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In this chapter, working with scientific evidence, I build up a picture of the psychopathic personality which can be applied to my preferred account of moral responsibility. After sketching an introduction to the history of psychopathy as a clinical construct, I consider some disputes and controversies surrounding its diagnosis. I distinguish psychopathy from Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD), a rival construct commonly used in clinical settings. I also sketch the implications of evidence for a distinction between ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’ psychopaths for the overall construct. I conclude that the Hare Psychopathy Checklist is the most robust measure available, a measure which describes psychopathy as a condition characterised primarily by emotional deficiencies. I then review neuroscientific evidence for structural and functional correlates and causes of psychopathy. I also review evidence for the treatability of the condition, concluding based on the current psychological and psychiatric evidence that psychopathy appears to be highly recalcitrant to the treatment methods that have been tried so far, and that some of these methods may even be counter-productive.
I begin by giving an outline sketch of the psychopathic personality and setting out the central problem of the book: how should we respond to such a person and their actions, either at an interpersonal or a societal level? Should we blame or praise them, or hold other reactive attitudes towards them such as resentment or indignation, or should we treat them ‘objectively’, as a problem to be solved? If psychopaths are to be punished by society, could this be on the basis of desert and retribution, or only of considerations such as deterrence or the prevention of harm? In short, are they morally responsible? I consider and then reject a suggestion that this question can be settled a priori, based on the idea that conclusions based on psychopaths’ behaviour cannot without circularity be used to explain that behaviour. I then sketch the central argument of the book: 1. A person cannot be held responsible for failing to act on reasons that she is unable to recognise as reasons. 2. Psychopaths are unable to recognise reasons for action stemming from the interests, needs and concerns of others. 3. Hence, they are not responsible for failing to act on them.
In this chapter I apply the view of psychopathy developed in Chapter 2, to the account of moral responsibility as responsiveness to reasons developed in Chapter 1. I begin by considering the question of what reactive attitudes, if any, we should hold towards psychopaths, engaging with arguments by Piers Benn and Patricia Greenspan. I then turn to the question of whether psychopaths are responsive to reasons. I argue that evidence of psychopaths’ reasoning impairments, including those suggested by the famous ‘moral/conventional distinction’ experiments carried out by James Blair, may be enough to call into question the reasons-responsiveness of some psychopaths, but that other, even ‘hard-core’ psychopaths, may not exhibit such deficiencies. However, I argue that these psychopaths, though not oblivious to reasons, may be impervious to them, that is, unable to recognise them as reasons which bear on their own choices. I then argue that the specific reasons to which these psychopaths are impervious are reasons stemming from the rights, interests and concerns of other people, and that they are impervious to them because they are unable to see other people as sources of value.
In the concluding chapter, I summarise again the central argument of the book and the evidence I have offered at various stages in support of it. I take care to set out the limitations of this argument as well as its conclusions: the limited set of reasons, to which psychopaths are not responsible for responding, and the limited class of people to whom my conclusions apply, namely those who have a severe lack of empathy stemming from birth or childhood. Finally, I point to some issues which would require additional argument: whether society would be justified in pre-emptively incarcerating psychopaths, and whether people who exhibit psychopathic traits to a lesser degree might as a result have diminished responsibility.
In the final chapter, I turn to the question of how psychopaths should be treated in the criminal law. I begin by sketching the distinctive problem that psychopathy presents for the criminal law, and some broad observations on how it is dealt with currently. I engage first with an argument by Paul Litton which states that the criminal law is an expression of democratic norms, and therefore that any attempt to excuse psychopaths based on their psychopathy should be rejected because it would not command the respect of the public. I then turn to the question of whether psychopaths deserve punishment. I review the various ways in which judgments of criminal responsibility are instantiated in legal tests, and the conditions of responsibility that are implicit in these. Ultimately, I conclude that psychopaths lack capacities which ought to be considered a condition of criminal responsibility, essentially the ability to respond to moral reasons, and not just the ability to know that their actions are legally proscribed.
In this chapter, I begin to develop an account of why psychopaths are unable to see other people as sources of value, a claim that is necessary for the central argument of the book as developed in Chapter 3. Having described psychopathy as a condition characterised primarily by emotional deficiencies, I look to the emotions for evidence of why psychopaths are as they are. I consider the three main philosophical theories of the emotions – cognitivist, ‘feeling’ and perceptualist theories – before settling on a hybrid account, according to which emotions are complexes of thought and feeling. Based on this, I interrogate the relationship between emotions and value, suggesting that emotions play a role in our ability to ascribe value to things in the world. I then trace the implications of these conclusions for the ability of psychopaths, given their emotional deficiencies, to engage evaluatively with the world.
This chapter completes the account begun in Chapter 4 of why psychopaths are unable to see other people as sources of value. I argue that as well as, and partly because of, their emotional deficiencies, psychopaths suffer a severe deficit of empathy, either from birth or brought on by abuse or neglect in childhood. Based on evidence from developmental psychology, I argue that empathy plays a central role in the way we come to ascribe value to entities other than ourselves. Lacking this crucial developmental stage, psychopaths reach adulthood without the capacity to see others as valuable. Because they lack this capacity due to factors which they cannot be expected to change, they are not morally responsible for lacking it. They are therefore not morally responsible for the failure to respond to certain reasons which stems from this lack. Finally, I consider other disorders of low empathy, specifically autism spectrum disorder and borderline personality disorder, and give an account of why these conditions do not apparently lead to the same outcomes in respect of the ability to value others.
The aim of the chapter is to develop an understanding of what moral responsibility is, so that this can, in later chapters, be applied to the case of the psychopath. I begin by distinguishing moral responsibility from other senses of responsibility, including causal, virtue, and obligation responsibility, and elucidate the various connections between these senses. I then consider the relationship between moral responsibility, praiseworthiness and blameworthiness, and the range of phenomena for which it is possible to be morally responsible. Next, I proceed to consider two major theories of moral responsibility: the Strawsonian ‘reactive attitudes’ account and the ‘reasons-responsiveness’ account. I consider the advantages and disadvantages of these, and their ability to account for a range of cases. Finally, I argue for an account adapted from R. Jay Wallace’s version of reasons-responsiveness.
Are psychopaths morally responsible? Should we argue with them? Remonstrate with them, blame them, sometimes even praise them? Is it worth trying to change them, or should we just try to prevent them from causing harm? In this book, Jim Baxter aims to find serious answers to these deep philosophical questions, drawing on contemporary insights from psychiatry, psychology, neuroscience and law. Moral Responsibility and the Psychopath is the first sustained, book-length philosophical work on this important and fascinating topic, and will be of deep interest and importance to researchers in these fields – not to mention anyone who has had to interact with a psychopath in their everyday life.
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