, Volume 1, Issue 3, pp 167–184

The Mad, the Bad, and the Psychopath

Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s12152-008-9013-9

Cite this article as:
Maibom, H.L. Neuroethics (2008) 1: 167. doi:10.1007/s12152-008-9013-9


It is common for philosophers to argue that psychopaths are not morally responsible because they lack some of the essential capacities for morality. In legal terms, they are criminally insane. Typically, however, the insanity defense is not available to psychopaths. The primary reason is that they appear to have the knowledge and understanding required under the M’Naghten Rules. However, it has been argued that what is required for moral and legal responsibility is ‘deep’ moral understanding, something that psychopaths do not have either due to their lacking empathy or practical reason. In the first part of the paper, I argue that psychopaths do not lack the abilities required for deep moral understanding, although they have deficits in those areas. According the M’Naghten Rules, therefore, psychopaths are not insane. Under a less strict formulation of the insanity plea, like the Model Penal Code, however, there is a good case to be made for their lacking substantial capacity. I argue that because psychopathy is an essentially moral disorder, and because of the nature of psychopathic violence, psychopaths should not be excused under the insanity plea. It would be tantamount to excusing someone for committing a crime because they are bad. Arguably, this contravenes the entire system of law.


Criminal responsibility Legal responsibility Insanity Psychopathy Moral understanding Empathy 

[T]o establish a defense on the grounds of insanity, it must conclusively be proved that, at the time of committing the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know what he was doing was wrong. (The M’Naghten Rules)

Current US legal practice is to regard the psychiatric condition of psychopathy to be irrelevant to a defendant’s legal responsibility. The insanity defense is generally not available to psychopaths.1 This is largely due to the fact that psychopaths are able to correctly identify what actions they are performing, determine whether those actions are right or wrong, and control their actions. They do not suffer from delusions or hallucinations of the sort that usually exculpate other mentally ill defendants. In short, they do not appear to be either cognitively or volitionally impaired in a way relevant to criminal responsibility. Experts tend to agree that psychopaths are, indeed, blameworthy for their actions and should be punished accordingly [12, 31].2 Most philosophers, however, think they are not responsible moral agents [3, 20, 23, 28, 52], or at least not fully morally responsible agents [20, 27, 30]. And this fact, in their view, absolves or mitigates their criminal responsibility under the insanity plea (but see [30]).3 They do not deny, of course, that legal and moral responsibility are separate categories, but they argue that an agent’s moral agency is highly relevant to determining her sanity, and hence her legal responsibility. An agent who lacks true moral understanding does not really comprehend the wrongness of his actions. And psychopaths, although they know that what they are doing is both illegal and immoral, in some sense, are often thought to lack such understanding. It is the suggestion that psychopaths lack true moral understanding and that this imputes their sanity that is the focus of this paper.4

I shall argue that the psychopath does not lack the abilities that are required to acquire deep moral understanding, e.g. he does not lack empathy altogether. Furthermore, there are many other abilities that help give depth to ordinary people’s understanding of morality, none of which have been shown to be absent in the psychopath. Psychopaths do, of course, have impairments in a range of abilities, but not to the extent that we should expect them to be unable to acquire any deep moral understanding. It may, however, be argued that they lack substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongness of their actions, which would excuse them under the Model Penal Code rather than the M’Naghten Rules. I suggest that we resist this suggestion. Psychopathy, I argue, is a specifically moral disorder. Whereas we may excuse people for being mad, it would be utterly paradoxical to excuse people for being bad. When we further consider typical successful insanity defenses, the peculiarity of the psychopaths’ case stands out. By contrast to typical insanity cases, murders by psychopaths are almost always instrumental, they are not committed while in the grips of a hallucination or delusion, or while the person has a particularly tenuous grasp on reality, and had the psychopath’s morally disordered beliefs been true, his action would still not have been morally permissible. Considering the relevant action and the circumstances under which it is performed, it again appears to be a bad action more than a mad action. In effect, the psychopath’s badness is his madness. The reason that psychopaths are said to be mad is that they are bad. This leaves us in the rather awkward situation of maintaining that bad actions performed while being bad should be excused. I trust that the irony is not lost on the reader. Given our system of law, we cannot, I argue, simply excuse people for being bad; it would contravene the entire system of law. Consequently, the psychopath should not be excused under the insanity defense, understood cognitively. Like other people, should he commit a crime, he is subject to punishment under the law.

Empathy and Understanding Malum in Se

Criminal law draws a distinction between actions that are bad in themselves—malum in se—and actions that are bad because prohibited by law—malum prohibitum. Usually, this distinction tracks common morality; actions that are bad in themselves are regarded as immoral, whereas actions that are mala prohibita are bad because they violate a convention. For instance, rape and murder are mala in se and mala prohibita, whereas parking illegally is only mala prohibita. Psychopaths clearly have an understanding of malum prohibitum. Whether they have an adequate grasp of malum in se is open to debate. Current legal practice in the US regards knowledge that an act is malum prohibitum as sufficient for sanity, since even though one of the most famous successful insanity defenses—of M’Naghten, which led to the famous M’Naghten Rules—was of a defendant whose confession to the police clearly indicated that he knew that what he had done was malum prohibitum [68]. What philosophers and some legal theorists are pushing for is a more nuanced understanding of knowledge of wrong in the context of insanity pleas, one that includes a degree of understanding of malum in se. The question is whether someone who only understands malum prohibitum can be regarded as having a guilty mind—mens rea—sufficient for actions that are mala in se. That is, in order to be regarded to be guilty of murder, the law requires mens rea. This requires that the agent think of the action in a particular way. It may be argued, then, that the way in which someone, who does not understand that murder is a malum in se, thinks of that action is not sufficient to show that she had a guilty mind for murder should she commit one.

Philosophers tend to think that psychopaths’ understanding of morality is so shallow and deficient that it, at the very least, mitigates their responsibility. Carl Elliott [22] and Walter Glannon [27] both suggest that psychopaths be regarded as only partly responsible for their actions. Ishtiyaque Haji [30] suggests that whereas psychopaths may not be morally responsible, they may nevertheless be legally responsible. Many philosophers, however, think that psychopaths have such a woefully deficient understanding of morality that they do not meet even the most minimal standards of moral and legal responsibility [3, 20, 23, 28, 52]. Jonathan Glover, e.g., is impressed by psychopaths’ abnormal reflections on moral prohibitions: ([28], p. 138)

Asked to list the worst things a person can do, psychopaths included shooting at beasts with air rifles, turning round one-way street notices, pulling gates off posts, and smashing bottles on the road. The replies of psychopaths were both unusually trivial and unusually specific. Psychopaths, unlike the control group, often seemed unable to give reasons for their views. It is hard to avoid the impression that these psychopaths are quite capable of mechanical obedience to rules, but have not developed moral capacities of reasoning and imagination.

The indication here is that psychopaths have merely a malum prohibitum understanding of moral transgressions.

In general, two sorts of considerations are called into play when considering the psychopaths’ moral understanding: deficient practical reason and deficient emotions. Those who favor the former considerations in absolving psychopaths of responsibility argue that psychopaths are incapable of, or severely impaired in, prudential reasoning.5 Thus, Anthony Duff argues that: ([20], p. 199)

A psychopath cannot understand the nature and quality of his actions, or the lives and interests of those around him; he cannot control his actions in the light of any rational concerns or values, not because his impulses are strictly irresistible, but because he has no conception of rational values as providing reasons for action.

Others focus on psychopaths’ deficient ‘other-regarding beliefs’ [23], their incapacity for ‘reflective self-control’ [73], or their “failure to be motivated by a recognition of the rights of others and the obligations he has to them” ([52], p. 291). What unites these views is the idea that what incapacitates the psychopath and absolves him, partly or wholly, from moral responsibility is his deficient practical reason.

The second consideration has proven to be much more popular in recent years. I shall, therefore, give more attention to it. It builds on a long-standing objection to the various formulations of the insanity plea, i.e. that they focus overly on cognitive abilities, and do not consider emotional abnormalities to be relevant to an agent’s sanity and, hence, her criminal responsibility [22]. The lack of emotional involvement in psychopaths’ moral judgments has long been noted (e.g. [12, 31]). With the recent interest in the involvement of the emotions in decision-making [15] and morality [29, 57, 64], the idea that deficient affect lies at the core of psychopaths’ deficient moral understanding has become more popular. Glannon ([27], p. 264), e.g., argues that:

the deeper knowledge of right and wrong does not consist in cognition or practical reason alone. Rather, it consists of emotional and volitional capacities in addition to a cognitive one, where these capacities are interdependent and function in an integrated way.

He then goes on to argue that the psychopath is impaired in just those abilities that are relevant to such knowledge and that this impairs his moral and legal responsibility. One of the points Glannon focuses on is psychopaths’ deficient empathy with others. He regards it as being “crucial for deep moral knowledge” (267).

Empathy is sometimes used to describe the ability to figure out what others think and feel. This is sometimes known as ‘cognitive empathy’. This form of empathy is not supposed to have any direct connection with feeling for others or with any form of pro-social motivation. It is not this form of empathy that is thought to be impaired in psychopaths,6 but what we might call ‘affective empathy’, cf. the description of item 8 on the Psychopathy Checklist—Revised ([32], 39):

He is only concerned with “Number 1” and views others as objects to be manipulated. He is cynical and selfish. Any appreciation of the pain, anguish, or discomfort of others is merely abstract and intellectual.

This coincides with the predominant understanding of empathy in the literature concerned with moral psychology. According to this line of thought, empathy is a vicarious way of feeling emotions. One can empathize with many different emotions, although empathic distress is the form of empathy most are interested in. As a rule, we can say that:

S empathizes with O’s experience of emotion E in C if S feels E for O as a result of believing that O feels E, perceiving that O feels E, or imagining being in C.7

‘As a result’ should be understood causatively: The belief, perception, or imagining causes the subject to empathize. There are several routes to empathy [37]. Different routes implicate different abilities; the ability to recognize emotions from facial and bodily expression, the ability to imaginatively take up someone else’s perspective, and the ability to form beliefs about others’ emotions. What unites them is that it is because the empathizer represents the other person experiencing some emotion that she experiences a similar emotion.8 Empathy’s aim is to reflect what the other person feels.9

Empathy tends to motivate those who feel it. In his pioneering studies, Ezra Stotland [70] found that subjects who empathized with the victim of some misfortune were much more likely to offer to help that person than people who did not. In study after study, Daniel Batson found the same thing.10 Empathy gives rise to pro-social or altruistic motivation [2, 47, 57], which is commonly thought to be a source of moral motivation [24, 37, 69]. Some developmental psychologists argue that it is essential to moral motivation [37]. Shaun Nichols [57] regards a Concern Mechanism, which engages empathic or sympathetic responses, as essential to moral judgment and action.11 Someone like Stephen Darwall [16] also hints that empathy is essential to morality to the extent that true care for others is a development thereof. John Deigh [17] is known for arguing that empathy is required to appreciate the value of the goals and projects of other people and, therefore, to be appropriately moved by Kantian universalization concerns. He, too, takes lack of empathy to be at the core of psychopathic immorality. It is, therefore, a short step to argue, as Maya Mei-Tal ([51], pp. 117 and 120) does, that:

The psychopath objectifies other human beings; in the same way as non-psychopaths habitually treat lifeless entities […] Psychopaths go further than that and regard their entire environment, which includes other human beings, as merely a means to their end. They have no scruples treating humans this way due to, inter alia, their inability to feel empathy.

[T]hese individuals lack the capacity to feel empathy, and thus are not receptive to moral reasons. They fail to consider moral reasons as directly applicable to them, and are consequently not morally motivated. They lack the emotional depth pertaining to an appreciation of moral restraint on behavior. Lacking such capacities it is unfounded to hold them morally responsible.

The focus on empathy is also echoed in James Blair’s early theory about psychopathy, which centered on an impaired ‘Violence Inhibition Mechanism’ [5], a kind of empathy that he regards as forming the basis for the development of other moral emotions, such as guilt and shame.

The suggestion that psychopaths be exculpated from moral and criminal responsibility or, at least, full criminal responsibility on the basis of their deficient empathy relies on the idea that empathy is essential to true or deep moral understanding. The idea seems to be something like this. The collection of norms most central to moral and legal prohibitions may be termed ‘harm norms’. They prohibit harm to others through violence, abuse, exploitation, theft, and so on, and form the core of prohibitions that are mala in se. Now one might know what some group of people regard as being right and wrong without grasping why. For instance, one can recognize that for a woman to walk around with her hair uncovered is a grave moral transgression in Iran. But knowing why this is so, is a different thing altogether. Even if we were told of the importance of female sexual modesty as backing up this norm, we may nevertheless fail to grasp why such ideas should regulate female behavior in the way that they do or are expected to. We would know the reason for something being right or wrong, but only in a superficial way. Knowing why it is wrong to harm others requires not only some sort of cognitive access to this information, but an engagement of one’s emotions through empathy. Only if one is capable of empathizing with others’ distress and suffering, can one truly grasp why it is wrong to harm them. As a matter of fact, psychopaths are known to give either abnormal or deficient justifications for the wrongness of actions and they are notoriously callous and lacking in empathy. The proposal links the two deficits up in an intuitively satisfying way. But is it right to think of these deficits as ‘lacks’?

In a study testing the moral understanding of psychopaths, James Blair [5] found that psychopaths were much less likely than controls to justify moral prohibitions by reference to other persons’ welfare, e.g. that the action would hurt the victim. Instead, they made more so-called normative justifications, i.e. justifications by reference to a rule or a norm. Half of the moral norms were harm norms, so plausibly psychopaths make fewer references to welfare as a justification for harm norms. What stands out is the focus psychopaths have on the existence of rules or norms in their justifications. This is just what we would expect if psychopaths’ understanding of moral transgressions is largely one of mala prohibita. Of course, since they also gave some harm justifications, these psychopaths must be aware, in some sense, that human suffering underpins an important set of moral prohibitions (or at least some of them must be so aware). Nevertheless, human suffering does not impress them to the same extent that it impresses others.

Contrary to his predictions, Blair also found that the psychopaths in his study rated both moral and conventional wrongs—corresponding to what I have called mala in se and mala prohibita—impervious to change by an authority figure.12 Whatever the reason behind this surprising fact—if psychopaths lack understanding of mala in se one would expect them to judge all prohibitions as being subject to change by edict—psychopaths certainly demonstrate a deficient understanding of the difference between moral and conventional transgressions. And it seems to be relatively straightforward to link psychopaths’ deficient appreciation of why harming others is wrong with their impaired ability to empathize with others.

Psychopaths’ empathic ability is most commonly assessed in the process of diagnosis, and is almost exclusively based on testimony, from the subject, relatives, and educators. However, physiological tests, e.g. skin conductance reaction to images that depict people in distress, have been conducted in experimental settings. Such tests support the idea that psychopaths are less empathic than nonpsychopaths. When viewing pictures of people in distress, their palmar sweating is much reduced compared to controls [7]. But although psychopaths are less responsive to pictures showing people in distress than controls, still they are more responsive to such pictures than to neutral ones. In other words, their response to others’ distress is deficient, not absent.

Christopher Patrick [59] has also measured psychopaths’ reactions to others’ distress, using a startle reflex paradigm. Startle reflex does not reflect empathy, but fear or anxiety. Like Blair, he found that psychopaths react less to such stimuli compared to controls. However, he also found that psychopaths show the same pattern of abnormal startle reflex in response to directly threatening images as to images of people in distress [44]. One interpretation is that the deficit represents a generalized disorder in the threshold for the initiation of defensive action (from an orienting response) compared to nonpsychopaths. So far, then, the evidence supports the idea that psychopaths have impaired negative reactions to others’ distress, but not that they lack them altogether [5].

The idea that few, if any, psychopaths entirely lack the ability to empathize with the suffering or distress of others is supported by self-reports. Confessing to the murder of Georgann Hawkins, Ted Bundy, diagnosed as a psychopath by Hervey Cleckley himself,13 describes what happened in this way ([41], p. 418):

“And, gee, this is probably the hardest part.” […] Ted shut off the recorder. He regained his composure for a moment and turned it back on. […] “I hope you understand that this is not something I find easy to talk about after all this time.” […] Ted took a big sigh and said, “One of the things that make it a little bit difficult is that at this point she was quite lucid, talking about things. It’s not funny, but it’s odd the kinds of things people will say under those circumstances. And she said that she had a Spanish test the next day, and she thought that I had taken her to help tutor her for her Spanish test. It’s kind of an odd thing to say. Anyway. […] Another sigh, and then he approaches the subject by saying, “The long and the short of it, I mean, I’m trying to try and get there by degrees. The long and the short of it is that I again knocked her unconscious strangled her, and drug her about ten yards into the small grove of trees that were there.”

The narrative is obviously callous, yet Hawkins’ plight did appear to touch Bundy, albeit not sufficiently to prevent him from killing her. It seems, therefore, that psychopaths do not “lack the capacity to feel empathy, and thus are not receptive to moral reasons” as Mei-Tal ([51], p. 120) claims.

It may be argued, however, that at least some psychopaths experience no empathy, and those are the ones that are not legally responsible. Whereas there has been relatively little work done in distinguishing subtypes of psychopaths, the distinction between primary and secondary psychopathy is relatively well-known and well-respected [4]. Primary psychopaths score relatively high14 on facets of the PCL-R15 that are concerned with affect—lack of remorse, guilt, and empathy, shallow affect—and interpersonal relationships—manipulative, pathological lying, grandiose sense of self-worth (facets that comprise PCL-R Factor 1)—compared to secondary psychopaths, whose scores are elevated on the facets concerned with lifestyle choices—parasitic lifestyle, impulsive, irresponsible—and antisocial tendencies—poor behavior controls, early behavioral problems, juvenile delinquency (facets that comprise PCL-R Factor 2).16

A number of experiments indicate that the difference between primary and secondary psychopathy is significant, particularly when it comes to the features of the disorder that are most commonly associated with their deficient moral understanding and/or responding. Primary psychopaths report greater wellbeing, achievement, control and social closeness than secondary psychopaths, who report greater amounts of stress, social alienation, and aggression [36]. Secondary psychopaths are known to be more violent than primary ones.17 Interestingly, one of the studies measuring psychopaths’ fear/stress reaction to others’ distress showed secondary psychopaths, but not primary ones, to be unimpaired on this task [59, 60]. In other words, the more violent psychopaths have more intact responses to others’ distress! This is not inconsistent with empathy being necessary for deep moral understanding (since it may not be sufficient), but it certainly conflicts with the attribution of psychopathic immorality to deficient empathic responses. The best that the proponents of the empathy thesis can claim is that secondary psychopaths do not suffer from deficient social emotions, but from a surplus of negative and antisocial emotionality (such as anger and hostility), whereas primary psychopaths lack empathy. Without further evidence, however, this remains pure speculation. However, even if primary psychopaths lack empathy altogether, it is still not be sufficient to prove them incapable of achieving deep moral understanding, for empathy is not the only source of such understanding.

Sources of Moral Understanding

The idea that lack of empathy excuses because it implies deficient moral understanding presupposes that only empathy can provide a deep understanding of why harming others is wrong. It is a substantial claim. In essence, it amounts to denying that there could be any other way of giving weight to prohibitions against harm, that there are no other characteristic justifications for harm norms other than the importance of human feelings and human wellbeing. It rules out, e.g., Kantian type justification. However, as an empirical matter of fact, justifications of harm norms differ. Unless it can be demonstrated that such justifications are mere post hoc justifications and do not constitute the real reasons why people think harming others is wrong, we have powerful reasons to think that the empathy thesis is too strong.

In popular culture, we find a variety of justifications for not harming others, e.g. that it would be unjust, that one would infringe on someone’s rights, or that harming others can lead to loss of one’s soul, loss of sanity, or cause one to move over to the dark side.18 These are manifestly not considerations that make reference to the wellbeing of others, yet considerations that add depth to understanding of moral transgressions. They are also considerations that sometimes appear to be the only ones in play when people decide not to harm others. Consider Luke Skywalker’s understanding that killing the Emperor in a fit of rage would be the wrong thing to do. According to the empathy hypothesis, empathy should play an essential role in his understanding of the moral quality of his action. But he manifestly feels no empathy for the Emperor.19 Indeed, that empathy should play a role in Skywalker’s understanding that killing the Emperor would be wrong is rendered highly unlikely by the facts of the situation. It is the fear of moving to the dark side that informs his understanding that killing the Emperor would be morally wrong, cf. Yoda’s advice to him: “If you start down the dark path forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will.” (The Empire Strikes Back). In sum, there is no evidence that the ability to empathize plays any role in Skywalker’s moral understanding in this instance. Rather, his understanding of why it would be wrong to kill the Emperor rests on his understanding that were he to do so, he would risk loosing his autonomy, something that is highly relevant to someone’s moral agency. The understanding that one might lose one’s autonomy or soul is certainly deeper than a mere prohibition, and is commonly used in similar situations to justify not harming an enemy.

Religious considerations are, of course, the prototype of a ‘higher things’-type justification that also does not appeal to empathy. God disallows harm and we should obey him. Divine beings sanction a sometimes baffling range of prohibitions across cultures, many of which cannot possibly be given substance by empathy, e.g. that menstruating women should not be touched. Divine command is generally sufficient to put shape to moral understanding of the sort that is required to understand the difference between mere malum prohibitum and malum in se. We would not, e.g., excuse a religious person from responsibility for harming another if it turned out that they believed that harming others is only wrong because God prohibits it.20 Less theistic is the Hindu idea of dharma, the higher law or order that holds the universe together [14]. Mahatma Gandhi appeals to it, when he says that everybody has a duty to obey the law of non-violence: ([25], p. 238)

Non-violence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute. The spirit lies dormant in the brute and he knows no law but that of physical might. The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law—to the strength of the spirit.

This sounds almost Kantian, with its stress on obedience to a higher law and the centrality of the notion of duty. Balancing this notion of duty is that of right which has become particularly prominent with The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This brings us to more rationalist understandings of morality, where the idea of acting in a way that one could will all others to act, were they in the same circumstances, is central, as well as respect for other persons as rational agents [38]. An understanding of these ideas, too, would bring depth to someone’s understanding of moral transgressions. And it is not hard to think of scenarios in which empathy plays little role in giving form to the understanding that harming others is wrong.

It is important to keep in mind that what justification an individual uses for moral norms is an empirical, not a normative, question. She may use a variety of such justifications, and one would expect some variation across individuals. Whether her understanding is true is irrelevant. A mistaken justification for why it is wrong to harm others is just as good as a correct one (if there is one), as long as it gives “depth” to an individual’s moral understanding. We do not need a precise definition of “depth” to see what sorts of justifications will do. Consider the above examples of justifications for harm norms. If they did not add depth to the understanding, we would have to excuse anyone from harming others if it turned out that they thought it was wrong “merely” because God forbade it, human rights demanded it, etc. And that seems absurd. To the extent, then, that there are a variety of reasons not to harm others, it is false that psychopaths have no source of moral understanding because they lack empathy. Indeed, as we saw, the evidence suggests that they are capable of experiencing some degree of empathy.

It may be argued that all characteristic justifications for harm norms ultimately rely on empathy, even if no explicit reference is made to the feelings or wellbeing of others. Empathy grounds all harm norm justifications since the value of non-harm rests on empathy considerations alone, and empathy-considerations never rely on any further value. The latter is dubious, however. The feelings of distress that I might experience are at least sometimes relative to my ideas of human wellbeing. For instance, in countries where female genital mutilation is the norm, girls find the thought of being uncircumcised distressing. A mother may take her child to be circumcised believing that were she not to do so, she would harm her child. And, indeed, given her child’s prospects in that culture, there is a sense in which she would be right. Such a mother may empathize with her child, but her empathy is based on an already existing, distinctive notion of what is valuable, female chastity and purity perhaps. In other words, empathy does not ground the understanding of what is valuable in this instance; rather empathy rests on an already pre-existing idea of what is valuable. Empathy is not a natural category upon which all value rests, since what an individual considers harmful or distressing depends, at least in some cases, on what he or she takes to be good or bad for people.21 If empathy does not ground all harm norms, then the justifications that people actually give cannot, without further argument, be assumed to be mere stand-ins for empathic considerations.

One might suspect that psychopaths lack all sources of moral justification. The picture that one gets from the literature—e.g. from Cleckley [12] and Hare [31]—is of an individual who fails to appreciate any moral justifications, and whose only value, if so it can be called, is to satisfy his, mostly, primitive desires: desires for sex, power, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. Cleckley described psychopaths as lacking even aesthetic sensitivity and appreciation. To my knowledge, however, no systematic studies have been carried out that would allow us to verify this suspicion. Whereas it is quite likely true that psychopaths do not have values, as we understand them, there is nevertheless reason to doubt that they lack the ability to acquire them. Let us first consider whether psychopaths have the ability to grasp “rational values as providing reasons for action” ([20], p. 199) or “ends and the reasons they generate” [40].

Psychopaths have impaired practical reason; they experience principled difficulties willing the necessary and sufficient means to their ends [46]. They frequently fail to act in their better interests, have no coherent life-plan, are impulsive, and so on [12, 31]. Nevertheless, psychopaths are also renowned for their successful manipulation of people, including parole boards and psychiatrists. It is therefore rather curious that they experience such difficulties adopting and carrying out long- and short-term plans that affect the course of their lives in a pervasive and profound manner. Although they desire wealth, power, and success, they rarely complete further education or develop a particular career or skill that would allow them to achieve these ends.

Once we look closer at the particular impairments that plague psychopathic practical reasoning, it becomes apparent that they are relatively circumscribed. For instance, psychopaths have attention deficits of a very specific sort. They have no difficulty attending to particular stimuli. As a matter of fact, they are sometimes more focused than controls. However, they show marked deficits attending to contextual or secondary information presented in tasks. In other words, their attention appears to be relatively narrow [35].

We find the same pattern of rather circumscribed deficits in some of the behavioral deficits reported in psychopaths. David Lykken famously found that psychopaths have problems inhibiting certain responses to avoid punishments [45]. Follow-up studies, however, revealed that the deficit is specific to tasks where there is also a reward, the obtaining of which competes with avoidance of punishment [53]. In fact, Joseph Newman and colleagues [55] argue that the problem for psychopaths is not merely the presence of a reward, but the fact that the pursuit of the reward must be interrupted to consider how to avoid punishment. When experimental tasks are set up so as to force psychopaths to pause between trials, their performance equals that of nonpsychopaths [54].

A related, and similarly specific, practical reason deficit that psychopaths suffer from is so-called response perseveration. If a previously rewarded response is consistently punished, they have great difficulties learning to respond differently [8, 53].22 However, they have no problems learning to respond appropriately to new stimuli based on rewards and punishments. Needless to say, this is not the picture of an individual who lack an understanding of ends and the reasons they generate, nor of one who cannot will necessary and sufficient means to his ends. Again, we have a picture of someone with impaired, not lacking, abilities.

It is a little more difficult to figure out whether psychopaths are able to understand that rational values provide reasons for actions, that others have interests and concerns, and so on. These are features that some moral philosophers think are central to moral understanding. Psychopaths are certainly able to think about what others think, want, and feel. They do experience some difficulties figuring out what people will think and feel under certain circumstances, e.g. when they commit a faux pas [18]. So again, psychopaths may be impaired, but they are not lacking in this ability. It is worth noting, however, that the sorts of treatments aimed at increasing someone’s understanding of others’ thoughts and feelings have the result of rendering psychopaths more violent upon release [31, 71]. They clearly understand something important about hurting others. And it seems that they like doing just that. Again, I cannot see any evidence that psychopaths lack the sort of rational abilities that other, more morally upstanding citizens have. There is nothing, as far as I can tell, about their practical reason that is so impaired as to make it impossible for them to comprehend the utility or reasonableness of people regulating their behavior in accordance with a universalization maxim, e.g. ‘only act in such a way that you can will other people similarly placed to act’ [46]. Nevertheless, it is clear that such a maxim does not appear to play an important role in their decision-making. I cannot go through all the various ways that impaired practical reason might impact moral understanding. I hope, however, to have covered a representative sample of such suggestions and shown that we do not have reason to think that psychopaths are unable to gain any deep moral understanding due to a lack of practical reason. In other words, psychopaths do not lack the ability to understand mala in se on a typical rationalist interpretation.23

As I mentioned above, there is little experimental evidence that psychopaths fail to appreciate what we like to call the higher things in life: religion, honor, purity, etc. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence, however, that they are deficient in most, if not all, of these areas too. Nevertheless, they do not lack the abilities associated with deep moral understanding. There are large individual differences between people; how empathic they are, how reasonable they are, and so on. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Psychopaths have, perhaps, mainly weaknesses when it comes to deep moral understanding. Such deficient ability, however, is quite a different matter than lacking ability. It should, however, not be ignored.

Lack of Substantial Capacity: More Bad than Mad

The M’Naghten Rules state that to be insane, according to law, a defendant must lack knowledge of the wrongness of his act. As we have seen, the psychopath is not excused under this formulation. However, the M’Naghten Rules may be too exacting; indeed, it has been argued that they would have been too exacting for M’Naghten himself [10]. There have therefore been a number of attempts to understand insanity in terms that are less demanding, but that nevertheless capture an intuitive idea of someone not being responsible because they do not truly know that what they are doing is wrong. One of the most influential ones is the American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code [Section 4.01(1)]:

A person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity […] to appreciate the criminality [wrongfulness] of his conduct24

So where psychopaths fail to count as insane under the M’Naghten Rules, they may do so under the Model Penal Code. They may lack substantial capacity to understand what they are doing when harming others.

It is clear that psychopaths have impairments in the sorts of capacities that are usually involved in moral understanding. Psychopaths have significant impairments in most, if not all, areas of thinking that I have suggested contribute to moral understanding. It is, therefore, tempting to argue that they lack substantial capacity to understand that what they are doing is wrong. We can then exculpate them from responsibility and recommend that they be retained for the safety of the rest of the members of the community. One problem with this solution is that the usual procedure is to retain people in facilities for the criminally insane where they receive treatment. Given the very strong evidence that psychopaths are untreatable, and that they are apt to disrupt the treatment of others, they are not good candidates for the standard insanity treatment [71]. Perhaps, then, it is best to retain them indefinitely, or until relatively old age when they are known to mellow, in special facilities. An alternative approach, which I shall argue in favor of, is to grant that psychopaths have substantial impairments, but to deny that this exculpates them since their disorder is essentially moral. Psychopaths are bad, but not mad and, as such, are not the intended beneficiaries of the insanity defense. The defense is meant for people who have deficits that interfere with their more-or-less intact moral reasoning, moral understanding, or moral action. People who are insane, unlike psychopaths, have lacunas in an otherwise intact moral understanding.

The idea that there is something specifically moral about the mental disorder that is psychopathy has long been recognized. Perhaps most famous is James Pritchard’s [65] epithet ‘moral insanity’. But in recent years, Linda Mealey [50], Lee Alan Dugatkin [21], and Louis Charland [11] have all suggested that psychopathy be regarded as a specifically moral disorder.25 Mealey [50] argues that primary psychopaths instantiate a special human genotype, which is incapable of experiencing certain, possibly all, social emotions. This genotype exemplifies the so-called cheater strategy in game theory. As opposed to cooperators, psychopaths defect when it is in their best interests to do so regardless of the effects on their partner(s). In practice, they have no qualms about lying, cheating, stealing, etc. In the short run, this gives them a competitive edge in a society where most people do not engage in such activities as a matter of course. Add to this their early and profuse sexual activity, and we have evidence, Mealey suggests, of an evolutionarily viable strategy, not a mental disorder. Along very similar lines, Dugatkin [21] has produced game-theoretical models to show how the con-artist strategy, which he associates with psychopathy, is evolutionarily viable. Cheaters or, if you like, free riders, and con-artists exploit moral and social conventions for personal gain, and engage in significant antisocial and/or immoral behavior. Lastly, Charland [11] argues that psychopathy is not a medical disorder as much as a moral disorder. In order to describe what the problem is with psychopaths, we need to make use of moral terms. Furthermore, a full treatment requires a moral conversion on the part of the psychopath.

I do not agree with the above proposals as they stand—I have some qualms about broad evolutionary speculations, and I doubt that moral commitment to treatment is going to play the role that Charland proposes—but I believe that they are right in pointing out the moral specificity of the disorder. The vast majority of items on the PCL-R describe ways in which psychopaths fail to conform to moral and social expectations. The deficits that psychopaths suffer from are primarily moral: they are manipulative, pathological liars, self-important and grandiose, sexually promiscuous, etc.26 In a world in which no recognizable moral or social expectations existed, the psychopath would present with few problems: impaired practical reason, flat emotions, proneness to boredom, and poor behavioral controls.27 Not much a disorder at all; not, at least, when one considers the considerable variation in what is considered to be normal. Whatever one might think about the evolutionary speculations surrounding psychopathy, it is hard to deny that the psychopath’s life-strategy is that of a cheater, defector, or free rider in social enterprises. He relies on others’ adherence to a system of moral and social conventions while refusing to adhere to it himself. His other impairments appear to be either secondary or to indirectly help in the pursuit of this cheating strategy: relative imperviousness to punishment, lack of long-term life-plans, lack of emotional involvement with people, things, or activities that may tie him down and limit his options. Psychopaths’ problem is not that they suffer from some disorder that interferes with an otherwise intact ability for moral understanding and reasoning; as far as anyone can tell, they are amoral to the core. In sum, psychopathy is best described as an immoral and antisocial syndrome.

If we adopt the approach that psychopathy is a specifically moral disorder, how are we to classify this disorder? Is it a psychiatric or mental disorder, as is commonly thought to be the case, or does it simply represent an alternative life-strategy as Mealey suggests? The DSM-IV defines mental disorder as (American Psychiatric Association [1], xxxi):

A clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress (e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e. impairment in one or more important areas of functioning) or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom. In addition, this syndrome or pattern must not be merely an expectable and culturally sanctioned response to a particular event, for example, the death of a loved one. Whatever its original cause, it must currently be considered a manifestation of a behavior, psychological, or biological dysfunction in the individual. Neither deviant behavior (e.g. political, religious, or sexual) nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of a dysfunction in the individual, as described above.

Psychopaths are famously undisturbed by their condition. As far as they are concerned, they do not have problems, nor is their life-style problematic in any way; it is society and other people that are messed up. By contrast to many other psychiatric disorders, where the individual clearly suffers, and/or there is awareness of something not being quite right, psychopaths do not suffer and are not disabled by their condition other than in their disregard for social and moral norms (plus some emotional flatness and impulsivity). It must, therefore, be in their increased risk of early death [31] and loss of freedom by incarceration that we are to locate the disorder.

It is tempting to conclude that psychopathy is but a social deviance of the sort that is ruled out by the DSM-IV as constituting a mental disorder. The psychopath’s deviance is not obviously political, religious, or sexual, but could we not envisage adding social and moral deviance here? If we can, we might argue that most of the psychopath’s disability really is socially deviant behavior, and does not constitute a mental disorder as such. However, Bernie Gert and Charles Culver counter such an move by claiming that “if the conflicts between a person and society are such that they would occur in any society, this is a symptom of a dysfunction in the person.” ([26], p. 422.) Psychopathy, then, remains a mental disorder on this definition. Although we can imagine certain cases where there would not be a conflict, e.g. a Hobbesian state of nature or a psychopathic dictatorship, they plausibly fall outside what is ordinarily meant by ‘society’.

While we may admit that psychopathy fits the DSM-IV definition of mental disorder, we may nevertheless maintain that it is a disorder that differs greatly from most, if not all, other such disorders. It is a specifically moral disorder to the extent that in a world with no moral and no social values, psychopaths would present with relatively few problems. To put it colloquially, the psychopath is more bad than mad. In fact, unless we think that bad people must also be mad, there is little reason to think of him as mad. Of course, claiming that the psychopath is mentally disordered in a very special way, since he is best seen as pursuing an alternative life strategy, does not amount to saying that his way of life is rational or reasonable. It is a viable strategy, since it is a persistent category with a significant genetic component, but not all creatures that pursue viable life strategies are rational [9, 72].

I think there is a case to be made for the definition of mental disorder being too inclusive, but it is not one that I will make here. For the purposes here it is sufficient to argue that psychopaths constitute a distinct category from the perspective not merely of psychiatry, but also of legal theory. For, if what I have said so far is right, the question of whether psychopaths should be regarded as legally responsible boils down to whether we should excuse those whose mental disorder primarily consists in them being bad. That, I hope, is counterintuitive. But I do not suggest we rely on intuitions about the sort of disorder that psychopathy constitutes alone. If we look at the crimes committed by those deemed to be insane and psychopaths, marked differences also manifest themselves. I suggest we look at murder, since the insanity defense is almost exclusively used in such cases.

Typical cases of legal insanity are cases in which persons suffer from delusions, hallucinations, or something similar that cloud their judgment of reality. They may, e.g., believe that were their children to continue living, they would develop into terrible sinners, destined for Hell, as in the case of Andrea Yates. They may think that they are acting in self-defense, believing that they are defending themselves against a vicious animal when, in fact, they are struggling with their child [48]. Delusions, hallucinations, and similarly disordered thinking are not features of psychopathy. A psychopath may have delusions, but not in virtue of his psychopathy. A big difference between the violence committed by insane defendants and psychopaths, then, and one that is often noted, is that psychopaths do not suffer from delusional thinking or hallucinations.

A less noted difference between psychopaths and typical criminally insane people is the nature of their deficient moral understanding. In the most common cases of insanity, had the beliefs of the defendant been correct, she would have been justified in, or at least not culpable for, her action. For instance, Yates would have saved her children from eternal damnation, and the father in Maudsley’s case would have acted in self-defense. Indeed, in some cases, the defendants may even be deemed to have acted laudably, as would have been the case if Hadfield had, in fact, been the new Messiah, who had to sacrifice himself for the rest of humanity. Hadfield shot at King George III—and missed by a wide margin—because he knew that attempted regicide was punishable by death (suicide was out of the question as it is prohibited by God). The so-called as-if rule excuses because it demonstrates ignorance of facts relevant to someone’s culpability [68].

A typical psychopathic murder bears little resemblance to a typical murder by a legally insane person. It is well known that psychopaths, more than any other population, engage in instrumental violence [9, 32]. In fact, the most common form of murder for psychopaths is instrumental. In order of frequency, psychopaths kill in order to take revenge, get money, have sex, eliminate the competition for a woman’s attention, and to get drugs.28 Furthermore, many psychopaths appear to take pleasure in inflicting pain and suffering, as indicated by the degree of gratuitous and sadistic violence evidenced on the bodies of victims of psychopathic sexual violence [62, 77].29 Now consider the nature of the psychopath’s impaired moral understanding. For him, human pain and suffering is of little, or no, consequence, and others’ interests of no concern to him. As such, he may appear to adhere to ethical egoism. But ethical egoism states that everyone should pursue their own interests with no regard to the interests of others, and this is manifestly not what the psychopath believes [75]. For he is the first to complain about being treated unfairly, cruelly, etc. by others when things do not go his way. He insists on being treated fairly, and with respect. To put it succinctly, he insists that everybody act towards him in the way prescribed by morality, regardless of their particular interests, whilst at the same time refusing to accord the same courtesy to them. The psychopath is no ethical egoist. He is not an amoralist either. He does not think that nobody has any intrinsic value; he just thinks that only he has such value [66]. His mistaken belief, then, is best characterized as the mistaken belief that only he has value and that all others should act so as to maximize his utility.30

Can we say that if the psychopath had been right about his mistaken moral beliefs that his actions would no longer have been wrong? It is not clear quite what this would mean; what sense does it make to say that someone’s actions would have been justified in a world bereft of moral value? Does the question of whether his actions would be permissible or right not loose its traction in such a world? Even if it does not, the mistaken belief of the psychopath does not appear to be of a kind that excuses. If mistaken moral beliefs were permitted to serve as excusing conditions, then anybody acting with moral conviction is excusable under this condition provided that their moral beliefs are mistaken or contrary to our own.31 To use a trite example, Hitler should be excused because had he been right that the Jews ought to be exterminated for the good of mankind (or Aryan kind), then what he did would have been justified. In this form, the as-if rule is useless as an excusing condition since it limits all culpability to a moral incontinence of sorts. Only the person who acts against what she thinks is right is culpable. This is not the way the law works, nor is there any reason to think it ought to work this way. Indeed, part of what we think makes bad people bad is exactly their moral beliefs. It is, in part, their beliefs about the moral value of Jews that makes Nazis so culpable. Another way to put the same point is to say, with Reznek, that allowing moral ignorance to be an excusing condition would be to rule out the possibility of there being evil people ([68], p. 72). In short, the kind of ignorance that psychopaths suffer from does not excuse.

Now, whereas it is true of most cases of legal insanity that had the facts been as the defendant supposed, he or she would have been justified in their actions, it is not true of all. Cases where a defendant acts on what she claims to be divine command are troublesome. Someone who kills infidels or prostitutes because she has hallucinations of God commanding her to do so—so-called command hallucination—is sometimes deemed legally insane, although her actions would not have been justified under the law or been in accordance with ordinary morality even if her beliefs had been true.32 One could argue that if God exists, his command is paramount. This, of course, is exactly the sort of thing that the division of state and church is meant to prevent. Command hallucinations are, of course, not merely troublesome if God or gods are doing the commanding. The mere fact that a voice—persistent, authoritative, or troublesome as it may be—commands one to kill someone is usually not regarded as being sufficient to justify killing other human beings, even in a world where there was someone behind the voice (barring orders to soldiers, and the like). Why, then, do command hallucination excuse?

Command hallucinations may excuse for a variety of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with the defendant’s moral knowledge, i.e. because his control over his actions is diminished. Take the case of Francis Philip who, together with Kim John, bludgeoned to death a Catholic nun and set a priest on fire at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in St. Lucia. Philip suffers from mild mental retardation, was suffering from delusions at the time of the murder, and his defense rests on his supposed inability to conform his behavior to the requirement of the law [43]. His co-defendant, Kim John, claims to have had a divine vision commanding to him to target the Catholic Church. He also believed himself to be persecuted by the Catholic Church, which he regarded as the source of all his troubles (not unlike M’Naghten in fact). His grasp of reality was certainly tenuous at the time. He claims to have been the subject of visions from an early age of: “Selling of human beings, children like cargo, women raped and murdered, tortured, castrations. The falling of the wicked in flames, seeing them burn up, skeletons, ashes, smoke, fire, weeping and wailing.” [43]

Part of what excuses a subject suffering from severe delusions and hallucinations is a general tenuous grasp on reality, including aspects of reality that are not directly morally relevant. However, such a tenuous grasp is not evinced simply by having false beliefs of a religious nature since, evidently, many sane people have those. Believing that God commands you to kill someone is also not sufficient to show that one’s grasp of reality is severely disabled by mental disease, as was made clear in Ronald Lafferty v. State of Utah [42].33 Returning to psychopaths, they do not suffer from delusions or hallucinations, and their view of reality is disordered only to the extent that they fail to regard others as having any intrinsic or extrinsic moral value. I cannot here go through all possible cases of possible insanity defenses. I hope that by discussing a representative sample, I have succeeded in elucidating my position. I am unaware of any cases that would not contrast with the case of psychopathic murder in the way proposed.34

In conclusion, when we consider the nature of the disorder, it seems that psychopathy is not an excusing condition under the insanity defense. Psychopathy constitutes a specifically moral disorder. To excuse psychopaths from moral blame is tantamount to excusing them for being bad. This, however, does not appear to be a valid excuse. Presumably, we do not intend with our system of law to exculpate those whose disorder primarily consists in being bad. When we further consider typical instances of insanity, we see a marked difference between these cases and those of psychopaths perpetrating murder. Psychopaths are not delusional, nor do they suffer from hallucinations. It is not generally true that their mistaken moral beliefs, had they been true, would have rendered their actions blameless, and these are not actions of persons who are severely deluded about reality, including the part of reality that is not directly moral. As a matter of fact, psychopathic murder is preponderantly instrumental in nature—it is an action from which they expect to gain in some way or other. This highlights the fact that it is not straightforward to make out that what appears to be a psychopath’s unwillingness to conform his actions to the law is, in fact, an inability to do so. This is compounded by the fact that the cognitive and decision making deficits that he suffers from are far from sufficient to show that he has no capacity to acquire deep moral understanding. He has deficits to be sure, but his wholesale rejection of norms and standards of action appears not only to be underdetermined by his deficits, but also to instantiate a life strategy that depends on the exploitation of others. I therefore propose that for the purposes of criminal responsibility and punishment, the psychopath be regarded as responsible for his illegal actions.


I have argued that the psychopath neither lacks the abilities required to acquire deep moral understanding nor suffers from a substantial impairment in that regard. In support of the former claim, I presented the available evidence in favor of psychopaths lacking the abilities required for deep moral understanding. I argue that psychopaths only have deficiencies, rather than lacks. They are not insane, then, under the M’Naghten Rules. I then go on to consider whether these deficiencies should be regarded as exculpating under a more lenient form of the insanity defense (The Model Penal Code). Here I argue that both the disorder that psychopaths experience and the sorts of murders they perpetrate are better examples of badness than madness. Psychopathy is a moral disorder, and psychopaths’ actions are the results of their being bad more than of their being mad. Consequently, being a psychopath does not count as an excuse since it would contravene the entire point of our legal system to exculpate the bad.

One of the most important objections that I foresee to the position presented here is that psychopaths are not responsible for their bad characters and, therefore, are not morally responsible. But being morally responsible is a necessary condition for being legally responsible. Hence, psychopaths are not legally responsible. This sort of idea is familiar from Susan Wolf’s [76] idea of responsibility for one’s character.35 As a matter of fact, I think that psychopaths are morally responsible and the reasons have already been hinted at in this paper. To argue this point, however, I would need more space, so I leave this to a future paper. For the purposes of this paper, then, I merely deny that legal responsibility presupposes moral responsibility. The law is relatively autonomous in this respect. Just as psychiatrists do not have the ultimate say on who is sane or not, philosophers do not have the ultimate say on who is legally responsible or not. Moral responsibility is quite a subtle matter and one that we need not, I think, have a clear and determined view of in order to determine who is punishable under the law and who is not. Similarly, philosophers of law have argued that legal obligation does not depend on moral obligation [33, 39, 67]. The question of legal responsibility is no different from the question of legal obligation in this respect.


I henceforth use ‘insanity’ in the legal sense.


They do not think that the way in which or the degree to which psychopaths are disordered absolves them from criminal or moral responsibility. Cf. Hare ([31], 143): “In my opinion, psychopaths certainly know enough about what they are doing to be held accountable for their actions” and Cleckley ([12], 268): “I still feel as strongly as ever that the psychopath’s defect constitutes a major disability for normal participation in human affairs, but I am convinced that I made a great mistake in expressing myself in such a way as to give the impression I believed he should be regarded as blameless, or not legally responsible for his misconduct. [...] [C]an we not conceive of a defect that seriously incapacitates and calls for restraining measures, without assuming that this defect necessarily absolves the subject from culpability and penalties of the law?”


Perhaps most radically, Murphy [52] suggests that psychopaths have the same moral standing as nonhuman animals. However, he is somewhat circumspect about the practical application of his thesis.


The focus on the understanding in standard insanity defenses has been subject to much criticism, for instance by people that believe that the volitional capacities of people suffering from mental disorder may also be impaired and be just as excusing as deficient understanding [48]. But talking about volition is notoriously tricky. How exactly does one distinguish someone not being able to refrain from performing a prohibited action and someone not being willing to refrain from it? Consequently, many have found it more fruitful to develop the so-called cognitive arm of the insanity defense.


That psychopaths have deficient practical reason has also been argued by Jeanette Kennett [40] and myself [46].


In general, psychopaths do not seem to have great difficulties understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings. Blair et al. [6] also found that psychopaths pass advanced theory of mind tests of the kind that people with autism do not. Since people with autism do not present with pervasive moral deficits, the root of the psychopath’s problem is unlikely to be found here [40, 49, 56].


This is a development of Sober and Wilson ([69], p. 234), see Maibom [47].


But she need not do so under that description. There is a good chance that people respond directly to perceiving expressions of emotion in others without first having to represent the subject as experiencing that emotion. We may, e.g., feel sad for someone in direct response to seeing them cry. All that need to be represented, then, is some expression that is reliably correlated with experiencing an emotion, and not the fact that the subject experiences the emotion in question [47].


For the purposes of this paper, I ignore the issue of whether there are unconscious emotions and whether we can empathize with others without being conscious of doing so. I use ‘feeling an emotion’ and ‘experiencing an emotion’ interchangeably.


It should be noted that empathy and sympathy are difficult to distinguish experimentally. Nichols [56] has argued that no current experiments supporting empathy’s or sympathy’s role in altruistic motivation succeed in distinguishing between the two. One reason to think empathy is responsible for motivation to help others is that in Batson’s [2] experiments subjects are asked to imagine how someone else would feel in that situation or how they, themselves, would feel. These instructions are perfect for inducing empathy. But since subjects are always distressed at someone else’s distress, it is possible that they experience sympathy rather than empathy.


Nichols, himself, talks of second order contagious distress or sympathetic distress. For him, the distinction between first order and second order distress is important because 1st order contagious distress might simply motivate the agent to escape her distress, whereas second order distress is aimed at relieving the distress of the other.


People ordinarily judge conventional wrongs, but not moral wrongs, to be under authority control.


Cleckley is one of the most famous psychopathy researchers and author of one of the classical works on the disorder: The Mask of Sanity.


Psychopathy is diagnosed by considering the degree to which a particular feature fits the person. A score of 0 signifies that the feature does not apply, whereas the maximum score of 2 signifies that it fits the person very well [32].


The Psychopathy Checklist-Revised is the standard tool for diagnosing psychopathy [32].


Different classifications have been suggested, such as classical psychopath, explosive psychopath, manipulative psychopath, and so on (see Hervé [34] for a review). The validity of these constructs has not been firmly established, however. The most reliable, and the most empirically based one remains the primary-secondary one [63].


Hicks and colleagues [36] initially divided the groups into ‘emotionally stable psychopaths’ and ‘aggressive psychopaths’ on the basis of how individuals cluster on the personality traits of the Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire [61]. The aim was to get independent validation for this distinction. As it turned out, ‘emotionally stable psychopaths’ fitted ‘primary psychopath’ quite well, and ‘aggressive psychopath’ matched ‘secondary psychopath’.


Think of Miami Vice, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Wars, and Angel. Most of the ideas originate in much earlier moral thought, e.g. the Greek notion of miasma [58]. For purity and loss of soul see also Douglas [19].


It may be thought that because thoughts about harming others automatically lead to an empathic response or that Luke really does empathize with the Emperor in virtue of him being human (or an intelligent being at any rate). This is doubtful. Almost no cultures—and certainly not our own—have prohibitions against harming others tout court. Generally, one is allowed to harm criminals, enemy combatants, assailants, etc. And these people are rarely empathized with. So, thoughts about harming humans do not automatically lead to empathy.


Of course God disallows certain things by edict, it may sometimes appear. And one might argue that unless it is thought that God has reasons, e.g. he knows what is good for mankind, assuming that God prohibits it is not different in principle from assuming that society prohibits it. I do not think this is justified. It seems reasonable to suppose that believing that God prohibits it—if one is of a religious bent—adds sufficient depth to one’s understanding of certain prohibitions for one to be held responsible for transgressing them.


One could object that only justifications of harm norms in terms of human suffering motivate, and it is this fact that people are trying to get at when they say that psychopaths’ lack of empathy removes or attenuates their moral or legal responsibility. This is a dubious claim, however. It flies in the face of what people think and say about their motivations, and there is no empirical support for it. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to think it is false. For instance, people with autism have empathy deficits, yet are morally motivated [49]. Another thing to consider is that the fact that harming others is punishable by law certainly appears to be sufficient to impress a great number of people. It is, perhaps, enough to reflect on the great number of crimes regularly conducted in places where there is little possibility of enforcing the law, during massive blackouts, in war zones, etc.


Adolescent psychopaths are not impaired on standard reversal tasks [8]. The frequency of punishment may play a role in their ability to reverse their responses.


Although primary psychopaths have more profound impairments than secondary psychopaths on empathy-related tasks, they have more intact practical reason. That is, a number of tasks that secondary psychopaths have difficulties with, primary psychopaths do not. So each subtype appears to have its strengths that are relevant to moral understanding.


I have left out the final part of the code: “or to conform his conduct to the requirement of the law”, because I am here only concerned with whether psychopaths’ moral understanding is lacking or deficient.


Strictly speaking, Mealey and Dugatkin talk about ‘sociopaths’, the DSM-III category that corresponds closely to psychopathy, and Charland talks of Axis II, Cluster B disorders of the DSM-IV, which includes antisocial personality disorder. Although there is not complete overlap between antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy, what Charland has to say applies equally to psychopaths.


I count 15 out of the 20 items as constituting moral problems, but that is a conservative measure, as it excludes poor behavioral controls and impulsivity, which are clearly also morally loaded deficits; this would leave us with proneness to boredom/need for stimulation, shallow affect, and lack of long-term realistic goals [32].


He might find it hard to manage in such a world, however. Although the psychopath seems almost designed to be impervious to any demand that would make him curb his pursuit of his self-interested, primitive, and relatively short-term ends, his strategy suited to work in a society heavily structured by moral and conventional rules and regulations, it is quite unclear how he would fare in a Hobbesian universe.


The exact numbers are: murder for revenge or retribution 30.3%, murder for monetary gain 22%, nonconsensual sex-related murders 19.3%, conflict over female 11.1%, and 2.8% to get drugs or alcohol. An additional 6.4% were for other, not easily classifiable reasons [77]


Although this paper does not deal with the question of whether psychopaths have adequate control over their actions—i.e. fall under the volitional arm of the insanity defense—it is worth noting that the fact that psychopathic murders are almost invariably instrumental indicates that they can control their actions sufficiently to be criminally responsible.


His position, in fact, would not count as an ethical position at all [75].


I bypass the question of moral realism altogether here.


Command hallucinations are to be distinguished from beliefs, arrived at in a different way, that God wants us to do certain things. Most suicide bombers, e.g., do not appear ever to have suffered from command hallucinations. Consequently, they would not count as insane under this clause. I am grateful to Stephen Morse for bring such cases to my attention.


Together with his brother, Dan, Ron murdered the wife and infant daughter of another brother. He conveniently claimed to have been commanded to do so by God, but was known to hold a grudge against her for encouraging his ex-wife to leave him.


Some cases of insane jealousy have gone to court, and some have been successful. These cases, however, are highly disputed, and there is a history of ruling against the defendant being insane because had the defendant’s beliefs been true, his actions would still not have been justified [74]. At any rate, cases of insane jealousy include a mix of perverse moral understanding and a fundamental misconstrual of the facts. Again, psychopaths do not appear to suffer from similar misconceptions. Their problem is their lack of values.


The law is officially incompatibilist about moral responsibility and determinism, and denies that our actions are determined. In practice, American law has often allowed deterministic considerations to play some role, although in recent years the opposite has been the case (cf. [13]).



I would like to thank Walter Sinnott-Armstrong for inviting me to write this paper for a session on psychopaths’ legal responsibility at the Eastern Division Meeting of the APA 2007. Comments and questions from the audiences at that meeting and at the Carleton University Philosophy Colloquium were enormously useful in clarifying my thinking about this issue. Particular thanks to John Kulvicki, Stephen Morse and Darien Shanske for very helpful and generous comments on earlier versions of the paper.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.PhilosophyCarleton UniversityOttawaCanada

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