Bioethics Blogs

Should We Reward Psychopaths?

Psychopaths frequently make the news and rarely for good reasons. Take, for instance, the recent case of Becky Watts, a 16-year old girl who got abducted in Bristol, murdered, and her body parts were then discovered by the police at a house in Barton Court, Bristol. While her murder remains unsolved, it is hard not to suspect a person with psychopathic tendencies is behind it. And this is not unreasonable. Between 25 to 30 percent of crimes are committed by psychopaths, despite them representing only 1 percent of the population. The percentages are especially high for extremely violent crimes such as rape and homicide. Given the detrimental effect psychopaths have on society, is there a way to cure them or at least reduce their negative impact on society?

Most philosophers, psychologists and psychiatrists assume that there is no effective therapy for psychopathy. This skepticism is based on findings that show high stability of psychopathic traits over the life time, a strong genetic component and structural brain differences between psychopaths and non-psychopaths in regions such as the amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex (more here). The latter might help to explain why, for instance, psychopaths don’t learn from punishment, no matter how severe. And sometimes, therapy might actually make things worse (for an example); therapy might increase recidivism instead of decrease. Walter Sinott-Armstrong illustrates why this could be the case with an anecdote in which a psychopath comes back to prison group therapy (listen to it here). The psychopath used to go to group therapy when he was convicted the first time, taking part regularly.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.