Criminal Law and Philosophy

, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 127–142 | Cite as

On Blaming and Punishing Psychopaths



Current legal practice holds that a diagnosis of psychopathy does not remove criminal responsibility. In contrast, many philosophers and legal experts are increasingly persuaded by evidence from experimental psychology and neuroscience indicating moral and cognitive deficits in psychopaths and have argued that they should be excused from moral responsibility. However, having opposite views concerning psychopaths’ moral responsibility, on the one hand, and criminal responsibility, on the other, seems unfortunate given the assumption that the law should, at least to some extent, react to the same desert-based considerations as do ascriptions of moral responsibility. In response, Stephen Morse has argued that the law should indeed be reformed so as to excuse those with severe psychopathy from blame, but that psychopaths that have committed criminal offences should still be subject to some legal repercussions such as civil commitment. We argue that consequentialist and norm-expressivist considerations analogous to those that support punishing psychopaths or at least retaining some legal liability, might also be drawn on in favour of holding psychopaths morally accountable.


Psychopathy Moral responsibility Criminal responsibility Stephen Morse Moral-conventional distinction Desert-disease jurisprudence 



We would like to thank Stephen Morse and all the other participants at the workshop “Law and Neuroscience—The Work of Stephen Morse” for inspiration and insightful criticism of our paper. Many thanks also to Helen Beebee and the AHRC Science and Culture Awards for the initial opportunity to explore the topic. For helpful comments on the draft, we would like to thank Jan-Hendrik Heinrichs, Emily Williamson and the anonymous reviewers at Criminal Law and Philosophy.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Politics and Economic Studies, TINT - Finnish Centre of Excellence in Philosophy of the Social SciencesUniversity of HelsinkiHelsinkiFinland
  2. 2.Department of History and Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK
  3. 3.Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine, INM-8Forschungszentrum Jülich GmbHJülichGermany
  4. 4.Philosophy DepartmentKing’s College LondonLondonUK

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