Much has been written on the self awareness and motives of psychopaths – they do appear to know they are different from the rest of us and actively seek to cause harm and suffering to others. But do psychopaths actually know the difference between right and wrong, and more specifically, do they know that the things they are doing to others are wrong?
Psychopaths most definitely realize intellectually and cognitively that what they are doing is wrong, as evidenced by the fact that they are sneaky and covert in the way they commit evil against others, and also tend to go to the same lengths anyone else would to conceal their actions.
However, there is an arrogance and entitlement in psychopaths which makes them feel they are free to break rules of morality and ethics whenever it suits them.
The nub of the issue here lies in a subtle distinction here between not knowing the rules or simply choosing not to follow them. Psychopaths are well aware of what other people deem to be right and wrong action morally and ethically, but they themselves look down upon these rules with a contempt and disdain, seeing themselves as above rules.
They will follow them when necessary to blend into society undetected, but don’t care about following them out of inherent goodness or morality.
The lack of empathy which characterizes psychopaths is also a huge contributing factor here, since without empathy, psychopaths cannot feel how their behavior impacts others, even though they may intellectually understand that certain things are considered by other people to be “right” or “wrong” morally.
The lack of this emotional fail-safe that most of the rest of us have sets the psychopath apart, and makes them a very dangerous type of personality when roaming free in the world. Let’s look at a psychopath’s understanding of right and wrong from a couple of different perspectives.
Psychopaths Intellectually Understand The Difference Between Right & Wrong
There is no doubt that most psychopaths understand intellectually the difference between right and wrong. They get that in our society, some things are allowed and some things are not allowed. A great example of this that is often cited by forensic psychologists is that a psychopath will not openly run a red light or attack someone when a police officer is stood there. They know there will be consequences for doing these things, since they are not allowed.
Similarly, psychopaths do go to lengths to conceal criminal wrongdoing as well as more general manipulation and scheming they do in work and personal environments. Most of them cover up criminal acts, and cleverly withhold evidence, making sure that no one holds all the information required to see how they are scheming and playing people off against each other in personal or work scenarios.
In this sense, they are showing that they know what they are doing is considered wrong by others, and go to lengths to avoid being caught and exposed. Admittedly some of the more severe psychopaths are clumsy and sloppy in their attempts to cover crimes, though others like Ted Bundy were meticulous and extremely intelligent in the way they concealed their crimes.
The more deviant serial killers and cold murderers will also openly and brutally admit what they did when confronted, making no apologies for it. Because some part of them realizes there is now no point in hiding because they’ve been caught red handed, their real personality comes out, with no holds barred, and you see they don’t care what they do to others.
See the video below for a more extreme example of a psychopathic killer coming clean and showing no remorse, now there is no point in hiding anymore.
How do we reconcile this seeming contradiction between a psychopath recognizing what they are doing is wrong, as evidenced by their attempts to conceal it, and yet they still go ahead and repeatedly do bad and illegal things and cause trouble for others, seemingly making it their mission in life?
There is a definite qualitative difference between how a psychopath views the world and how a normal person with empathy, morals and conscience views the world. With a psychopath, their relationship with the world is cold and detached. They are cooly observing the world and the “rules” which others seem to follow, without themselves truly engaging with them or believing in them for their own sake.
A good way of stating how a psychopath might view “rules” and morality would be as follows:
“I see that there are certain things that other people consider to be “right” and “wrong”. I don’t get these rules myself, and I don’t understand what these things called “conscience” and “morality” are that other people follow.
I will follow them when I need to if it serves me or helps me get power and control over others, but I’m not doing them to be a good person. I’m above “rules” and morality. No one tells me what to do; I do whatever I want.”
Psychopaths Have No Empathy to Truly Understand Right From Wrong
Another crucial concept required to understand a psychopath’s relationship between right and wrong is to understand empathy, and more precisely, the psychopath’s lack of empathy. They have no ability to actually feel (not just cognitively understand) the impacts of their actions on others.
Psychopath’s are completely incapable of putting themselves in the emotional shoes of another, and actually feeling on an emotional level, things like guilt, shame and remorse. This is a crucial emotional brakecheck that psychopaths lack compared to the rest of us, and explains why they can do such horrible things to others physically and emotionally, without flinching or feeling in any way bad.
When normal people do something really bad towards others, we feel bad inside ourselves for what we have done. This is empathy kicking in, putting us in the emotional place of another. We would not have liked these things done to us, so we shouldn’t have done them to someone else.
Empathy places a crucial barrier or limit on how we treat others, and so we don’t habitually transgress these boundaries of treating others as we would not like to be treated ourselves, and whenever we do, we feel bad.
To a psychopath, without the fail-safe of empathy, violating the boundaries of others is nothing. It’s no different from tieing their shoelace or putting on a shirt. They can “get” intellectually that other people would feel bad doing what they’re doing, but since they don’t feel bad themselves, they just keep going, considering themselves above these human vulnerabilities of empathy, guilt and conscience. They realize on some level they are not like others, but they don’t care.
Psychopaths Look Down on The World (And Rules) With Contempt
Putting all this together, we see that the psychopath does understand on some shallow level that what they are doing is seen as wrong by others, but they don’t care about or adopt these rules of society and general decency towards others for their own sake out if any inherent goodness in them.
Rather, they look down on the rest of humanity and the world in general, seeing themselves as superior and detached. As far as they are concerned, they are entitled to do whatever they want to get ahead, and these things called “rules” and “morality” are like anything else in the psychopath’s worldview, just things to be used and exploited for their own ends.
Hence, a psychopath can and will indeed pounce on the idea of “rules” – if it allows them to gain power and control over someone else. The nightmare micromanaging psychopath boss is a great example here. But psychopaths don’t care about about rules or morality in themselves – they only care about power, and will use anything, including the idea of rules, to gain that power over others.
This is where you will often spot the hypocritical nature of the psychopath showing up, especially in work scenarios, where they are only too happy to enforce rules on others whilst not following these rules themselves. Remember, they will use rules as a way of exerting power, but they consider themselves above these rules.
Indeed a good way to spot a workplace psychopath manager is an incessant “do as I say, not as I do” approach to the way they manage, with no credibility or consistency in terms or practising what they preach.
Look for a constant underlying drive for power and control over others, rationalized away as “following rules” or “doing my job”. Psychopaths are brilliant at making excuses, but simply observe the underlying motive and the atmosphere they create rather than any smoke and mirror excuses they try to put up.
In summary, to understand a psychopath’s relationship with right and wrong, it is important to understand the difference between a cognitive and empathic or emotional understanding of right and wrong.
When we see that psychopaths lack any kind of empathic understanding of morality, along with their cold, detached, arrogant and entitled view of the word and their overarching drive for power and control, their callous behavior towards others starts to make much more sense.