Psychopaths are fascinating
, in a repugnant sort of way. Whether we read about Ted Bundy or Paul Bernardo or see psychopaths depicted in fictional characters such as Hannibal Lecter, we are forced to wonder how a human being could ever do such horrible things. We are also forced to wonder whether we ourselves could ever do those things - whether such darkness possibly exists deep within us all.
As a sensitive human being, I was always baffled by psychopaths until I studied the topic of psychopathy, especially as understood by its foremost expert, Robert Hare, the psychiatrist who developed the Psychopathy Checklist, now the standard tool for diagnosing people with psychopathy. But it was as a philosopher that I experienced a kind of awakening. This is because I not only came to understand what makes psychopaths tick, but I began to see the wider significance of psychopaths - connections with areas of inquiry that experts such as Hare (let alone philosophers) did not seem to see. (I am a "What is x
?" philosopher, the kind who takes science seriously, the kind who believes that it is not wisdom to ignore evidence.)
In this article, I shall focus on three areas of wider significance: postmodernism, morality, and theology. It is perhaps astonishing that the human phenomenon of psychopathy can teach us anything about these three fields, but as we shall see, it actually has a lot to teach us.
First we need to be reasonably clear on what psychopathy is. Following the work of Hare in his must-read Without Conscience
(1995), psychopathy is not a form of insanity or even a mental illness, given the clinical meanings of these terms. Nor need psychopaths be lacking in rationality. Conceivably a psychopath could have the genius of an Einstein and function quite well in the world. There is no twisted logic necessarily involved with psychopathy, no warped thinking that is so obvious in the mentally ill and insane, no hallucinations, no depression, no dysfunctionality necessarily.
Psychopaths are defined in terms of something else - a cluster of features, most of which are deficiencies. This means that psychopathy is a matter of degree. Many of us might score relatively high in one or more of these defining characteristics, but that does not necessarily mean that we are psychopaths. On the other hand, there are those who score so high on the Psychopathy Checklist that they are considered full-fledged psychopaths. They are, so to speak, the interesting ones.