Immorality and Amorality: Understanding a sociopath

EthicsAttempting to define morality has been central to philosophy for centuries. One of the main questions such that continue to dog the issue is “Why should I act morally?”, something there is no conclusive answer to .

This involves addressing if everyone can be affected by moral codes. When we think of amorality, psychopaths or sociopaths spring to mind; serial killers, criminals, and even those in business and government exhibit traits that suggest they are indifferent to the other people, or really have any moral restrictions.

There are two main concepts of moral motivation. One claims that acting morally is driven by external conditioning and/or pressures such as education, upbringing, and culture. The other alleges that moral beliefs are intrinsically motivating; everyone has them from birth and everyone is driven by them. The two concepts are labeled ‘externalism’ and ‘internalism’.

Phernology IIIn this essay, I will outline two theories of internal and external moral motivation and discuss the notion of amoralism. I will argue that morality is motivating intrinsically, and the concept of amorality is unsubstantiated and cannot be used to rebut moral internalism.

Internalism & Externalism

Part of the ‘internalist’ concept involves cases where people are able to act against their better moral judgment; they are able to do this not because there is no internal motivation, but rather that the failure to act is due to them suffering a weakness of will, described as ‘practically irrational’, or if extenuating circumstances prevent them from doing so.

The main counter-argument to the internalism thoery, the ‘amoralist’. The amoralist is not inclined to act either morally or immorally – they maintain complete objectiveness to both.

“We can imagine someone who regards certain moral demands as moral demands – and not simply as conventional moral demands – and yet remains unmoved. If we are to take the amoralist challenge seriously, we must explain why the amoralist should care about morality” – David Brink

Amoralism is fundamental to understanding morality, as it would mean morality cannot be intrinsically motivating. While the idea would remain in-sync with externalism – where the amoralist would be merely be ignoring external pressure – the concept that there are people who remain dispassionate to moral ideals is a conceptual impossibility for internalism. If this were proven to exist it would invalidate the theory.

But can people like this actually exitst? It’s possible to theorise of a person who remains unmotivated by morality, but the realities of how they would be able to do this are another matter. Is it actually possible rationally to understand moral dilemmas and remain objective when faced with them?

Defining Amoralism 

Mask V

Can an ‘amoralist’ actually exist?

Amoral decisions are a basic part of everyday life. “Should I see a film or go to the theatre?” is an amoral question, as are numerous other cases where people take a decision knowing that its outcome will not affect anybody other than themselves. But at the point where other people become part of the decision-making equation, the decision maker’s role changes. It then becomes an assessment of their part in a situation where their decision will affect others becomes intrinsic in reaching a conclusion. When a rational person becomes engaged in a moral dilemma, he or she will be faced with various options of how to react in this situation, but all of them draw from moral bases. Even if that person were to claim complete objectiveness, they would still be forced into a decision that drew inspiration from their moral beliefs requiring that they make a moral judgment in one form or another.

Here’s a famous example: imagine a man is walking by a river when he notices a drowning child. The man has now been placed in a position where he must form a decision of how to react.

He could rationally understand that saving the child is the morally correct option, but have no motivation to do so and just walk away. In this case he would be acting immorally rather than amorally – acting immorally still involves partaking in a moral decision-making process, and is not based on the moral objectiveness required for amorality. Even if he found it entirely justifiable letting the child drown to avoid getting wet, this remains a moral appraisal of the situation in that persons’ mind, however warped this may seem.

For anyone with rational understanding of morality, then being able to act with complete moral objectivity is intrinsically paradoxical. It would mean having to entirely disassociate oneself from the situation so as not to allow any appraisal of the moral questions influence the decision.

True Amorality 

Possibly the closest one could come to achieving true amorality would be by allowing an entirely random external agency dictate their course of action, such as flipping a coin or rolling dice, and basing the decision on the outcome. While this would seem to be allowing the agent to remove them-self from moral consideration, the initial action of absolving oneself of responsibility is in itself making a moral judgment by placing it on the luck of the coin. There is also a second part to the decision; the agent having tossed the coin still has to commit to acting in accordance with the result, which is also a moral decision.

The issues raised when addressing intrinsic moral ideals as motivating causes are often clouded by confusing the issue of amorality with immorality, and the debates that follow from the cruelty of some people in the real world and the concept of evil.

People who support the claim of amoralism say it is not just as conceptually possibility, but also a documented reality.

The Psychopath Test

‘The Psychopath Test’ by Jon Ronson

Psychopaths & Sociopaths

People who have been identified as psychotics or sociopaths have been cited as identifying behaviour where actions appear to have been carried out with complete objectiveness on moral issues. These cases often take place in environments where it’s easy to take advantage of others such as crime or business. There are plenty of documented cases where these people maintained they knew exactly what was right and wrong, but neither played any part in forming their decisions, nor did the possible effects of their actions on other people. What appears to give extra credence the existence of amoralism is that many of these people demonstrate high levels of rationality and cunning in planning their actions.

The ability rationally to judge and appraise the situation, often through knowledge of psychology of ethical motivations and/or constraints, has allowed them to improve their skill at manipulating other people to their own advantage. These cases, with their apparently abstract appraisal of morality, have been put forward as an apparent rebuttal of the earlier claim that people who understand a moral case but fail to act on it are irrational.

The true issue is whether the psychopath truly holds an amoral view. Though it is just as possible that they are inflicted with an extreme level of moral immaturity.

Living in a Bubble

Moral judgment is not absent, but is formed from an incredibly narrow, inward-looking and self-isolated view of reality. This level of  perception is comparable to that of a  toddler, only capable of seeing the world from their own point of view. In the case of an adult, this allows them to observe and develop an understanding of what is socially considered as standard moral criteria, while rationally assessing how to maximise this for their own benefit. The psychopath is able to maintain an emotional detachment, an abstract understanding of their surroundings, so that outside parties factor into the equation only as a means to achieve their own good.

The documented types of behaviour appear to demonstrate that while sociopaths or psychopaths consider things outside of their personal sphere inconsequential; they themselves are of the highest importance and would consider any harmful actions carried out against them as a huge moral injustice. This notion would mean that psychopaths do have sense of morality, albeit one at its most basic and cut-off from the commonly held views. For an amoralist, there can be no underlying agenda, and their motivational objectivity to any form of morality must include themselves.

The notion of amoralism draws the counter-argument to internalism to its logical conclusion, however, if morality consists of dealing with outside issues, there is always a sense of rationality behind the actions and decisions that are being made. While it is possible to theorise about the effects of amorality, what Brink failed to achieve is any concrete proof that amorality actually exists in the human sphere. It is a concept that does not stand up to the scrutiny of reality where moral ideals and actions always have a sense of rationality. There is no real way of addressing the issues of moral motivation that is not susceptible to accusations of question begging, though the cases for amoralism are at best thin, and it is impossible to see how it would be possible to acquire certifiable evidence for the existence of amoralists.


“Why should I act morally?” is an open question because of the ambiguities that surround the definition of morality, rather than because of any questioning of the intrinsic premises. Many believe in an oversimplified and idealised image of morality, as being a wholesome force that unifies humanity but without the necessary understanding to address this it properly. Rephrasing it as “Why should I do what is morally right and not what is wrong?” produces a better understanding of the dilemmas, as either way, decision-making process produces a result that depends on a moral judgment involving outside parties.

Dismissing amoralism does not entirely rule out nor create a one-sided notion of internal morality. In reality, a moral judgment relies on the combination of both internalism and externalism; while the capacity for making moral decisions is internal, the factors that influence what that decision will actually be is external, depending, as it does, on stimuli from the real world. Rejecting the notion of amoralism opens the door for a more relativistic appraisal of morality, where even psychopaths are, in their own minds, morally justified, and adds further weight to concepts such as moral relativism.


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