Psychopathy is not universally agreed upon in psychology, but among some there is a consensus that psychopathy is highly heritable, and that psychopaths are lacking in conscience and empathy. Psychopathy is sometimes understood as a predisposition to consider other's feelings less. The idea that this is an alternative adaptive evolutionary strategy is suggested by, for example Hare, who uses the dramatic phrase "intraspecies predator".

Some philosophers posit moral realism (moral propositions can be objectively true) and some add that there is the capability to see such truth via intuition (this is probably a specific flavour of moral realism – does it have a name?).

In my limited experience the case in point was often cherry picked (how can you possibly not agree that a world where everyone suffers the maximum amount of pain is worse than any other world? or how can you possibly say that it's not wrong to murder people?) as opposed to how can you possibly not agree that it's wrong to eat meat?. I mean they deliberately chose examples where probabilistically it was unlikely that anyone in the room would disagree. This convergence in intuition (if that was intuition and not conformity) was then often cited as reason for its validity.

So, if we assume the existence of psychopathy for the moment until we see breaking new research in psychology – do they, who are from birth predisposed not to have moral intuition (or at least not the same as others), pose a problem for those moral realists (the specific ones who argue that moral truth can be intuited, not the other moral realists)?

My thought is, that it shows up the fact that what is "intuitive" is determined by majority vote, but what constitutes the majority vote is "just" the result of human evolution.

References of articles where this argument or a similar one was used by one side or the other would be most appreciated.

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    Since when has the existence of deviants ever caused a problem for social and moral philosophy? And why would psychopaths be a special exception? Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 6:38
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    @Cody I'm not referring to social and moral philosophy, but to those moral realists who argue that moral truths can be intuited. Psychopaths are not mere deviants, they are (in this argument) deviants who are genuinely unable to intuit these norms. Maybe "a problem" was too unspecific, but I don't have a better idea yet.
    – Ruben
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 8:01
  • @Ruben Please see my comments on the answer you selected as the best answer; I think I may have some points of critique which might be of interest for you. I tried to argue, as best that I could, why I think 97847658's analogy is flawed. Commented Aug 4, 2011 at 3:33
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    Does the existence of congenitally blind people pose a problem for those who argue we humans have a sense of sight?
    – kjo
    Commented Jun 4, 2012 at 2:00
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    @ScottRowe: Not really; it poses a problem only for those who argue that we have an innate visual intuition, and if any such person exists, they thoroughly deserve this problem.
    – kjo
    Commented Aug 2, 2022 at 11:19

9 Answers 9


Moral realists who posit a reliable power of moral intuition are often called 'intuitionists'. And this epistemological view is commonly associated with the (semantic and metaphysical) non-naturalism of G. E. Moore and his disciples.

The leading analogy for this view is mathematics. We do not arrive at mathematical knowledge through sense observation. Nor do we rely on mere feelings. We have a power of intellectual intuition that gives us insight into the nature of numbers and their relations to each other, so that we can see the truth of basic mathematical principles. Likewise, moral intuitionists argue, we do not gain moral knowledge through sense observation or mere feeling, we use our intellect to see the truth of certain basic moral principles.

This suggests a way of evaluating the psychopath issue. To see what conclusions might legitimately be drawn from the existence of people who simply fail to see the truth of basic moral principles, we can ask what conclusions might legitimately be drawn from the existence of people who simply fail to see the truth of basic mathematical principles. If there were mathematically blind people who couldn't see why 2+2=4 or why any successor of a number is itself a number, then would this cast doubt on the objectivity of mathematics? Would it cast doubt on the intellectual intuition model of mathematical knowledge?

I'm not at all sure that it would. Consequently, I'm not at all sure that morally blind psychopaths cast doubt on the objectivity of morality, or on moral intuitionism in particular.

P.S.: One thing to bear in mind when researching this is that moral psychologists tend to talk about moral intuition as belonging to the affective and emotional side of human nature. This is obviously very different from the kind of moral intuition favored by traditional intuitionists in philosophy.

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    I'm sorry, but I find your analogy flawed; you are comparing logic (mathematics) with value judgements (morals). Now I know many people love to believe morals can ultimately be reduced to rational or logical concepts, but in reality I believe they can't, because ultimately one will have to posit a moral axiom from which one thinks one has extrapolated all other morals. But one can never demonstrate a moral axiom logically, as far as I can see. For instance: what is the base mathematical or logical axiom for the simplest, most abstract definition of 'good' and/or 'bad'? (cont...) Commented Aug 4, 2011 at 3:20
  • It's a meaningless question. Is 'good' when atom A interacts with atom B, and 'bad' when atom A does not interact with atom B, for instance? Logical truths don't have value or purpose. Logical truths just are. Logical truths, by means of using mathematics for instance, can be demonstrated independantly of a psychopaths perceived notion of it. For instance: a psychopath might claim gravity does not exist; if he jumps, he'll still fall back to earth with the speed that can be demonstrated and verified independently of the psychopath's mind. (cont...) Commented Aug 4, 2011 at 3:20
  • Value judgments however, can not be demonstrated to be logically correct or incorrect, unless, for instance, you posit some (arbitrary, because viewed from the grand scheme of reality, highly local to the human species) moral axiom that the human species should be preserved at all cost. Which furthermore, in no way restrict a psychopath from killing another human being. Commented Aug 4, 2011 at 3:20
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    @fireeyedboy I tried to defend that notion as well, but it's actually quite hard to justify the line between "is" and "ought" with regard to being truth-apt, so moral anti-realism boils down to epistemological skepticism, which is a bit boring. I actually think the mathematical intuition is a really helpful example, why the case for that line is hard to make (don't we all know someone who doesn't have much mathematical intuition?). The thing is, I know of no people who intuit different basic mathematical tenets, but I know a few who do so for basic statements about morality.
    – Ruben
    Commented May 16, 2012 at 19:46
  • @fireeyedboy: Your idea of the good is not very sound or refined, and so you'll have to begin with a definition of the good to answer this question. I suggest beginning with Aristotle. No one is necessarily asserting anything about atoms moving in one direction or another as good or not good. It seems you're denying the objectivity of morality out of hand. Also, can you explain how you know logical truths? And furthermore, see fact-value dichotomy.
    – danielm
    Commented Oct 6, 2012 at 9:19

No, it doesn't. Let us take as an example the existence of the color red (that is, those frequencies of light that a majority of viewers would agree is 'red'). That frequency is a reality, and can be perceived, but it cannot be perceived or intuited by a blind person.

The analog is that there is a moral sense, which can intuit moral reality. Psychopaths are morally blind, and cannot perceive or intuit moral reality. But just as the existence of blind people does not pose a problem for color theorists, the existence of the morally blind does not pose a problem for moral theorists.

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    I like the analogy. But what about the case where the moral intuition is different? I don't know what guidance the analogy would provide then?! Psychopaths would then intuit that being selfish and causing harm to others is good. Wouldn't whether you can call them "cross-eyed" depend on who is currently in the majority? (I'm using the psychopaths example only because it is pretty reasonable to assume that they actually have a different intuition, unlike e.g. slavery advocates where some m.r. would certainly argue they have some sort of wrong premise / error of reasoning?!)
    – Ruben
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 9:18
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    @phi I had defined it like this in my question already. If you mean the redefining the scientific view: it may be simplified as a simple "lack", but usually that just means a very low value on a dimensional ability. But of course the more critical part is the one you prefixed with an "if". The heuristic "Something's not there, so something's broken" won't guide us well. I'm not aware of self-help groups for psychopaths, but the neurodiversity movement (mostly autism spectrum people) argues it's wrong to assume the neurotypical wiring is "right".
    – Ruben
    Commented Jun 10, 2011 at 10:16
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    @Ruben: Did you know there is a condition called visual agnosia in which the sufferers are able to see objects but are not able to identify them? One way it comes about is when childhood blindness is cured (via cataract surgery) and the patient is able to see, but not able to understand what they see. Over time, their brains (which are otherwise normal) begin to adjust to what they see and are able to function normally. Another way it occurs is when the patient's brain is damaged. In that case, recovery is not possible. I suggest there may be analogies to all sorts of moral deficiencies. Commented Jun 10, 2011 at 21:32
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    @Jon Yes I knew. Did you know we're unable to see infrared and ultraviolet light? ;-) Did you know that our eyes care more about contrast than about absolute values (see eigengrau)? That we call this a (common) distortion of reality doesn't depend on the majority view, but on scientific measurement. I really think sight is the wrong analogy. The usual one is aesthetic sense I think, but this analogy doesn't help really, probably because the two are too similar.
    – Ruben
    Commented Jun 11, 2011 at 16:59
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    @phil "cannot sense" -> as I said above, my question is also above "sensing something else", hence the mention of neurodiversity. Again, sight is the wrong analogy. You don't have frequencies in morality or aesthetics. If you're limiting your scope to empathy, not morality, then plotting and mischievous Machiavellianism could conceivably follow from this information as well (is-ought-problem). Altruistic behavior is the exception, not the norm in life.
    – Ruben
    Commented Jun 19, 2011 at 15:30

Would the existence of the mentally impaired pose a problem to the idea that man is sentient? Do genetically deaf pose a problem to the idea that we hear, or the genetically blind to the capability of sight?

So it's not easy to argue the lack of an innate sense simply by the lack of the universality of its experience. Or, characteristic traits are not by necessity universal.


i don't think the sense of intuition used in the question is reducible to majority rule, rather i think it's describing the subjective, phenomenal sense of right and wrong, whose absence is so central to psychopathy. In terms of how this relates to notions of innate abilities/moral realism, on the one hand their existence does seem to constitute counter-evidence for these positions, but you could argue there may still be a neglected or diminished moral sensibility whose influence has just been circumscribed from awareness ..

We have been looking at related areas in a unit which i'm presently doing .. Studies showing abnormal activity in certain cortices are difficult to interpret in inborn/ontogenic conditions as there is unfortunately no 'moral center of the brain', so there's no evidence for double dissociations, and can't be studied using lesion-deficit correlation as the structures involved encompass a degree of complexity that enables a high amount of variation in personal differences, so it can be difficult to make conclusions. there are significant commonalities shared by people with the condition such as it seems to be related to lesions on the amygdala and reduced activity in prefrontal cortex structures related to executive control. it's an interesting question i think the validity of 'folk psychology' notions of free choice are increasingly under siege in light of new findings in psychology and neurobiology



Ethical philosophers disagree on whether psychopathy poses a problem for the intuition-based argument; moral nihilists think that it does, while moral realists think that the existence of people who cannot sense moral truths does not make those truths irrelevant any more than the existence of color-blind people disproves the existence of colors. However, it does pose another problem. The most fundamental symptom of psychopathy is lack of affective empathy, i.e. the inability to vicariously experience the emotions of others; it is thought that this is the cause of psychopaths' amorality. If this is true, it implies that ethical intuition is not, like mathematical intuition, based on understanding of a set of facts that can be logically or empirically proven, as the intuitionists claim, but that it is a result of irrational emotion. This would seem to indicate that moral emotivism is correct.

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    Maybe you can provide some references to people holding these positions/discussing them?
    – Ruben
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 9:09
  • How does your conclusion (that ethical intuition is the result of irrational emotion, and mathematical intuition is not) follow from your arguments? I cannot see how you have demonstrated that mathematical intuition is based on logical understanding (mathematical proofs and truths are, but is mathematical intuition?) or that ethical intuition is based on "irrational emotion" rather than purely mechanistic and predictable behaviors of a properly functioning endocrine system. Could you expand your answer to address this?
    – philosodad
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 17:45

Moral realism doesn't require that every sentient individual has regard for morality, only that there is a moral reality which is in some sense "out there" that individuals may choose to respect or not.

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    I clearly specified that I'm not asking about all of moral realism ("it's out there") but about philosophers who argue moral truth can be intuited – if this intuition is lacking the choice to respect it or not cannot be made (one can still adhere to what others say is right, but if one is unable to know whether that is the right thing to do (majority perception of right and wrong changes over time, e.g. abortion, slavery, ...).
    – Ruben
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 7:56
  • The point remains the same. Moral realism isn't affected by whether some people can't intuit morality
    – Ben G
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 17:49
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    Your point remains the same (and true). It still doesn't pertain to my question which is about "philosophers who argue we argue that moral truth can be intuited", a much more specific flavour of m.r.. I tried explaining it to you in my last comment and now I've tried to make it ridiculously clear in the question.
    – Ruben
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 17:56
  • @Ruben You also clearly put "moral realists" in your question title, and thus invited the response. Your questions doesn't really appear to have anything to do with moral realism in that it is at least conceptually possible to be a moral anti-realist who also thinks that humans have moral intuitions. Were the existence of those without a moral sense to pose a problem for the realists who believe that we have moral intuitions, it would equally pose a problem for the anti-realists who agree about intuition.
    – vanden
    Commented Jun 11, 2011 at 20:58
  • @vanden I think you're reading a bit much into babonks answer. I understood it as a mere restating of the definition. I think your comment is more of an answer itself, if you spelt it out a little. I think it's not necessarily problem for anti-realists, because disagreeing over non-truths is sort of expected. And I think few philosophers espoused this view, I'm more interested in positions that have been argued for in the literature.
    – Ruben
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 11:15

Psychopathy factor-1 (about 1% of the general population) and Sociopathy factor-2 Psychopathy (about 4% of the general population) was bred into the gene pool. As civilization came together land owners tended to marry land owners until we had kingdoms/countries. The top 1% (land and it's resources owners) of these kingdoms married within the top 1%, and their closest relatives and friends 4% married within the 4%. Think Kings and Queens 1%, and their inner courts 4%. Typically around 25-50 families (per geographical area) for hundreds to thousands of years (Egyptian Royalty) bred too closely. Such a small gene pool mating so closely for long periods speeds up adaptation to habitation (adapting to ones environment). Think of breeding cats or dogs that are closely related; which gives the offspring more of the attributes you are aiming for, but speeds up the domestication process (adaptation to habitation). This is part of a genetic survival mechanism. If a group of animals gets small and stays small this means that the environment has greatly changed, and their offspring must adapt as quickly as possible or go extinct. The idea for these individuals was to have a more educated, civilized/domesticated, and thoroughbred human, but messing with nature has it's consequences, and an imbalance was created. Imbalance = Evil and Balance = Good. In nature imbalances lead to greater imbalances; which lead to decay and death and/or death and decay. Balances lead to greater balances; which lead to growth and life. In psychological/sociological terms imbalance/division leads to greater imbalance/division; which leads to destruction and death and/or death and destruction. Balance/Unity leads to greater balance/unity; which leads to liberty and life and/or life and liberty. Hence, we ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, since now there was an imbalance in humanity emanating from the top of our societal structures; which lead to the need for "the first shall be last and the last shall be first". Once they were gods (pharos). Then they were descendants of gods (empors and empress). Next step down in this process they had "devine rite" as kings and queens. Now they are considered a personality disorder. Lets go back to adaptation to habitation, and we can see the attributes that were bred in and out. Example: Kings and Queens = 1 and Psychopaths = 2 as we compare. 1.Lives behind a wall, in a castle, and in a tower; 2. Low startle response and detached from others (antisocial in nature). 1. Everything they say goes without questioning and everything revolves around them; 2. Egotistical, thinks they are better, and thinks they are never wrong. 1. They live off of others; 2. Parasitical. 1. Have ultimate authority/power; 2. Seeks ultimate authority/power. 1. Must put their emotions aside to give orders to create/maintain order; 2. Shallow emotions. 1. The weight of the power/responsibility and being a symbol/ideal always crushes in the end leading to a resentment of responsibility and those who they are responsible for (too much responsibility) . 2. Dosen't take responsibility for their actions and has a "me against the world" mindset. Etc... I think you're getting the picture. For a moment I would like to return to what many people think of as antiquated terms, Good/balance and Evil/imbalance. There are individuals who are more "feelers" and individuals who are more "thinkers", so we need words that resonate with both. When you hear the word "Good" you think about good/positive thoughts and/or feel good/positive feelings. When you hear the word "Evil" you think about bad/negative thoughts and/or feel bad/negative feelings. Our lack of understanding of these terms lead to individuals misinterpreting their true meaning. To finally answer the question posed; "Does the existence of psychopaths pose a problem for moral realist who argue we have a moral intuition?", the answer is no. Darwin himself stated; Conscience, is by far the most important… of all the differences between man and the lower animals”.

Conscience = Moral Intuition.

There is another 17-18% of the general population who have what's referred to as "dark empathy"; which is "Cognative Empathy" that is used to benefit themselves without seeing how it can affect others, and many times not caring how it affects others when they can see. Psychopathy factor-1 and 2 = 5% of the general population and have an average of 3-4 children in which they directly affect and influence the lives of. 3-4 multiplied by 5% = 15-20% or an average of 17-18%. The 17-18% acquired their "dark empathy" and learned to use it a certain way from a parent or parents with Psychopathy.

  • Interesting info. This is what I say to people about 1% being born that way, but you add an explanation and more context. Nice. It explains a lot if it is true. First time I've heard all these things tho. My statement of what is most important is Agency. Conscience is the why, agency is the what.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 1, 2022 at 10:40

Any flavor of moral realism would adhere to a p v. ~p model. However, there would generally be in any given moral dilemma a premise that the person is capable of agency. A psychopath is not included in that premise, thereby excluding them as a meaningful rebuttal to any argument. Any moral realist claim bears down on some given moral dilemma posed p v. ~p; consequently responding to the existence of psychopaths is out of scope rather than problematic to moral realism.

  • I don't get it. Can you explain what you mean by p v. ~p? A search turns up player vs. player and P vs. NP both of which I don't think you mean? I also don't know why you say that psychopaths don't have agency.
    – Ruben
    Commented Jun 10, 2011 at 19:12
  • @Ruben {[Proposition] or ~[Proposition]}; Tertium non datur - Law of Excluded Middle. Now that I am re-reading, I'm not sure why I included that, will edit in a minute.
    – mfg
    Commented Jun 10, 2011 at 19:57

@Samuel Duclos

Psychopathy being lumped into the blanket category of antisocial personality disorder is just further evidence of not taking the condition seriously and not understanding it. My guess is a huge part of that is the field has psychopaths within it and they want to keep things this way. Psychopaths can be created as you mention, but they are most definitely also born that way. Those who became psychopaths due to perhaps a traumatic event or abuse in childhood I normally see referred to as the related term sociopath. When people speak of the super-rare 'curing' of psychopathy, I think it is this variety they are referring to.

A true psychopath cannot be cured because it is not an illness. Their brains do not work the same way. They don't just lack empathy, they also do not understand metaphors or abstract words. They cannot appreciate art of music the way a normal person does. Their intuition is completely broken and they do not understand forethought. It is not just a part of their brain not working, they use their brains differently. They know they are different and they know what they are. I am kind of amazed that they can mimic us and pretend to be normal despite a complete lack of frontal lobe activity. Yet nobody is seriously researching it because like I said the field has psychopaths in it and they don't want it to be researched.

The problem of the psychopaths is in all likelihood a recessive genetic trait inherited from a hybrid ancestor of modern man. Hybrid between two 'races' that superficially resembled each other but had been isolated and natural selection did its thing.

  • conspiracy theory.. "complete lack of frontal activity"? please.
    – Ruben
    Commented May 30, 2012 at 9:30

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