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Morality is defined as “being concerned with the principles of right and wrong behaviour”. (Oxford English Dictionary) It may be measured by our responses to events, the feelings and sensations that arise from some action. For example, if we are helped when we fall, we feel gratitude, and we can conclude that the action was good, it was right. If, on the other hand, we are punched and pushed to the floor, we feel upset and hurt, meaning we perceive the action as bad, it was wrong.
Taking a moral position relies upon rational thinking, it requires the skill to observe actions and then sense and link those actions to the emotions arising (Keysers, 2011). Therefore, by rationalizing these actions and with the ability to empathise (to internalise other people’s sensations), we can determine what we perceive to be right or wrong. Psychopaths can also rationalize actions, but it is questionable as to whether the state of mind of the psychopath allows them to arrive at similar moral conclusions to someone of a sound mind.
The situation is not entirely black and white, a psychopath will experience both good and bad thoughts, whilst non-psychopaths can act according to pure and impure intentions. Thoughts, choices and moral positions are guided and shaped by past and present experiences. If somebody has grown up with the right kind of role model or has been nurtured from an early age in a positive environment, healthy perceptions of right or wrong can be further developed.
With such influences a psychopath can be taught to understand the logical and rational differences between right and wrong. Nevertheless, the innate inability to emotionally understand may lead psychopaths to simply not care about others” perceptions of morality, in such a way that norms of morality govern and drive acceptable behaviour.
Studies of the brain give important clues as to why a psychopath may not possess an innate ability to moralise according to the norms of society. To understand how brain activity could affect emotional responses the brain has been studied through a variety of experimental methods.
Scientists have compared the emotional reactions of those said to be on the psychopath spectrum with others. The emotional responses are quite different as are the physical responses of the body and the brain function. Such differences can be observed measured and compared.
One experiment conducted in a Dutch forensic clinic (Keysers, 2011) was performed to investigate the different brain patterns of a psychopath, specifically to understand why a psychopath might lack empathy, a trait that is crucial in our idea of morality.
Empathy can be measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging, measuring the activity in motor, somatosensory and emotional brain regions. Such measurements have proven that reactions to being directly touched or attacked are equivalent to those reactions.
A sensory system involved in the inter-related sensations of touch, body position, temperature, and pain, the somatosensory system is a diversified processing complex. It includes many sensory receptors located all over the skin, bones, joints, skeletal muscles, internal organs and the parts of the cardiovascular system.
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