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Responsible Psychopaths Revisited

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This paper updates, modifies, and extends an account of psychopaths’ responsibility and blameworthiness that depends on behavioral control rather than moral knowledge. Philosophers mainly focus on whether psychopaths can be said to grasp moral rules (or reasons, or demands) as such, whereas it seems to be important to their blameworthiness that typical psychopaths are hampered by impulsivity and other barriers to exercising self-control. I begin by discussing an atypical case, for contrast, of a young man who was diagnosed as a psychopath at one point but who lacks the element of impulsivity. He exhibits the usual deficits of empathy and related moral emotions, but by now he has developed effective alternative means of conforming to moral rules, essentially on the basis of self-interest. I think it does seem reasonable to hold him morally responsible if he should violate a rule, despite his refusal to acknowledge any specifically moral reasons. I then turn to more typical cases, arguing that blameworthiness is mitigated by the difficulty of learning alternative means of self-control. In a departure from my earlier work, I do not take responsibility to have degrees. But since both blameworthiness and freedom to do otherwise have degrees that depend on the same factors, I go on to explain how it can be reasonable to blame a typical psychopath for an act he may not have been free to avoid. More generally, my suggestion is that notions commonly conflated in philosophers’ treatments of responsibility should be prized apart.

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  1. I should note that, while my earlier argument makes use of the distinction Dana Nelkin focuses on between “attributability” and “accountability” (Watson 1996), it does not interpret “attributability” in specifically virtue-ethical terms. See Watson (2011) for Watson’s later denial of moral responsibility to psychopaths, essentially on the grounds that they lack accountability, taken as requiring recognition of others’ authority to issue normatively significant moral demands. I now think that Watson’s interpretation of both notions includes more than I had in mind, so I drop the distinction here. But Nelkin’s discussion is useful in showing how philosophers on both sides of this issue (cf. also Talbert 2008: 518) take the lack of moral understanding as central to psychopathy.

  2. For experimental evidence to the same effect (concerning psychopaths’ performance on a sorting task requiring that they distinguish rules that society considers moral), see Aharoni et al. (2012).

  3. It was I, not he, who raised doubts about whether he was a psychopath, after all—though at our second meeting he told me that he had concluded on the basis of our review of PCL-R that he was not. But the review was rather casual, with no attempt to figure out his score; in fact, it had moved me in the opposite direction.

  4. Note that PP is not what philosophers label an “amoralist,” construed as a rational agent who does accept moral judgments but is not motivated by them.

  5. The last two items on the list make this particularly obvious: “revocation of conditional release” and “criminal versatility.”

  6. I had an example here, involving computers and identity theft, but in our second meeting PP quickly supplied reasons for thinking one could not be so sure of getting away with that. A more complex possibility I have thought of since involves a social situation in which people in his immediate circle would be likely to blame him more for unwillingness to do wrong than others would be likely to blame him (or them) for doing wrong—e.g., if he were a faculty member, and his colleagues sought his vote against tenuring some well-qualified candidate whom they disliked—someone for whom a morally sensitive person would feel empathy.

  7. Note that this is not to say that he exhibits contempt for others’ feelings; indifference is another variant of ill will and a possible source of wrongful action. One might think he is incapable of caring how they feel, but “caring,” too, can be understood in a practical rather than emotional sense: he could act in light of his knowledge of how they feel, based on his awareness of his own likely feelings under similar conditions.

    Further, for those tempted to take a Humean line about the dependence of motivation on the passions, remember that David Hume includes among “calm passions” dispositions to act that may or may not be manifested in occurrent feeling. (Neo-Humeans substitute “desire,” but in a sense wide enough for desire to accompany any voluntary action.) Hume also notes that the result of the correction of sympathetic passions to eliminate standpoint bias sometimes results in just supplying a term for a moral sentiment in the absence of any feeling.

  8. PP would point out—correctly, I think—that equal importance does not mean equal relevance to his action. But all that is needed is enough relevance to supply some other-regarding reasons, not necessarily reasons strong enough to hold their own against serious considerations of self-interest. Also, for that matter, given the way PP’s arguments from self-interest sometimes seem to exaggerate the likelihood of harms or benefits to himself—when asked by my colleague how he would feel if he saw a child crying all alone on the street, e.g., he said he would regard it as an “opportunity”—I suspect he could also manage to accept some benign sleight-of-hand with malleable notions like “importance,” “relevance,” and “seriousness.”

  9. For instance, Watson (2013) explains psychopaths’ prudential deficits as based on a lack of critical distance from their desires and impulses, resulting in failure to criticize past mistakes.

  10. Note my use of the subjunctive “would.” Talk of difficulty may suggest a struggle, but here the main problem may often be lack of motivation even to try—and hence no actual effort.

  11. Contrast the case (mentioned to me by David Wasserman) of a schoolteacher who suddenly began displaying pedophilic impulses of which he had previously shown no sign—and which eventually were found to be due to a brain tumor and ceased when the tumor was removed.

  12. Fischer and Ravizza also distinguish other, compatibilist senses of freedom that go with responsibility. I agree that there are other locutions involving “free” that do not depend on alternative possibilities. In the simplest “Frankfurt-style” case (Frankfurt 1969), Locke’s man who stays in a locked room for reasons unrelated to the fact that it is locked, we would say that he stayed “of his own free will,” or “freely,” though he was not free to leave.

  13. Note that a “forward-looking” assessment may be made retrospectively, though what it assesses is demand for future action. It assumes a standpoint prior to action, not necessarily the present standpoint.

  14. See Bradford (forthcoming). Bradford’s argument can be read as showing that difficulty is not relevant, but rather only what she calls “Effort Requiring Features” of action. However, effort-requiring features are relevant because they require effort, and Bradford (2015) interprets difficulty in terms of effort.


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I am grateful to Micah Goldblum and David Wasserman for discussion of some of the central issues in this paper.

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Correspondence to Patricia Greenspan.

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Greenspan, P. Responsible Psychopaths Revisited. J Ethics 20, 265–278 (2016).

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