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Hi Tom,

Interesting argument. You seem pretty committed to some sort of competing propensities model of choice, so here I’ll assume it with you. Here’s a thought. Capacities could be constituted by a wide range of mechanisms, or at least by systems that take a wide range of inputs into account. So capacities might function quite differently across situations. Capacities might also function quite differently between individuals, depending on certain features of individuals. If so, instances of choice could be influenced by contingent features of the situation (e.g., subtle environmental primes of many sorts, glucose levels of an agent, chemical balances of various sorts, etc.) that do not easily generalize across intuitively similar circumstances. This problematizes your claim that ‘The failure to exercise a purportedly normal capacity is just a matter of diminished capacity itself, all things considered.’ Why? You suggest we can understand ‘diminished capacity’ by reference to an agent’s behavior in certain situations over time. Presumably this would include an understanding of the kinds of impulses that an agent can typically control, and the kinds an agent typically cannot. But your above claim concerns individual cases. And in individual cases, it is difficult to tell just how the competition of propensities went in the brain. Yet knowing this is crucial to knowing whether the choice that was made is a good reflection of some capacity’s tendencies, or just a one-off result of situational contingencies.

So, it is difficult to tell what any one instance of behavior says about impulse control capacities. And this means that an instance of failure to control X might not signal a diminished capacity – it might signal a statistical aberration.

This doesn’t harm your central point, I don’t think. You want to do away with the distinction between capacity possession and capacity exercise. You could make the argument you do without trying to assimilate capacity exercise into capacity possession. What you say already suggests you think there are reasons to eliminate the notion of capacity exercise. But this has to do with the competing propensities model, not with how we characterize capacities over time.

Capacities seem to be like dispositions at least to this extent: they can be possessed on occasions when they aren't manifested. A fragile glass sitting on the counter top isn't breaking. Further, it might not break even when it's knocked to the floor; it might land in just the right way to remain intact. It's still fragile.

We can distinguish between (1) lacking the disposition, and (2) possessing the disposition and not manifesting it. Why think we can't distinguish between (1) lacking a capacity, and (2) possessing that capacity but failing to exercise it?

Granted, there are cases that are epistemologically murky. But the metaphysical distinction seems clear enough.

Hi Randy,

In particular cases, aren't epistemological considerations salient? If the possession/exercise distinction is relevant to some legal verdict, for example, we want to know whether this act was a failure to exercise a normal capacity, or the normal operation of a diminished capacity.

Further, when we're talking about actual agents, the categorical basis of the capacity/capacities at issue is important. We don't know a ton about this yet, though. Thus my suggestion that it's difficult to tell what any instance of behavior says about impulse control capacities.

I'm with Randy on this (and pretty much everything else, except when he disagrees with me— and in those cases, that's just a sign that I'll agree with him in a few years).

Surely there are two issues here: the metaphysics and the epistemology of whether capacities are actualized. You'd need a pretty awesome argument to collapse the metaphysics. On the epistemology side, though, it seems to me that there are good practical worries about what we should say give our difficulty determining whether there is the absence of (sufficient) capacity or whether it is a failure to exercise said capacity.

Don't know if this came through or not, but I agree that there's a metaphysical distinction there. I just find the epistemological issue significant w/r/t applying the distinction to actual, particular cases.

Hi Josh,

I agree that any one instance of behavior doesn’t tell us much about impulse control capacities. We pick out psychopaths and addicts on the basis of their behavior over time, not any individual instance, and it’s this that I think licenses the conclusion they have diminished capacity. So the inference that a particular violation of norms is the result of diminished capacity is inherently probabilistic, but gets increasingly supported if we see a consistent string of violations.

No doubt my “balance of propensities” model of what an impulse control capacity consists of is oversimplified, but it seems to me any naturalistic account of behavior will centrally involve stable, neurally instantiated inclinations - those that make up one’s character and motives - that get differentially elicited by situations. If someone claims (as Randy and Manuel might) that it’s possible a psychopath has a normal or sufficient impulse control capacity he fails to exercise, they then have to explain the failure to exercise it. Seems to me that explanation will inevitably involve something abnormal about the psychopath, otherwise it couldn’t explain the observed abnormal pattern of the failure to deploy the (supposedly normal) capacity.

I doubt that this dual level model actually reflects reality when it comes to impulse control, but even if it does, the bottom line is that psychopaths and addicts fail to control their impulses due to some sort of neurally instantiated abnormality, genetic and/or acquired, not due to choices determined by normal characteristics. Seems to me the worry about not being able to tell whether they have diminished impulse control capacities or unexercised normal capacities – the claim that this is an open question – is a convenient postponement of reaching the rather obvious conclusion that their behavior results from abnormalities. This postponement keeps alive a certain kind of blame reserved for those that supposedly could have acted otherwise in a situation but simply chose not to.

Tom, I didn't make a claim about psychopaths or addicts in particular. My point was about capacities in general. What should be said about psychopaths and addicts--or about some particular psychopath or addict, or some particular action by some psychopath or addict--depends on information I don't have.

Randy, I agree that there's a valid distinction between having diminished capacity and failing to exercise a normal capacity, for instance to control one's arm. I'm suggesting that to explain consistent patterns of abnormal behavior typical of psychopaths there has to be diminished capacity or otherwise abnormal characteristics somewhere in the agent's chain of control. The claim that a psychopath has a normal impulse control capacity that he fails to exercise implies that his behavior was ultimately the result of normal characteristics. But this leaves the abnormal pattern of behavior a mystery.

More plausibly, a consistent failure to control one's impulses derives from their abnormal strength compared to countervailing law-abiding propensities. I doubt that there's a further capacity to control impulses independent of their relative strength, but if there is, the consistent failure to deploy it will itself derive from characteristics that are abnormal, in which case we're still looking at diminished capacity in some respect.

Might a lazy person, or someone habitually incontinent, exhibit repeated failure to exercise a capacity he or she possesses? Again, this possibility doesn't concern psychopaths or addicts, but it might conflict with some things you say in your argument about the latter.

Seems to me that a repeated, habitual failure to exercise a supposedly normal capacity, resulting in abnormal behavior, has to be a function of a stable higher level abnormality (or a diminished first-order capacity), whatever sort of behavior we're talking about. To claim the agent could have exercised their supposedly normal capacity, but over and over again simply chose not to, is the lazy man's hypothesis: we need not investigate the agent's actual capacities or the reason for the repeated failure to exercise the supposedly normal capacity; instead, simply assume he could have done otherwise, had he only chosen to.

On the other hand, seems to me the behavior of someone who *occasionally* fails to exercise their (truly) normal capacity is explicable as a function of situational variation, whether internal to the agent (depleted glucose, lack of sleep) or external (a threat, bribe or some other significant inducement or stressor).

I take it that it's a metaphysical thesis being targeted here: "psychopaths consistently fail to exercise law-abiding capacities." It's not just that we can't know this, it's that, given neuroscience and what we can reasonably infer from it, there doesn't seem to *be* any way for it to be true.

Here's a way.

Some brain functions are well integrated into a person's reasoning processes; others not so much. The person will generally endorse (at least to himself) those that are so integrated, but question those that are not. For example, if you exclaim "why am I falling asleep, I need to stay awake!" it indicates that you are not voluntarily exercising your ability to sleep.

Rational agents routinely simulate alternate behavioral scenarios and then, feeling that they have done enough of that, execute the one that seems most appealing on reflection. Even when there is little or no reflection, the behavior very often agrees with what would have been endorsed, had there been some. In such cases, at least barring Nefarious Neurosurgeons altering the workings, the behavior is voluntary. Thus, psychopaths are voluntarily attacking strangers in alleys provided that the brain processes determining these outcomes are well-integrated into the rational self.

It's the rationality, not the strength of the propensities, that matters.

Now unfortunately, the usual methods of assessing the motives and values of the rational self - asking the person - don't work well on psychopaths. But that's an epistemic problem, which I take it is not what concerns you.

Paul, I take your point that psychopaths can act voluntarily and rationally, but that doesn't mean they have a normal capacity to control their impulses they simply fail to exercise. Reason is the slave of the passions: it takes beliefs and desires as inputs and then outputs possible courses of action which necessarily reflect the dominant motives. Psychopaths are more strongly motivated than normals to assault defenseless individuals in dark alleys, and less restrained by countervailing law-abiding inclinations. There's nothing about being rational that could prevent the dominant impulse from taking control of behavior. Indeed, the impulse is what's mainly driving the rational considerations: can I get away with this assault?

But if you don't buy this analysis, maybe you'll like Stephen Morse's in his 2008 Neuroethics paper "Psychopathy and Criminal Responsibility" since he puts things in terms of rationality (although I think it's really about motivation):

"…the psychopath has particularized deficits of rationality when moral concern and respect for others is in question. As a normative matter, the best reasons people have for not violating the rights of others are that the potential wrongdoer fully understands that it is wrong to do so and has the capacity to empathize with the potential pain of their possible victims and to use that as a reason for refraining. If a person does not understand the point of morality and has no conscience or capacity for empathy, only fear of punishment will give the person good reason not to violate the rights of others. As has been recognized at least since Hobbes, however, social cooperation and safety cannot be secured solely by the fear of state punishment. Internalized conscience and fellow feeling are the best guarantors of right action. The psychopath is not responsive to moral reasons, even if they are responsive to other reasons. Consequently, they do not have the capacity for moral rationality, at least when their behavior implicates moral concerns, and thus they are not responsible.” (p. 208, at )

A query: ever since the early 60's the American Law Institute Model Code invoked a two-fold question about the "substantial capacity" to appreciate the wrongfulness of one's acts (a question about rational intent) or that same kind of capacity to conform behavior to the law (free will to choose the good). The Code--once part of Federal Law as stated, though now having eliminated the second part in 1984 by Congress--discriminated between two such capacities. The lack of either capacity was taken to constitute the basis for a "not guilty" finding by some standard of evidence. Since the "voluntary branch" has been eliminated by statute, then only the first "substantial capacity" matters in Federal Court. Anyone want to explain how the elimination of the second such capacity for determination about responsibility is accounted for in the determination about the first such capacity? Or in other words--can't someone with theft OCD know that stealing is wrong yet not be able to conform behavior to the law because of the OCD? Can such knowledge trump "irresistible impulse" in all cases for the determination of responsibility?

Some of the above commentary suggests that the 1984 statutory changes wrought in the wake of Hinckley have gone astray in their de-emphasis of the role of impulse. Is that a de-emphasis of FW? Or just some emphasis of a certain necessary condition for FW that renders questions of FW secondary?

//The psychopath is not responsive to moral reasons, even if they are responsive to other reasons. Consequently, they do not have the capacity for moral rationality, at least when their behavior implicates moral concerns, and thus they are not responsible.//

That seems wrong to me. I am not responsive to religious reasons, but I have the capacity for religious rationality. I can follow the reasoning from religious premises to religious conclusions; I just find the conclusions un-moving (and reject the premises). It would strike me as very odd for a religious person to argue that I am not "religiously responsible" for my irreligious actions. If God is watching (and has the properties my Catechism teachers told me) then I am in deep trouble. But I don't care (I'm an atheist).

My understanding is that psychopaths have a similar attitude toward morality. They can reason about morality -- produce (spurious) moral rationalizations for their actions (they blame others). But when it comes right down to it, they just don't care. (Cima, Tonnaer, and Hauser, 2010)

Alan, good questions, thanks. Sticking with psychopaths, here are some thoughts re “can't someone with theft OCD know that stealing is wrong yet not be able to conform behavior to the law because of the OCD? Can such knowledge trump ‘irresistible impulse’ in all cases for the determination of responsibility?”:

A rational psychopath knows it’s wrong to commit an assault, and since he wants to avoid arrest he won’t commit one in broad daylight with a policeman standing by (case one), but will in a dark alley alone with the victim (case two). The idea seems to be that since he resisted his assaultive impulse in the first case due to rational calculation, this shows he has normal control capacities. And since he has normal control, he could have resisted the impulse in the second case as well. But we can see this is wrong: what defeats the impulse in the first case is the situation as it determines rational calculation in service to the psychopath’s overall motivational set (which includes the desire to avoid arrest), and what releases it in the second case is also the situation, which differs in enough respects for the assaultive impulse to win out, given rational calculation. That it wins out is explained by the abnormal balance of propensities, which *itself* constitutes a diminished capacity to control an assaultive impulse. Normals generally don’t assault defenseless victims in dark alleys because they have a different motivational set, which *itself* constitutes their normal impulse control capacity.

Rationality simply serves differing motivational sets and helps to explain why different situations elicit different behaviors, but it doesn’t control the balance of propensities and therefore doesn’t itself constitute an impulse control capacity. Of course it’s sometimes claimed that rationality is precisely such a capacity since after all the assaultive impulse was resisted in the first case as a result of rational calculation. But on closer inspection (which is blocked by the assumption of normal capacity!) we can see the resistance came from a law-abiding propensity (fear of arrest) as served by rationality, not rationality itself.

Equating rationality with having normal control capacities classifies most offenders as responsible, but at the cost of ignoring the actual variation in capacities. Admitting that psychopaths, addicts, and perhaps other classes of offenders have diminished capacity clearly wouldn’t obviate all rationales for arrest and intervention when they break the law, only undercut some desert-based justifications for harsh treatment.

Tom, are there any offenders that you would judge to be blameworthy? Reading your argument, I wonder whether it would apply across the board.

Randy, the way I see it, no one is blameworthy in the sense they could have done otherwise in actual situations (they couldn't have), but as a practical matter we can and must hold offenders responsible (or otherwise intervene), taking into account their control capacities, whether normal, diminished or non-existent. Designing a better criminal justice/rational response system is beyond the scope of this post, but putting to rest the idea that psychopaths, addicts and perhaps other classes of offenders deserve blame for failing to exercise their purportedly normal control capacities is a step in the right direction, seems to me.

I don't think empathy is strictly necessary for moral understanding, although it helps a lot. The logic of the social contract can be understood by a sociopath, and even used by the sociopath to model the behavior of normal people. The sociopath won't be *moved* by that logic, but that's consistent with voluntary action (or inaction). As Mark points out, we may not be moved by religious reasons, but that doesn't make our irreligious acts involuntary. I would add that this applies whether our irreligion is cognitively grounded - we just don't believe the posited deity exists - or conatively - we don't feel the deity worthy of worship.

Paul, I don't think anyone's denying sociopaths act voluntarily and rationally - at least I'm not. They understand that acting on their anti-social, egoistic impulses is wrong, hence sanctionable, and they are rationally responsive to the prospect of arrest, hence responsible to that extent. But they don't have the normal empathy-driven internal brakes on their impulses. So we can't reasonably expect that they'll resist those impulses in situations where there's a good chance of getting away with an offense: they don't have the empathy-based capacity to do so. So we can't blame them for a failure to exercise that (non-existent) capacity.


You say that no one is blameworthy, but you argue that psychopaths are not blameworthy because their impulse control is "abnormal"? That argument implies that blameworthiness is the norm -- the background state that we need to explain deviations from. It seems like winning your battle will cause you to lose your war!

Are you using multiple senses of blameworthiness? No one is blameworthy in a could-have-done-otherwise sense, but people are/can be blameworthy in a practical-matter sense? But that would imply that the psychopaths are not blameworthy in a practical-matter sense -- and as a practical matter, we must intervene against them, and hold them responsible for their actions /even in dark alleys/.

/Are/ you arguing something you don't believe because it seems like it'll get you to a place you want to go? (Not that I think it will get you there.)

Or am I just missing the nuances in the argument due to my lack of training and experience? I'm leaning toward it not being the abnormality of their condition that's the explanatory factor, but simply the particular nature of that condition. But the points you made about that condition seem to apply generally, as Randy pointed out -- so why the mention abnormality?

Does the fact that the condition is abnormal play an explanatory role in the argument?

Mark, placing blame, practically speaking, is to point to an individual as at least the proximate cause of an offense, whether or not they could have done otherwise, so long as they were acting voluntarily and sanely. Psychopaths, addicts and others with diminished capacity, but who are nevertheless basically rational, are still responsible agents. They are capable of taking the prospect of being blamed - being held responsible - into account in their deliberations. But it's less likely that they will conform their behavior to the law due to their diminished control capacities.

The point (or one point) of my post is that appealing to the failure to exercise a purportedly normal capacity is not an explanation of psychopathic and addictive behavior: it stops short just where we should persist. Without investigating the failure itself, the claim that psychopaths could have exercised their purportedly normal capacity, but chose not to, appeals to a variety of libertarian free will: a mysterious higher-order control capacity independent of one's actual propensities. It only survives in an explanation because we don't ask the obvious next question: what explains the failure? If you investigate that, then you're driven to admit that it's the abnormalities in psychopaths and addicts that finally explain their behavior. Seeing this prevents placing the sort of blame that accrues on the libertarian conception of agency, just as it does in any complete explanation of violating norms.

On my non-libertarian conception of agency, it's the rationality, not the strength of the propensities, that matters. Since psychopaths aren't especially less rational, their acts aren't especially less free. They could follow laws, even when all their motives stack up against it, just as a tone-deaf person *could* go to a concert, though she obviously won't. The "could" of ability is completely consistent with the complete absence of the "could" of chance.

Nothing here depends on a mysterious model of agency. (I do think that standard philosophical belief-desire models do an injustice to the emotional brain - which complicates things - but that's beside the point here.) Rather, the point is how to draw the line between free self-directed acts and compulsions, and I take a line similar to Susan Wolf's, but with a narrower focus on rationality.


Saying that rationality is all or primarily what matters in agency suggests that it's fair to expect that basically rational psychopaths and addicts will conform their behavior to the law just as do normals. But due to their propensities, their ability/capacity to conform is diminished. They aren't as free to refrain from acting on certain impulses, given their motivational sets, so they can't follow the law as easily. So it isn't fair or reasonable to think that, just because they are rational, they could have exercised a purportedly normal control capacity but simply failed to do so.

The legal consequences of addiction in our society are unjust: people should be at liberty to use. But it does make some sense to hold addicts responsible - a friend could reasonably express disapproval at an addict's relapse, for example. Typically there's some degree of irrationality in addiction - failure to adequately weight future harms against immediate relief - but only some. It's somewhere in the midrange of the freedom spectrum.

I don't see how psychopaths are similar, however. I admit I haven't studied them; maybe they are literally addicted to thrill-seeking, or something. But it sounds to me like they just have very different values, callously indifferent to society. Society has the right to demand ("expect" can be read wrong) that our vital rules be enforced just the same. It's a paradigm case of what the rules are there for - to re-weight the incentives in favor of pro-social behavior for those who would otherwise be lacking.

Seems to me the addict's failure to weight future harms adequately isn't due to some degree of irrationality, since he likely knows full well from past experience the consequences of his behavior. Rather, the failure reflects the motivational power of the aversiveness of withdrawal. Similarly, the psychopath's failure to conform to norms is, as you say, because of having different values, e.g., having a defective empathy module, not a failure of rationality. In both cases the prospect of being blamed - held responsible - has less influence on behavior than it does on normals, but still works to some extent just because they are basically rational. We obviously have to continue to demand that those capable of distinguishing right from wrong respect morality and the law, but we shouldn't suppose that everyone has a normal impulse control capacity which they simply fail to exercise.

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