Serial Killers as “Criminals”

Here was an interesting question posted at Philosophy Forums:

If Alcoholism has been proven to be a mental and physical, diagnosable addiction, and society can come to terms with this and forgive those whom have been diagnosed for wrongdoings brought on by said disease, why are serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer punished by law and forced to suffer consequences? Just like it was proven that there are chemical, physical reactions in your brain that cause Alcoholism, leading to it being diagnosable, there are the same that cause some to become mentally ill enough to become serial killers. Alcoholics never “want” to drink, they “need” to. Like heroin to a junkie, it becomes sustenance. Serial killers don’t kill for fun, in fact motives are often hard to find in the murders they commit. And yet, they are punished for “unforgivable” and “heinous” crimes that they cannot control themselves to prevent. This is the reason serial killers often come off as normal and unassuming, as can be Alcoholics. However, society can come to terms with Alcoholism and even forgive them for their shortcomings. Why is this? Is this because serial killers’ diseases sustenance is illegal? Then why can illegal drug addicts avoid prison by committing to and undergoing treatment? Is it because society needs to draw the line somewhere? Is it because society is too ignorant, or ill prepared to accept this as a fact? Or is it because the acts they commit affect society far too harshly? I’d actually argue against the last in that Alcoholism has affected more people in my family, even ruining lives completely, more than a murder would have.

My answer is basically pragmatic: we can deal with alcoholics in society, but not serial killers.  Yes, alcoholics “need” alcohol, but after some training and strict discipline, they eventually won’t consume it.  The temptation to drink is still there, but it goes down somewhat.  For serial killers, it’s hard to say because we’ve never actually studied that or helped them to not want to be killers.

I also think it’s because alcoholics may want to drink, but they don’t desire that want.  In other words, the second-order desire is negative; they don’t want to want the drink.  Serial killers, however, may still want to want killing.  But do they?  I actually don’t know.  I’ve never studied this.

So two questions: serial killers enjoy killing.  But do they want to get rid of these wants?  If so, then I may have to revise my argument.  And two, what do you think of this proposed argument above?

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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6 Responses to Serial Killers as “Criminals”

  1. curlyalex says:

    i think trying to put the same kind of definition on the motives of a serial killer and an alcoholic are some what different….yes, in both senses you are addicted to something, but and by the very definitions ‘alcoholic’ and ‘murderer’ you in a way define your existence by these actions, but they are wholly different.

    like you said, there hasn’t been nearly the same degree of research into serial killers; alcoholism has been made into a some what ‘socially acceptable’ issue. everyone, however, has their vices. whether you drink, kill people or have to have your sandwiches a particular way, everyone has vices

  2. Kristina W. says:

    Serial Killers find themselves elite to the rest of society, as result feel justified to do so ( just as one said example ). And it doesnt help they objectify people at all crossroads making it impossible to have any ability of empathy or personal relations to open themselves up to the possibility they are doing abnormal. They really just think they are the only ones open and honest about desires to kill and that if each were as honest as them they would do the same. Hence that eliteness factor found in NPD. It is for various reasons people kill in general, but true SK are classically narcissistic by social upbringing, mainly as abused children, leading to narcissism personality disorder. They have an exadurated sense of self worth, and cannot handle internally (mentally) being opposed, to be heckled or disagreed with on opinions, or frowned upon in life in any dilution. A huge problem with rehabilitation of NPD is to try and convince them they are the ones wrong.

    The narcissist seeks to adapt society in general – and meaningful others in particular – to his needs. He regards himself as the epitome of perfection, a yardstick against which he measures everyone, a benchmark of excellence to be emulated. He acts the guru, the sage, the “psychotherapist”, the “expert”, the objective observer of human affairs. He diagnoses the “faults” and “pathologies” of people around him and “helps” them “improve”, “change”, “evolve”, and “succeed” – i.e., conform to the narcissist’s vision and wishes.

    Serial killers also “improve” their victims – slain, intimate objects – by “purifying” them, removing “imperfections”, depersonalizing and dehumanizing them. This type of killer saves its victims from degeneration and degradation, from evil and from sin, in short: from a fate worse than death. When they keep trophies they do so because they feel as though there moral worth is now larger in doing so, they have a bigger (experience) worth. Much like we would keep trophies or sports equipment on display.

    The narcissist’s life is a giant repetition complex. In a doomed attempt to resolve early conflicts with significant others, the narcissist resorts to a restricted repertoire of coping strategies, defense mechanisms, and behaviors. He seeks to recreate his past in each and every new relationship and interaction. Inevitably, the narcissist is invariably confronted with the same outcomes. This recurrence only reinforces the narcissist’s rigid reactive patterns and deep-set beliefs. It is a vicious, intractable, cycle.

    While alchol and SK have some loosely similiar traits, they are vastly different to associate the two as treatable similarily. Alcholics for example have a deep inner desire to want to be good people. They have the ability to empathize with other people, not only themselves. Just not always have the ability to see what they are doing in the big scheme of things, or have the ability to cognitively see what they are doing to others. They alot of times have a low sense of self worth. I had an alcholic tell me once that he never knew the extent that he put his internal problems on to the worlds shoulders by drinking. And that if he knew he had a problem he would have tried to fix it. He just genuinely never realized why he did what he did and never understood that he wasnt fixing what was wrong realistically. Turned out that he was sexually abused as a boy and never dealt with the guilt he felt and the victimization he felt until he was 45. So he had an entire half a childhood and adult lifehood to learn how to survive and never thought this process might have been what was keeping him down. In his mind, it was normal to feel and cope this way.

    Hopefully I explained clearly why those are similiar but different. I guess in the end it boils down to one has a chance the other not so much. But do serial killers enjoy killing? I guess each situation is different, but one thing that hovers my mind is “Isn’t the internal gratification of empowerment and control the same as enjoyment in this case?”

  3. thekillerj says:

    I can’t imagine you could possibly view alcoholics and serial killers along the same moral guidelines regarding their respective “addictions.” Based on the fact that a relapse has such drastically different outcomes, this type of talk should be kept as a thought experiment and hopefully never anything more than that.

  4. shaunmiller says:

    Hello curleyalex,

    Yes, we all have our vices and you do define your existence through this, but I’m not sure we need to go the existentialist route to explain the difference between the alcoholic and the serial killer. The writer gives an interesting thought experiment to make us re-look at our assumptions and this forces us to look at our values and our assumptions as well.


    You bring up excellent points of distinguishing between the alcoholic and the serial killer. This may be the reason why we can’t regard serial killers treatable because they believe they are beyond treatment: they feel that they are doing something moral. You also mention that alcoholics do have a deeper desire to get off alcohol which suggests that they want to want to get off alcohol (second-order desire) whereas serial killers don’t have this desire. I don’t think they even think about these second-order desire. I’d like to expand your answer by saying that maybe the reason we can handle alcoholics is because it’s much easier to treat and the affective consequences are less severe than the serial killer. With the serial killer, we immediately want him/her put away. But with the alcoholic, even though the addiction “might be the same,” nevertheless we can control it and treat it.


    Yes, this should be stayed in the “thought experiment” category, but that’s the beauty of thought experiments. Philosophers (and others) bring these up for some good reasons. As I’ve mentioned above, it forces us to re-look at our assumptions and perhaps makes us think that our assumptions are wrong. Or, it tells us what the logical consequences of our beliefs are which can lead to a logical or illogical result. So yes, it’s a fun thought-experiment to think about because we can simply think about it and discuss it without going out and actually conducting a full experiment. We’ll leave that to the experimentalists. 😉

  5. thekillerj says:

    Fair enough bro!

  6. Handsome Matt says:

    It seems that “treatment” for a disorder occurs when the patient desires to be cured. Jeffrey Dahmer found religion in prison, and sought forgiveness for his crimes. Many alcoholics and addicts work through programs.

    In that sense then, the two are similar. However the consequences of an untreated alcoholic versus an untreated serial killer are worlds apart

    Any wrong act an alcoholic commits, occurs elsewhere in society. Even the worst case scenario of a car crash or child abuse; those occur elsewhere without alcoholics needing to be present. In that sense, an addict is a victim of chance.

    A serial killer however, is a planned and executed act of evil; in this case murder. They aren’t avoidable accidents, unplanned acts of opportunity or victims chance. From start to finish, it’s an articulated and well thought out plan resulting in murder.

    I don’t think that degree of planning and restraint exists in an addicts mind. An addict seems to have that “need a fix, get the fix” mentality. It’s almost a baser animal drive.

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