions. What psychopaths have is the inconvenient combination of not consistently following their normative judgements, and (coincidentally) not feeling connected to their intuitions.

A Dying Breed?

It seems obvious that psychopathic traits are maladaptive. Both factor 1 and factor 2 have genetically linked neuropsychological correlates, so it seems as though both could somehow be tracked in human history to see how long they have been adaptive.

My own speculative opinion is that psychopathy is on its way out of the human genome. It may have once been very advantageous to be so emotionally cold, or prone to impulsive outbursts, but as our societies have gotten bigger and more complex, basic cooperation with people we know and strangers has become more and more important to survival. Not feeling empathy only estranges you from this growing culture of cooperation. When we all fended for ourselves, it was an advantage, but now, it makes you a loner.

A Unique Time in History

At times it may seem as if everything is going to hell, but wer actually at a very lucky time in history to be human. The very same cultures that have made the world inhospitable to psychopaths have done so through attempting to make it more hospitable for the rest of us. The fact that Michael Smith wrote his paper on internalism and didn’t have first hand anecdotal memories which directly contradicted it speaks to just how successfully modern cultures have internalized so many moral rules. So many of them have become nearly ubiquitous, and have set a new type of norm which people within the culture think is really separate and distinct from any other cultural norms. I’m of course talking about morality. The distinction that can be made between response patterns would in actuality line up to two distinct sets of norms.

Return to Internalism

If this process of making certain cultural rules more and more ubiquitous in their effect on people of western culture continues, we may end up in a future in which we can accept Smith’s substantive claim, due to an intuition becoming universally internalized. Just as Smith’s account matches up with the behavior of a morally healthy individual,  a world like this would actually coincidentally be just how Smith has described. This also implies that many many taboo cultural practices around the world would be snuffed out and everyone would be really boring, but they would all be in agreement about what is right and what is wrong, and most peculiarly, they would all agree why.


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