Psychopaths: Morally Responsible?

Posted on May 24, 2012 by

In April I gave a talk at a Free Will/ Moral Responsibility conference  near my hometown in Massachusetts on the culpability of psychopaths. There, I argued that psychopaths are morally responsible for their actions because they have the necessary cognitive mechanisms one needs to properly judge an action as morally right or morally wrong. Now that I have time to address some of the issues that were raised at that talk I figured this would be a good place to flush out some of my ideas. The talk I gave was part of a larger project on Moral Responsibility, the title of the paper was “Moral Culpability, Blame, and Psychopaths”.

For readers unfamiliar with the usual line of argument given to explain why Psychopaths should not be morally responsible for their actions I’ll provide a bit of background. It is thought by some (Ish Haji, David Shoemaker, Neil Levy, among others) that Psychopaths are not blameworthy for the acts that they commit. All three authors have argued for them to be exculpated of their moral responsibility or at least have a mitigated degree of blameworthiness in light of some of their cognitive deficiencies. I won’t have time to give each of their arguments in detail but I’ll mention the different approaches to the problem in order to give you an idea of what their trying to do. Ultimately, I disagree with their conclusions.

The first approach tried to assess which kinds of moral knowledge the psychopath could possess (Haji 1998, Levy 2007). The debate was rooted in a discussion about which relevant moral beliefs the psychopath was capable of having given that the psychopath was motivated differently and seemingly without the appropriate motivations that one would need to have in order to act morally. And, assuming that the psychopath is not at fault for lacking the ability to be motivated by moral reasons, we should not hold the psychopath morally responsible.

The second approach focused on the psychopath’s failure to grasp the moral/conventional distinction (for a good exchange see Levy (2007) and, Vargas and Nichols (2007)). The argument there goes something like this; since the psychopath lacks the relevant moral knowledge (usually cashed out in an account of the epistemic condition) to be deemed morally responsible the psychopath is unable to control their actions in the light of moral reasons because those reasons can only map on to a conventional distinction and not a purely moral one. By failing to grasp the conventional/moral distinction the psychopath does not have the proper knowledge to act morally, and thus, should not be held morally responsible.

A third approach, (offered by my supervisor in 2010), claims that ethical perception is needed to properly gauge what one ought to do in moral situations. And, emotions are paramount in ethically perceiving a given situation. Since the psychopath cannot ethical perceive the way you or I can then her degree of blame should be mitigated accordingly.

Now, I argue against all of these positions. The philosophers that I’ve mentioned are assuming that the psychological literature on the subject is correct when they claim certain emotional capacities are NEEDED to act morally. The conclusions to those empirical findings are exactly what I call into question in the piece that I presented. Sure, certain emotions may allow one to filter some possible actions (non-moral actions, for instance) from their set, however, it’s not apparent to me that a person who can rationalize properly should not be held morally responsible for the actions they engage in. But, I’ll save the details of my argument and the answers I have to some of the criticisms raised against my position.

Here, I’d like to focus on some practical questions associated with adopting any of the aforementioned theses that conclude that psychopaths are not in fact morally responsible. What would or should change if in fact one or all of these positions was correct? Is the claim that we should not have feelings of resent or disgust that are normally associated with the blame that we ordinarily ascribe to the psychopath? So, the families of the victims are not justified in directing their reactive attitudes toward the psychopath?  If one does not think that the psychopath is culpable are they committed to asking the families that have been victimized by the psychopath to suspend their feelings of resent toward the psychopath? Well, if in fact the psychopath is not morally responsible then it does not seem fitting that they hold feelings of resent toward the psychopath. Usually, feelings of resent are connected to blameworthiness, and, blameworthiness is connected to moral responsibility. By mitigating the psychopaths responsibility it seems that we must look at those feelings of resent as being ill-founded. Those who think the psychopath is not morally responsible find themselves in a dilemma.

I think the psychopath is blameworthy. My account is similar to those of the authors mentioned above. Ish and I, for instance, share an almost identical view with regards to the conditions one must meet to be held accountable. However, we differ in what we find salient in making particular (moral) decisions. So, the real question is; what kinds of cognitive mechanisms are needed to make a moral judgement? How we answer this will then inform our judgement to whether the psychopath is in fact morally responsible for his actions.