Do Juvenile Offenders Have Different Morals than Kids Who Don’t Get Into Trouble?
Kiyran Earnshaw, 18, and Luke Gaukroger, 16, were charged with first-degree murder of a factory supervisor, Robert Wilson, after stabbing him more than 100 times. How can teenagers like Earnshaw and Gaukroger commit such a horrendous crime? What separates them from other 16-year-olds?
We know that some violent individuals have elevated levels of psychopathic traits such as egocentricity, impulsivity, callousness, and a lack of warmth toward other people. These individuals also exhibit antisocial behavior, lack of guilt and remorse, deceptiveness, and a tendency to manipulate other people. But how do such traits affect these teenagers’ moral values?
Most people think of moral values as norms that are implicit and universally accepted. For example, most people would agree that it is morally wrong to kill an innocent person. But the question of which moral norms should take precedence over others often leads to major disagreements. For instance, some people believe that it is not morally wrong to harm animals for the sake of medical progress that might benefit millions of people, whereas other people strongly disagree, saying that harming animals is always wrong no matter what the benefits to human beings might be.
Richard Shweder and, later, Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues promoted a view of morality suggesting that our moral judgments are strongly influenced by our emotions and moral intuitions (here, intuitions refer to quick, automatic judgments), as well as by people’s cultural context. Haidt and his colleagues proposed that there are five moral values that are universal but vary in importance depending on a person’s culture and political orientation. These values involve care for others, fairness, loyalty, respecting authority, and sanctity.
For example, people who strongly endorse caring for others would want, above all else, to reduce someone else’s suffering. In contrast, people who rate fairness as an important moral value are more likely to value reciprocity and justice and to punish cheaters. Individuals who value loyalty believe in cooperating with their ingroup and in staying away from or behaving in hostile ways toward outgroups. People who rate the moral value of respecting authority as very important tend to value obedience, deference, and respect toward authority figures in a hierarchal social system. Last, individuals who morally value sanctity are more likely to adhere to social and religious taboos, feel disgust when they are exposed to behaviors that they consider impure, and care about chastity, cleanliness, and purity of the mind, body, and soul.
But what about juvenile offenders with elevated psychopathic traits? Do they have moral intuitions that guide moral behavior, and if so, which ones?
In one test of morality, known as the Moral/Conventional Transgressions task, researchers study whether people can perceive differences between social norms and moral norms. Social norms are presumably amoral rules that depend on the specific situation that one is in, such as norms about not talking in class. In contrast, moral norms are assumed to be universal rules that must be followed regardless of the situation, such as not stealing someone else’s property.
Researchers found that juvenile offenders with psychopathic traits were able to accurately identify which behaviors were merely violations of social rules and which ones were moral violations, suggesting that they can tell the difference between right and wrong and are not “morally blind.” Importantly, however, juvenile offenders rated moral violations as less serious than adolescents of the same age who were not delinquents and did not have psychopathic traits, suggesting that offenders lack a full understanding of moral situations.
Because having abnormal moral values—or perhaps no moral values at all—may lead to immoral behavior, including committing crimes, my colleagues and I wanted to know whether the moral values of incarcerated adolescents with psychopathic personality traits differ from those of incarcerated adolescents who are low in psychopathic traits. We found that juvenile offenders who were callous and unemotional and who lacked empathy rated all five primary moral values—caring for others, fairness, loyalty, respecting authority, and sanctity/purity—as less important than incarcerated adolescents who scored lower in psychopathic characteristics. Incarcerated adolescents with psychopathic personality traits seemed to regard all fundamental moral values as less important.
Other studies have found that, among adults who are imprisoned, psychopathic personality traits were related to low endorsement of behaviors related to the moral values of care and fairness, but there was no relationship between psychopathic traits and endorsing loyalty, respecting authority, or sanctity/purity. However, our research found that juvenile offenders with high psychopathy endorsed all five moral values less than those with low psychopathy. Given that moral values and intuitions are fundamental motivators of moral behavior, low endorsement of these moral foundations might explain why incarcerated adolescents with high psychopathy are more likely to harm others, cheat, defy authority, violate group norms and expectations, and experience lower disgust when watching or engaging in violence.
It remains unclear why adults with psychopathic traits don’t exhibit the same breadth of moral reasoning abnormalities that we found in juveniles. Perhaps their moral reasoning abilities mature with age or maybe they simply get better at presenting themselves in socially desirable ways. In any case, the fact that juvenile offenders show such a broad array of abnormalities in moral reasoning suggests that the combination of high psychopathy and poor moral reasoning may increase the risk of adolescents committing violent crimes.
For Further Reading
Aharoni, E., Sinnott-Armstrong, W., & Kiehl, K. A. (2014). What’s wrong? Moral understanding in psychopathic offenders. Journal of Research in Personality, 53, 175–181. https://doi.org/10/gfzcrs
Cima, M., Korebrits, A., Stams, G. J., & Bleumer, P. (2017). Moral cognition, emotion, and behavior in male youth with varying levels of psychopathic traits. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 54, 155–162. https://doi.org/10/gfkhj7
Fernandes, S., Aharoni, E., Harenski, C. L., Caldwell, M., & Kiehl, K. A. (2020). Anomalous moral intuitions in juvenile offenders with psychopathic traits. Journal of Research in Personality, 103962. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2020.103962
Haidt, Jonathan, & Graham, J. (2007). When morality opposes justice: Conservatives have moral intuitions that liberals may not recognize. Social Justice Research, 20(1), 98–116. https://doi.org/10/b8bt4c
Sharlene Fernandes is a Ph.D. student in Psychology (Cognitive Sciences) at Georgia State University: The Cooperation, Conflict, and Cognition Lab.
Eyal Aharoni is an Associate Professor of Psychology, Philosophy, and Neuroscience at Georgia State University where he serves as the director of the Cooperation, Conflict, and Cognition Lab.