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Are psychopaths morally sensitive?

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Abstract:

Philosophical and psychological opinion is divided over whether moral sensitivity, understood as the ability to pick out a situation's morally salient features, necessarily involves emotional engagement. This paper seeks to offer insight into this question. It reasons that if moral sensitivity does draw significantly on affective capacities of response, then moral insensitivity should be characteristic of psychopathy, a diagnostic category associated with pathologically low affectivity. The paper considers three bodies of empirical evidence on the moral functioning of psychopaths: (1) psychopathy and the moral/conventional distinction; (2) psychopathy and social perspective-taking competency; and (3) psychopathy and social information processing models of aggressive behaviour. On the basis of this evidence, the conclusion is reached that psychopaths are morally sensitive in the operative sense. Thus, conceptions of moral perception that include affect in their definitions are questionable, as are educational interventions that claim to develop an affective aspect of moral functioning by improving skills in situational moral perception.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/03057240802601680

Affiliations: 1: Universite de Montreal, Canada 2: Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam & Rotterdam University, The Netherlands

Publication date: 2009-03-01

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