Sometimes I like to draw attention to interesting new empirical work on or relating to moral psychology. A recent article in the journal Brain by Dutch neuroscientists Meffert et al. relating their new findings on empathy in psychopaths.

Psychopathy is a complex personality disorder, one of the defining features of which is a lack of empathy. This lack of empathy is part of what make psychopaths like Ted Bundy so disturbing: their inability to recognize others’ emotions is part of what seems to allow them to repeatedly behave in such immoral ways.

Hand being painfully hit

The researchers performed hand interactions with the participants to see how they would emotionally respond to touch. Photo credit: Dr Keysers

Meffert et al. found that psychopaths actual can and do feel empathy, but that it is must be felt intentionally by them. The neuroscientists reached this finding by comparing fMRI data from 18 psychopaths and 26 normally empathetic, control individuals. In the first phase of the experiment, all participants watched four movies of two people’s hands. The movies showed the hands in four different ways: neutral, painful, loving, and socially rejecting. In the second phase, the participants watched the movies again while in an fMRI, only this time they were explicitly asked to empathize. Finally in the third phase, while in the fMRI, researches performed the hand interactions with the participants themselves in order to establish a baseline for comparison.

Greater brain activity show from fMRI data in psychopaths when told to empathize

Brain activation in criminals with psychopathy was greater when asked to empathize (foreground)

The results were fascinating. First, for each individual subject comparisons were made between phases 1 and 3, i.e., when they experienced something and when they witnessed someone else experience something. Then, the researchers looked for any difference between the group of psychopaths and the control, non-psychopaths. As expected, when the psychopaths observed someone else, their relevant brain regions were less active than when they experienced it themselves. The control group, on the other hand, had more activity in the relevant regions. This result corresponds with the traditional conception that psychopaths lack empathy. However, when they psychopaths were asked to empathize, they showed more brain activity similar to what they did when they experienced something (like pain) themselves. Thus, the researchers conclude that empathy in psychopaths is intentional; they can turn it on when at will.

Jump to Conclusions MatThese are certainly fascinating results. We should, however, throw on the philosophical breaks, lest we hastily get out our jump-to-conclusions mat. First off, we should be at least somewhat skeptical that they’ve found empathy. Just because the same brain regions light up when someone experiences pain (for instance) himself and then again when he observes someone else in pain does not entail that he must therefore be experiencing empathy in the former case. (NB: Meffert et al.’s findings are based on earlier work purporting to have map the brain regions involved in empathy – cf., Singer et al., 2004Iacoboni, 2006Pineda, 2008;Bastiaansen et al., 2009Keysers and Gazzola, 2009.) There are two reason for this hesitancy: first, no subjective reports were elicited from participants, and second, it’s not entirely clear that empathy is feeling the same thing whether you or someone else experiences something (like pain).

Let’s set these issues aside, however, and assume that they’re correct: psychopaths can intentionally choose to turn on their sense of empathy. Such a finding would raise a number of philosophically fascinating problems and questions. First, these results challenge the typical conception of psychopaths. While this is obviously an issue for disciplines besides, philosophy, it bears particular philosophical significance as well. Psychopaths are standard counter-examples to a number of ethical theories, particularly any sympathy-based theories like Hume. For Hume, sympathy (or what we would call empathy today) is the psychological mechanism that informs us of the sentiments of others and generates similar sentiments in us, which then causally contributes to our subsequent action to them. He writes,

Let us suppose such a person ever so selfish; let private interest have ingrossed ever so much his attention; yet in instances, where that is not concerned, he must unavoidably feel some propensity to the good of mankind, and make it an object of choice, if everything else be equal. Would any man, who is walking along, tread as willingly on another’s gouty toes, whom he has no quarrel with, as on the hard flint and pavement?

It would seem that Hume doesn’t believe it possible for anyone to so completely lack empathy that he would harm another person needlessly. Yet, psychopaths have long been taken to be such people who would tread on another’s gouty toe without any provocation. They would do so, in part, because of their apparent lack of empathy. What if psychopaths didn’t lack empathy, but were simply not intentionally turning it on? They would still be stepping on people’s gouty toes, but not from a lack for the capacity to empathize with those on whose toes they trod.

Another philosophical question arising from this study regards the relationship between intentionality and empathy in general. If psychopaths can (but typically don’t) intentionally empathize, what does that mean for the rest of us non-psychopaths? Empathy for the rest of us is typically regarded as automatic and non-intentional. It seems, however, plausible in light of this study that empathy might be intentional for everyone. When it comes to empathy, the difference between psychopaths and the rest of us is that non-psychopaths intentionally empathize as a matter of custom or habit. We could then intentionally non empathize. We do empathize however, and do so regularly. This habituation to empathizing then could make empathizing subjectively seem automatic and non-intentional. Whether this is the case and what implications it would have for moral psychology (as well as theories of action, perhaps), would be open to future empirical and theoretical explorations.=