It is often claimed that psychopaths lack a conscience. There was even a book named after the claim. A review of that book states:

As the title suggests, psychopaths are qualitatively different from other people, literally having no conscience.

This website which seems to be an information resource for psychopathy states:

Imagine - if you can - not having a conscience, none at all, no feelings of guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern for the well-being of strangers, friends, or even family members. Imagine no struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind of selfish, lazy, harmful, or immoral action you had taken.

I think it is well established that psychopaths lack empathy, which has been shown with differences in brain structure and/or activity, although I don't think it is necessarily valid to conclude that psychopaths have no conscience from that.

The definition for conscience is not dependent on empathy, bur rather knowing or having a sense of what is right or wrong. Even with a complete lack of empathy or remorse, why could there be no sense of right and wrong?

Is there any validity to the claim that psychopaths lack a conscience? Why would they be unable to have the same values of wrong and right instilled as other people, or to sense how people will morally view their actions?

  • @Chad What? I'm not redefining anything. The definition refers to a sense of right and wrong, not necessarily guilt. The claim that psychopaths lack a conscience seems to have more to do with them lacking a sense of right and wrong then being incapable of remorse or guilt. – Sonny Ordell Feb 21 '12 at 16:40
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    I'm with Chad here. I know of no definition of "conscience" that reflects societal convention. The definition you provided includes whatever the individual feels is "right" or "be[ing] good". If those values are "what is right is whatever I feel like doing, and being 'good' is me doing whatever I feel like doing", then a psychopath could indeed have a "conscience". Just not one that is at odds with society. – Beofett Feb 21 '12 at 20:39
  • @chad , Beofett - I don't think it matters if it is a personal sense of right and wrong or a societal one. I think the issue is whether or not a psychopath can sense that something may be right or wrong, whether personally or in line with societal values. Not feeling remorse or guilt does not mean they may not be able to see something as wrong or right, which is what I think the claim is getting at. – Sonny Ordell Feb 21 '12 at 22:55
  • @Chad, I somehow missed the relevant sentence in my question. Fixed. – Sonny Ordell Feb 22 '12 at 1:44
  • I had thought that I had read somewhere that it was found that psychopaths could decide to turn on their empathy, similar to how normies can decide to turn theirs off. Either way, I believe the general consensus is that they do not feel those types of emotions, but are perfectly normal at knowing right from wrong. They are even known for sometimes being very good manipulators, meaning they have a full understanding of how a normal thinks, even emotionally and ethically. – Jonathon Aug 12 '15 at 22:37

Psychopathy is measured through a scale known as "Hare Psychopathy Check List, Revised (PCL-R)". It is not simply a paper but a whole book on psychopathy. It is very, very well tested experimentally, and hugely cited - Google Scholar reports 3000+ citation.

Unfortunately, the book is not freely available, but, since this is a non-controversial subject, I'll simply use Wikipedia. See the voice for PCL-R. There are 2 main factors identified in psychopaths:

Factor 1: Personality "Aggressive narcissism"

  • Glibness/superficial charm
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth
  • Pathological lying
  • Cunning/manipulative
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Shallow affect (genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric)
  • Callousness; lack of empathy
  • Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Factor 2: Case history "Socially deviant lifestyle".

  • Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
  • Parasitic lifestyle
  • Poor behavioral control
  • Lack of realistic long-term goals
  • Impulsivity
  • Irresponsibility
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Early behavior problems
  • Revocation of conditional release

It is clear from this that lack of conscience (or remorse, guilt) and lack of empathy are part of the same factor and thus they are strongly correlated.

So - to answer your question in full - lack of a conscience is a common trait of psychopaths, but it's not, strictly speaking, necessary, for a psychopathy diagnosis.

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    I think you are conflating a lack of conscience with a lack of remorse/guilt when they are not necessarily tied to each other. In fact the definition for conscience mentions neither remorse nor guilt. – Sonny Ordell Feb 21 '12 at 1:32
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    I know this isn't a place for criticism of established references, but the PCL-R seems to be missing the dimension of willful cruelty. Ronson's The Psychopath Test establishes that the PCL-R can rank a corporate CEO as a psychopath (including Factor 2 questions), but, in my opinion, there's something qualitatively different between a thrill-killer and a sentiment-free CEO. Ronson ends the book skeptical of the PCL-R. – Larry OBrien Feb 21 '12 at 4:50
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    From that definition: "the sense or consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one's own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good". Seems very tightly coupled to remorse and guilt to me. – Oddthinking Feb 21 '12 at 8:23
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    @ Larry OBrien - I believe that willful cruelty is classified as sadism, not psychopathy. For psychopaths, cruelty is more like a means to an end, not a pleasure in itself. But that's just the current classification. I read about this recently in Pinker's Better Angels of our Nature. – Ana Feb 21 '12 at 12:46
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    @sklivvz And I was agreeing with you. But making it clear that it has actually happened not just theoretically possible. – Chad Feb 21 '12 at 13:59

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