Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

He bad

A surprisingly shallow and unenlightening essay yesterday in the NYWT about psychiatrists who think they should call some psychopaths evil, instead of or in addition to (it was never quite clear which) giving them a disease label.

I say surprisingly shallow because it is a very short wade to the deep end of this particular pool. The Times reporter just interviewed a bunch of shrinks, some of whom thought that calling Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacey psychopaths inappropriately tends to excuse them as they were actually just evil but sane (whatever that means, and the question was never even suggested, let alone addressed); versus others who thought that while you can call them evil, for their psychiatrists to say so would be unscientific.

There was no mention in the article that psychiatry is marbled with moral judgments, even far away from questions of anti-social personality, while paradoxically, any science of the mind has a profoundly problematic engagement with morality. Neuroscience and its handmaiden psychiatry have long ago abandoned the Cartesian dualism of mind and body. The mind, and behavior, are just manifestations of a physical system. Every thought, every feeling, every impulse, is represented by patterns of neuronal activity, which can now be observed in a very crude aggregate and, in principle, could be completely described. Current research into addictions and eating disorders has taken a big chunk out of the illusion of free will, and in the view of many, the rest of it will soon melt away like the snows of March.

No-one created himself or herself. Many people with sociopathic spectrum diagnoses had head injuries as children. Many were severely abused or emotionally abandoned. For others, no such dramatic history can be discovered, but we are all the product of hereditary endowment interacting with the physical and social environment as our personalities got wired into our brains. Our brains are part of our bodies, which bathe them in nutrients and hormones, and supply the sensory input and experiential feedback that our brains process back into behavior. And of course we are all part of complexly interacting social systems. People with no diagnosis of psychopathology, when placed in the right social context, will readily commit evil acts.

I personally do not believe that neuroscience can take us completely "beyond good and evil," because moral feelings and judgments are intrinsic to our subjective experience and are essential heuristics for the functioning of society. But the ontological status of the moral categorization of individuals is questionable at best.

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