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11/5/13

Do Sociopaths Have A Conscience?

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Yes, but not in the way you might think.


Philosopher Jonathan Glover (born 1941) has focused on bioethics. Currently teaching at King's College London, Glover is a fellow of the Hastings Center, an independent bioethics research institution in the United States.

Glover argues for Applied Ethics in his book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (1999), as distinct from Normative Ethics or Meta-ethics, the one dealing with what we should believe, the other with analyzing the nature of moral statements. Applied Ethics encompasses ethics of business, of environment, of biology, and bio-technology. Glover finds that despite its historical abuses, religion had a constraining affect on behavior. He has studied and thought about abortion issues and argues that a fetus is not a human person as naturally considered.

In an an interview he discusses the role of morality in anti-social personality disorders. Here are some highlights of that interview:


  • In Britain, Glover visited a high security psychiatric hospital where people had committed terrible crimes. He found many anti-social personality disorders where people were psychopathic in the extreme. He interviewed some of them.



  • The public conception is that such people lack conscience. To the contrary, Glover found that the inmates did have conscience, only that it was of a different type.



  • So not to scare off his subjects about issues of conscience, he asked questions such as "If you were driving a car, would you park in a disabled person parking space?" Or, "What would you tell your children about right and wrong?"



  • He found that they had shallow ideas about right and wrong. For example, people should not swear; they should not bully; they should let women through the door first. Each of these were rules of equal importance. None had more weight than the other.



  • In short, their concept of right and wrong lacked sympathy for others. They did not relate to the degree of consequences for others, nor did they appreciate the magnitude of kinds of wrong-doing.



  • When asked what capital punishment should be used for, a subject answered, "For damaging the queen's property." Glover asked, "For damaging her waste basket?" to which the reply came, "No, for damaging Buckingham Palace." Here a sense of magnitude exists, but it applies to things, not people.



  • The inmates' sense of right and wrong pertained to doing what parents told a child to do. It was authority-based, not based on empathy or compassion. In short, it was rule-following.



  • Although sociopathic behavior can be rooted in genetic biology--defective brain development--Glover found that many of his subjects had horrendous childhoods: rejection, neglect, emotional and physical abuse, cruelty. He observes that a bad childhood does not necessarily produce criminals.

    The issue is sometimes raised that if determinism is true--if we have no free will--then why should prisons exist since criminals are not responsible for their behavior? Of course, that is nonsensical. Quite simply, the answer is this: To keep society safe from them.

    The original interview is no longer available online.
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