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What do we owe a psychopath? A slightly philosophical review of ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’

October 29, 2011 7 comments
The most fundamental idea in this conception of justice is the idea of society as a fair system of social cooperation over time…John Rawls
The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals… –  Jeremy Bentham
Just as there are rational requirements on thought, there are rational requirements on action, and altruism is one of them. . . . If the requirements of ethics are rational requirements, it follows that the motive for submitting to them must be one which it would be contrary to reason to ignore. – Thomas Nagel

[Contains very slight spoilers]

If you’re into films which simultaneously enthral and perturb (guilty), then I strongly suggest you go and see ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’. In another superb outing for Tilda Swinton, she portrays Eva, the tortured mother of burgeoning psychopath* Kevin (Ezra Miller) in her attempts to understand, control and love her son as he goes on to commit a horrifying crime. More so than his ultimate victims, it is really Eva who is the canvas upon which Kevin paints a sickening picture of desolation, destruction and utter emotional torment. Except for the sporadic moments where he needs her, one gets the impression that Kevin is completely and thoroughly calculating in his behaviour so as to maximise the anguish and agony he inflicts on his mother.

The film makes an incredibly arresting and invasive use of sound and colour, provoking a sense of unwanted intrusion into the audience’s mind in a way I don’t think I have ever experienced before in film. To give you the sense of what I’m talking about, there was actually a fire alarm in the cinema beeping every few minutes or so – and until they briefly paused the film in order to stop it, I genuinely believed that it was just another jarring element to a kind of intermittent cacophony of sound which characterises most of the film. The pause was actually somewhat of a welcome respite after 45 minutes of uncomfortable audio-visual obtrusion and some truly epic foreshadowing of an abominable conclusion.

It was not an easy film to watch, but I nonetheless found it extremely rewarding and thought provoking. Psychopaths are inherently fascinating, and have made a timeless subject for both ‘popular’ and highbrow entertainment. But I have a special and particular interest in psychopaths, which is namely how well various moral theories can cope with them. The three quotes I put up at the beginning are three examples that immediately spring to mind of positions in moral philosophy that do not sit well with the existence of psychopaths. In the case of Rawls and other ‘liberal’ political theorists, the vision of society as a fair system of co-operation does not at first glance have much of a place for those who couldn’t care less about co-operation and fairness (or indeed have any recognition of another human being as having moral worth or deserving of respect). If rights arise within the context of this idea of society, what do we owe a psychopath? Do we owe anything to those seemingly incapable of a moral existence? If an individual is considering the rules of society from behind a veil of ignorance, should she account for the possibility that she could be a psychopath? If psychopathy is genetic or in some way socially conditioned (i.e. it is not the psychopath’s ‘fault’), how should we apportion blame? These are, to my mind, extremely difficult questions for liberal theories, which seems to begin with an idea of the individual as essentially moral if actually imperfect.

Or what about utilitarianism? Is it good if a psychopath gets pleasure from killing, or from the delusion of grandeur that seems to accompany it (at least in the popular portrayals)? I think the psychopath provides an excellent example of pleasure that is not good. When Kevin finally commits his crime, it is just a plain misreading of the moral landscape to say ‘shame about all the killing. But hey, at least he got a kick out of it…’! If anything, the fact that he may have enjoyed it makes it even worse. Whilst the world is not generally lacking in devastating arguments against Benthamite utilitarianism, I do think the psychopath can be found amongst them.

And finally, what about the tradition of Moral Rationalism (most associated with Kant), which identifies immorality and amorality as a defect of reason? This isn’t a conclusive argument, but the fact that psychopaths are no less intelligent than non-psychopaths and the extremely interesting result that higher IQ is correlated with “the destructive potential” of a psychopath strikes me as pretty good prima facie evidence that there is nothing irrational about being immoral.

There is a not unreasonable feminist critique of philosophical ethics that it tends to focus on only a select few domains of ethical life, specifically those that tend to concern men or emphasise typically ‘male’ traits over typically ‘female’ ones (e.g. the surprising absence of explicit references to compassion in modern moral theorizing). But there is another not unreasonable critique of philosophical ethics that, whilst recognising some glorious exceptions, there is a general lack of thoughtful treatment of those who appear constitutionally incapable of moral experience. Psychopaths are hard cases. But we shouldn’t shy away from thinking about how they test the coherence of our moral edifices. I’m not at all sure how the moral universe can accommodate the existence of Kevin, and how we should treat him. But I’ll keep on thinking about it.
*I spent a reasonable amount of time toying with whether Kevin is most accurately described as a sociopath or a psychopath. I plumped for psychopath, on the basis it makes the blog title sound more interesting and that I am not above making editorial decisions on the basis of shameless self-promotion


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Categories: Culture, Philosophy