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On Psychopathy and Moral Apologetics


Editor’s Note: The whole video is well worth watching, but you can find Wood’s comments about the moral argument around 23 minutes into the video. Also, we would like to thank The Gospel Coalition for highlighting Wood’s story

By David Baggett 

When David Wood was a boy, his dog was hit by a bus and died. Although his mother was terribly upset, he was not. He figured it was just a dog, now it’s dead, end of story. A few years later when a friend of his died, his response was largely the same. He didn’t feel any particular regret or remorse, but at the same time, largely owing to the very different responses of others, he sensed that maybe he should. Not everyone emotionally impaired in such a way turns violent, but he did. In years to follow, he extended his emotionally dead and unempathetic take on those around him by engaging in some horrifying acts, like brutally attacking his father with a hammer until he thought him dead (he wasn’t). Wood was convinced that right and wrong were fictions to be discarded at will and that the apathetic universe couldn’t care less how anyone acts.

The absence of empathy that Wood seemed to exhibit as a young boy is often indicative of psychopathy or sociopathy. Although sometimes these categories are treated interchangeably, some insist that there are crucial clinical differences between them. For example, some (like Chris Weller) suggest that, though both psychopaths and sociopaths tend to lack fear and disgust, sociopaths are more likely to be found holed up in their houses removed from society, while a psychopath is busy in his basement rigging shackles to his furnace. Psychopaths are dangerous, violent, cruel, and often sinister. Showing no remorse, they commit crimes in cold blood, crave control, behave impulsively, possess a predatory instinct, and attack proactively rather than as a reaction to confrontation.

In contrast, upbringing may play a larger role in a child becoming a sociopath than those diagnosed as psychopaths. Sociopaths project an appearance of trustworthiness or sincerity, but sociopathic behavior is actually conniving and deceitful. Often pathological liars, sociopaths are manipulative and lack the ability to judge the morality of a situation—not for lack of a moral compass (like we find in psychopaths), but because of a greatly skewed moral compass. Despite their differences, both psychopaths and sociopaths can wreak quite a bit of havoc and do much damage in people’s lives.

Since Wood was (1) remarkably unempathetic from such a young age, (2) seemingly lacking a sense of right and wrong rather than having a merely skewed sense of morality, and (3) engaging in extremely antisocial and violent behavior, perhaps this would suggest that he was more a psychopath than a sociopath. Since this is not my area of specialty, though, I am doing nothing more than offering my untutored guess. Yesterday the Gospel Coalition posted an article about Wood called “What Sociopaths Reveal to Us about the Existence of God.” For present purposes, we needn’t worry with the exactly right psychological diagnosis, but it bears pointing that, if anything, Wood seemed to be riddled with the more congenital, more entrenched, more debilitating of the two mental disorders, which is instructive. Wood wasn’t at all inclined to believe he should refrain from hurting others for fear he would thereby violate their “intrinsic value,” since this was a notion he scoffed at as a young man, thinking people were just biological machines for propagating DNA inhabiting a speck in a vast, empty, meaningless universe. For Wood was also, as a young man, an atheist, but this piece is not about his atheism. It’s rather about this mental phenomenon of psychopathy/sociopathy and its bearing on moral apologetics—and vice versa.

What does any of this have to do with the moral argument for God’s existence? Atheists Sam Harris and Erik Wielenberg, both well-known and outspoken atheists, think that the existence of psychopaths, in the clinical sense of the term—by some estimates making up as much as one percent of the population—poses a challenge to theistic ethics generally and divine command theory more particularly. In Sam Harris’s debate with William Lane Craig, Harris pointed out one potential connection between psychopathy and moral apologetics, but we can dispense with it fairly quickly. (Harris also devotes a section of his book The Moral Landscape to the issue of psychopathy, thinking it provides a case study of dissection of conventional morality.) In the debate Harris pointed out that psychopaths manifest an inability to distinguish between true moral claims and commands from authority. They tend to think that moral rules are just arbitrary impositions by someone in charge. Interestingly, Wood himself now admits that for years this was his own view—that for years he was willing to give up everything for the sake of a false freedom from the control of others he despised. At any rate, casting a moral theory of obligations as rooted in divine commands as an arbitrary morality of “authority,” Harris ambitiously argued that there is a psychopathic core to divine command theory—not a compliment to his theistic interlocutors.

As this site has emphasized repeatedly, divine command theory, rightly understood, is not at all an effort to render morality arbitrary, nor does it unintentionally accomplish such a feat de facto. Of course there is the occasional radical voluntarist (sometimes dubbed an Ockhamist, though writers like Lucan Freppert and Marilyn Adams have argued this is unfair to Ockham), but most mainstream divine command theorists don’t embrace anything so scandalous. No, God has reasons for the commands he issues—reasons tied to the nature and telos he’s given to us and, most ultimately, to his own perfect and essentially loving character.

Setting aside that arbitrariness misunderstanding, though, the even more egregious misstep of Harris’s is the suggestion that submitting to moral authority is psychopathic for equating morality with a presumed authority. This is a rookie mistake. Morality, particularly moral obligations, is authoritative—this is what Anscombe pointed out when she talked about the verdict- and law-like nature of moral obligations, what Richard Joyce means when he refers to the punch and clout of moral duties, what Mackie was pointing to when discussing the “queerness”’ of morality; part of what it means to reject objective morality is to deny that such prescriptively binding obligations exist. This shows there’s nothing question-begging about insisting on this aspect of morality; someone can deny objective morality, but such authority is precisely part of what they are denying. Psychopaths are not denying that morality possesses such authority, but rather insisting that morality, invested with such authority, doesn’t exist. Clearly such authority just is part of morality classically construed—whether morality is real or not. So acknowledging such authority is no evidence that those doing so are mentally unstable; such authority is rather one of those important moral facts in need of adequate explanation. The moral argument, especially in its long (abductive) game, wishes—carefully, patiently, and systematically—to make the principled case that theism, better than the plethora of secular moral theories on offer taken individually or in any particular combination, can provide the better explanation of such authority. The recognition of a true and legitimate authority hardly qualifies as psychopathic. Harris’s charged rhetoric here is strategically hyperbolic and borders the conversationally uncooperative.

Let’s turn now to the more serious objection to moral apologetics on the basis of psychopathy that Erik Wielenberg raises. He broaches the topic of psychopathy in his book God and the Reach of Reason. In the context of discussing C. S. Lewis’s moral argument for God’s existence, Wielenberg writes, “Perhaps more problematic for Lewis’s argument than variation in the deliverances of conscience is the fact that some people apparently lack a conscience altogether. Psychopathy (sometimes called ‘sociopathy’) is a personality disorder characterized by, among other things, the absence of the capacity to experience various emotions, including empathy, love, and guilt.” An interesting characteristic of psychopaths, experts tell us, is that they know the difference between right and wrong in some sense. Or they at least recognize that others view certain acts as right or wrong and can use such language appropriately. But such words hold no purchase for psychopaths, because they don’t care about morality. Wielenberg quotes psychologist Robert Hare, who’s studied psychopathy for over a quarter of a century: “They know the rules but follow only those they choose to follow, no matter what the repercussions for others. They have little resistance to temptation, and their transgressions elicit no guilt. Without the shackles of a nagging conscience, they feel free to satisfy their needs and wants and do whatever they think they can get away with.”

Wielenberg notes that there may be an odd individual here and there who doesn’t know the moral law, just as we find a few people color-blind or tone deaf. Robert Hare, too, uses color-blindness to explain psychopathy:

The psychopath is like a color-blind person who sees the world in shades of gray but who has learned how to function in a colored world. He has learned that the light signal for “stop” is at the top of the traffic light. When the color-blind person tells you he stopped at the red light, he really means he stopped at the top light. . . . Like the color-blind person, the psychopath lacks an important element of experience—in this case, emotional experience—but may have learned the words that others use to describe or mimic experiences that he cannot really understand.

Wielenberg argues the existence of psychopaths poses a problem for Lewis’s moral argument for God’s existence. Lewis argues that human conscience is a tool that God uses to communicate with us. “More precisely,” Wielenberg writes, “conscience is a tool that God uses to get us to recognize our need for Him.” Christianity tells people to repent and promises forgiveness; Lewis thus writes it “has nothing (as far as I know) to say to people who do not know they have done anything to repent of and who do not feel that they need any forgiveness.” Since psychopaths are unable to feel they need forgiveness—and psychologists estimate that about four percent of human beings are psychopaths (at least in the West)—Wielenberg asks where this leaves roughly one in twenty-five human beings? Has God abandoned them? This is how Wielenberg argues that the phenomenon of psychopathy undermines the premise of Lewis’s argument that says “the Higher Power issues instructions and wants us to engage in morally right conduct.” Why would God allow so many to lack the emotional equipment essential for engaging in morally right conduct? Wielenberg admits this may not be a decisive objection, owing to the possibility of a justification for psychopathy that lies beyond our current understanding, but he suggests it’s a phenomenon that does not fit very well with Lewis’s overall view.

In response to Wielenberg, I would point to the rest of Wood’s story. If his story were unique, this tack could be accused of being merely anecdotal, but it is one of many stories of remarkable personal transformation. Constructing his worldview to correspond with his flat and lifeless emotional perception of reality, Wood began to think that all of life was pointless. At the same time, he would try to hold his worldview together whenever occasional doubts crept in, until he finally realized that if life was pointless, so too was his effort to hold it all together. And then, he says, life offered him an alternative. In prison he ran into a Christian who was willing to defend his convictions rather than cower in silence or run for cover when Wood issued his usual barrage of insults and challenges. And the believer, named Randy, challenged Wood in return, forcing him to articulate his convictions, at which point Wood recognized something for the first time: “Things that made perfect sense when unquestioned seemed silly when questioned.” Questions of why the disciples would risk death to testify to the resurrection of Jesus or how life could emerge from lifelessness now began to plague Wood’s mind.

In an effort to refute Randy’s faith and consolidate his own, Wood began reading the Bible. He was refraining from eating at the time—long story—and found in scripture that Jesus was the bread of life. He wanted escape from his imprisonment, and read that the Son of God can set us free. He was painfully sick at the time, and read that Jesus was the resurrection and the life. Over and over again he was startled to find Christ to be the answer he was seeking. He spent time reading the books on apologetics Randy had given him, and gradually his secular worldview began to crumble. The design argument and the argument for the historicity of the resurrection began to make more sense to him, and then the moral argument began to speak to him as well. Heretofore he’d held two beliefs at the same time—that humans are meaningless lumps of cells, AND that he was the best, most important person in all the world—and the realization dawned on him how inconsistent these were. A best person, he began to see, required an objective standard of goodness. He went from thinking himself the best person in the world to the worst, and then realized that if his earlier assessment of morality was wrong and there really was an objective standard of goodness and rightness, he was in trouble.

At this point he recognized, without anything much emotional going on in him, what John Hare calls the “moral gap.” Either he was irremediably selfish and sick and there was no hope, or there was someone, or Someone, who could help. He knew he, riddled with his psychological, spiritual, and moral maladies, couldn’t help himself. Who could? Gradually he came to think that only God could do it, and Jesus, the One God raised. Eventually, beaten down, desperate, barely able to know how, he prayed for forgiveness. His was a dramatic conversion, which happens on occasion. Instantaneously, no longer did he want to hurt anyone, and, perhaps even more importantly, he had the strange sense that he’d known the truth all along.

Wood’s moral sense was damaged but not beyond repair. The grace of God and the use of his other faculties (like that of reason) enabled him to understand that he did indeed have moral obligations after all. So perhaps the feelings that psychopaths lack are not necessary in order to recognize the reality and authority of morality. A psychopath is a person who doesn’t feel appropriately about his actions, but reason still leads to moral law. So psychopaths are not incapable of recognizing the moral law, they just lack the right emotional responses to it. Thus they are disadvantaged, but not in a way that precludes knowledge of the moral law. So Wielenberg may be operating on a mistake, namely, the conviction that to be morally responsible one has to have the right moral feelings. Perhaps having moral feelings is not a necessary condition for being morally accountable and that having these feelings is just a gift from God to aid in the moral life. Wielenberg, therefore, may be treating conscience in an overly narrow sense. Perhaps he thinks of conscience as morally appropriate feelings that guide us to right action, but why not include among the faculties of conscience the deliverances of reason? In which case, if our feelings fail us, we are not without a conscience, but just without some of the faculties a healthy conscience would have.

Today Wood runs an apologetics ministry (Acts 17 Apologetics), and he says that, though God created the universe, he created human beings in a special way, imbuing them with his image. Wood realizes now that true freedom is deliverance from his earlier desire to turn against his Creator. Echoing C. S. Lewis, he says he now believes in Christianity as he believes in the Sun—because by it he can see everything else. Wood perhaps didn’t have the advantage of most: a well-functioning conscience and active capacity for empathy, which God can indeed and often does use to draw people to himself. Lewis was right about that, but perhaps overstated the case, because God has other resources besides. People don’t fall through the cracks if God is a God of love. Augustine once wrote that God bids us do what we cannot, that we may know what we ought to seek from him. In an important sense, we are all morally sick to the core and in need of healing that only God can provide; we all need to become not just better men and women, but new men and women. Contra Wielenberg, despite his deficiency Wood was still able to apprehend the truth, recognize the possibility he was wrong, throw himself on God’s mercy, and emerge from the darkness into the light. And for a person who underwent such radical transformation, these words from Ezekiel 36:26 seem poignantly apt: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

Photo: “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. National Gallery of Art. Public Domain. 

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