Psychopaths and Moral Responsibility: The State of the Debate

Posted on January 20, 2015 by

My 5th post over at Flickers is up, check it out here. I’ve copied and pasted it below for those not interested in clicking (and following comments).


In the last post I suggested that moral responsibility may not come in degrees and based on the discussion that ensued it seems that we are pretty torn on whether or not it does. In this post I would like to focus on a different question: are psychopaths morally responsible for their behavior? This debate is dear to me as it is the first debate I weighed in on as a PhD student. In response to Haji 2010, I argued that if we are morally responsible, then psychopaths are morally responsible as well. There is no morally salient difference between *our abilities* (non psychopaths) and those of the psychopath (I’ll speak to this a bit more in a second). If one admits that we are sometimes morally responsible for at least some of what we do, then one should conclude the same re: psychopaths. So, where do we all stand on this issue? Morally responsible or not? I’m thinking that like the last question I raised that we will be pretty torn on this front as well. I should note that the philosophical literature seems to weigh in favor of exculpating the psychopath or so it seems,( see Haji 1998;2010; Levy 2007 and 2014; Shoemaker 2011 for a few approaches to why this is so)  whereas  a commonly held view by non-philosophers seems to be that psychopaths are morally responsible for what they do. Having worked with young adults being treated for an array of psychopathic traits in the past (for 5 years at a residential program), it is also worth noting that many of them hold themselves morally responsible for what they do as well. So, to get the discussion going I’ll offer an overly brief summary of the debate and mention why they might not be morally responsible and offer some reasons for thinking they might be. I’ll be quick and fast because I know most of you are pretty versed in the literature. In the end, I’d like to hear why folks think they are morally responsible (or not). What condition do they fail to meet? I particularly like this debate because of the interdisciplinary feature of the research, but I digress.

The question of whether the psychopath is morally responsible for his actions has received much attention within psychological, legal, and philosophical circles over the past 20 years. There is debate within each tradition as to whether we should treat the psychopath differently than we do other criminals (assuming the psychopath commits a crime). The psychological debate has focused on the psychopath’s ability to utilize cognitive faculties when theorizing about how one ought to act. The legal debate has focused on the punishment of these individuals and how the insanity plea can be applied to them. Because they seem irrational at times, the term ‘moral insanity’ has been used to describe them (Benn 1999, Levy 2007). This causes friction for the judge and/or jurors trying to justly sentence the psychopath because the insanity plea suggests a different approach to their treatment. The philosophical debate has taken a few different approaches to the problem (though I should note that the aforemetnioned approaches have not been restricted to any one discipline, I am grossly summarizing here).
The first approach tried to assess which kinds of moral knowledge the psychopath could possess (Fields 1996, Glannon 1997, Haji 1998, Levy 2007a). But, this debate seems to be at a stalemate . As Neil Levy notes; “…given that both the truth and the best interpretation of MI (motivational internalism) is extremely controversial, this argument did not serve to advance the debate.” The debate was rooted in 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 .
The second approach focused on the psychopath’s failure to grasp the moral/conventional distinction (Levy 2007a, Levy 2007b, Nichols &Vargas 2007a, Showmaker 2011). The argument there goes something like this; since the psychopath lacks the relevant moral knowledge to be deemed morally responsible the psychopath is unable to control their actions in light of moral reasons because those reasons can only map on to a conventional distinction and not a purely moral one (Levy 2007a). Advocates of holding the psychopath culpable say they may have sufficient knowledge to act morally . Without proof of a lacking of other sorts of knowledge that may be at play when morally theorizing we shouldn’t be quick to revise our intuitions regarding the culpability of the psychopath. I do not think that these two debates are much different from one another. With that said, it doesn’t seem that we have heard sufficient evidence on either side to declare one side wrong, conclusively (even though I find the arguments by Vargas and Nichols a bit more persuasive). This brings us to the third approach and the most current literature within the debate surrounding the responsibility of psychopaths. This approach focuses on three main elements; emotional sensitivity, ethical perception, and a tracing condition centered on an agent’s responsibility of his current dispositional attitudes. This last approach, put forth by IshHaji (Haji 2010), has not yet received much attention.

In “Psychopathy, Ethical Perception, and Moral Culpability”(2010) Haji claims that psychopaths will either 1) not be morally culpable for their actions, or, 2) their degree of moral culpability will be diminished, perhaps considerably so, in light of their lack of emotional sensitivity (recall the relevance of our last discussion on degrees of moral responsibility). Haji offers support for these claims by appealing to a multitude of recent and widely accepted psychological research. The above mentioned two-fold conclusion rests on the conclusions of 3 separate but closely related arguments which he justifies by use of this research. Suffice to say that because psychopaths lack empathy (emotional sensitivity) this has a decided influence on their ethical perception. And, because ethical perception impacts our understanding of moral reasons to act or refrain from acting it follows that psychopaths might not be able to acquire moral knowledge. Assuming that the psychopath is not morally responsible for their emotional insensitivity it follows that the psychopath might not be morally responsible for their actions/behavior.

To see why the fact that  psychopaths lack emotional sensitivity (empathy) is relevant consider a case by Gilbert Harman (1977): You round a corner and see a group of young hoodlums pouring gasoline on a cat and igniting it. As Harman remarks, and Haji suggests; “you do not need to conclude that what…(the hoodlums) are doing is wrong; you do not need to figure anything out. You can see that it is wrong” (Harman 1977, Haji 2010). Here, you can see the work that ethical perception is doing. It seems to be informing our moral intuitions or reactions to the igniting of the cat . Anyone “properly morally trained” should recognize through ethical perception, which has as its central feature emotional sensitivity, that the igniting of the cat is wrong. How could we expect a psychopath to see this as wrong if they are lacking the central feature of ethical perception, emotional sensitivity, that allows them to see it as such?

For those who might find this line of argument persuasive, how we perceive the situation has priority over what we decide– this make sense. However, why think that empathy is the only emotion or faculty bearing on our ethical perception, or that empathy is*necessary* in order to perceive a scenario as moral or not? (once we ask this question we seem to fall back into the debate between Levy and Nichols and Vargas) Further, it might be the case that in passive cases, often ommissions (like Harman’s example) empathy is central to our ethical perception, but, in the more interesting cases, the active cases (where there is deliberation involved on the part of the psychopath), it seems that much deliberation is needed to act successfully and it’s not clear to me that an empathetic emotion is *needed* to conclude that one ought not perform an action on moral grounds(Paul Bloom has recently done some work on empathy  that favors  this line of thinking). This seems to fetishize empathy and I’m not convinced that we need a high-level of it to properly assess a situation as moral or not. I’m much more confident that such an emotion is an important feature that helps us sustain deep interpersonal relationships, but that’s a different conversation.

A sports analogy may be apt here; does the budding basketball player need to have a great jump shot to be a good player? I don’t think that she does. She could be good in other facets of the game (recognizing other relevant moral features) and lack a good jump shot (altogether) and still be considered a valuable contributor to the team (or a moral agentmoral community) She may have a hard time playing against teams that allow one to shoot but defend the drive rigorously—but overall, she could still be considered a good player and even in those cases can . Similarly, it seems that the psychopath could be lacking in empathy which could affect her ability to ethically perceive correctly in many passive cases, however, in active cases it seems he could get by just fine. And, in such cases, it would seem appropraite to hold them morally responsible.

Well, I’d be interested to see how others see the state of the debate; are psychopaths morally responsible for at least some of what they do?