“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”

The excellent TV series Hannibal (Fuller, 2013-  ) has got me thinking about the charcter of Hannibal Lecter.

Part of what makes Hannibal such a horrifying character is his combination of aesthetic sensitivity and moral insensitivity.  Yet, philosophers Heidi Maibom and James Harold have argued that Hannibal Lecter is an unrealistic character, claiming that “there is no evidence that psychopaths are capable of real aesthetic appreciation, and some evidence that they are not”.

Other philosophers have shared their intuitions about the implausibility of the “psychotic aesthete” character. Yet it seems to me that these philosophers base their reasoning on a misunderstanding of aesthetic judgment. While there may in fact be no psychotic aesthetes in real life, there is, in principle no reason why Hannibal Lecter could not exist.

It is sometimes argued that psychopaths lack empathy.  But psychological case studies of real-life psychopaths suggest that psychopaths only lack what psychologists call “affective empathy”, not “cognitive empathy”. This actually fits nicely with Hannibal. Far from lacking empathy, Hannibal he is quite sensitive to the feelings and perspectives of others. He understands what others are thinking and feeling – he simply doesn’t care.

Instead of an empathy deficit, the true mark of a psychopath seems to be “their inability to take an interest in anything that does not serve, directly or indirectly, to satisfy some desire”.  Maibom and Harold hypothesize that this will yield an inability to achieve aesthetic distance.  Psychopaths treat everything as a means, and so can engage neither persons nor artworks as ends in themselves.

What this hypothesis fails to take into account is that it is compatible with aesthetic distance for a viewer to engage with an artwork instrumentally as a means to her own aesthetic pleasure.  Qua aesthetic pleasure, such instrumental aesthetic engagement would require a certain kind of psychic distancing (setting aside such practical interests as desire for money or sex), but aesthetic distancing does not require setting aside the desire for the pleasure that can result from the contemplation of art itself.

Therefore, since the psychopath doesn’t necessarily lack any cognitive skill, and since aesthetic distancing doesn’t necessarily require abstracting from egoistic desire, then the psychopath should, in principle, be capable of aesthetic appreciation.

On the other hand, this account does entail that psychopaths are incapable of experiencing the value of an object for its own sake.  While they can be sensitive to the object’s aesthetic properties, they cannot judge that it is good the object exists apart from their own experience of it.

This explains why psychopaths would lack ethical sensitivity, since ethics does require non-instrumental valuing of persons.  Furthermore, this account means that psychopaths treat art like food – something to be consumed for pleasure – which in turn suggests that if a psychopath took an aesthetic interest in people, he would treat them, too, as objects to be consumed for pleasure.  “Hannibal the Cannibal” is simply the logical extreme of this line of thought: the aesthete as gourmand as psychopath.


2 thoughts on ““I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”

  1. The point you are missing, it seems, is something that Maibom and Harold don’t deal with either: what causes pleasure when one looks at an artwork or listens to music. In non-psychopaths dopamine is released by the caudate during ‘anticipatory phases’ which predict an enjoyable bit of music coming up (a key change, climax, etc.) It doesn’t seem that there has been any research into whether psychopaths feel this, but I don’t see why they wouldn’t. I think Maibom and Harold are insinuating that psychopaths will not enjoy these things because they involve emotional feeling, but this is a misconception. Stravinsky said that ‘music expresses nothing except itself’. There is no reason that a highly-educated psychopath would not enjoy the formal elements of music including the way music is structured to release dopamine during these anticipatory phases. I think that’s why Thomas Harris wrote Lecter as a character who loves the Goldberg Variations: it is widely considered the greatest exercise in musical form and symmetry ever written.

    What might also skew the research of Maibom and Harold is if it is true that psychopaths have a lower average IQ than non-psychopaths (as was asserted in one paper – though this also suffered from only examining known psychopaths, i.e. criminals who got caught who are likely to have lower IQs than their successful criminal and non-criminal counterparts).

    The problem is we simply cannot do a study of psychopaths with high IQs because they tend not to show up on the radar. Without looking at them we can’t say either way how likely it is that psychopaths are aesthetically blind and deaf.

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