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01/19/2015

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Justin,

I had a few more quick questions: Do you think psychopathy is (a) a mental disorder, (b) a disability, (c) an impairment (d) some combination of (a)-(c), or (e) none of the above?

If your answer isn't (e), then it's not clear why you think psychopathy is neither mitigating nor exculpating. In most cases, we take (a)-(d) to be one or the other--especially when the condition is connected to the prohibited behavior in the right way. Just more food for thought!

p.s. I should have mentioned before that I greatly admire the fact that you worked with juvenile delinquents. I certainly wasn't trying to dismiss your experiences. I was simply suggesting that it's best if we're very clear about who we have in mind when we talk about psychopaths when philosophizing!

//Do you think psychopathy is (a) a mental disorder, (b) a disability, (c) an impairment (d) some combination of (a)-(c), or (e) none of the above?//

My answer is (e) -- none of the above.

Psychopathy is measure of similarity to a prototypical charming but heartless bastard -- the sort of person who could smile and smile and yet be a villain. That's it. I see no reason why a person couldn't meet the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy without any underlying condition that would interfere with moral responsibility.

Of the eighteen items you listed in the earlier comment, only three (pathological lying, impulsivity, and poor behavioural control) seem to be directly relevant to concerns about moral responsibility (and the lying only because it is pathological). The rest are mostly descriptions of bad behaviour, of the consequences of bad behaviour, or of a lack of concern for others.(*)

Perhaps most of them do have underlying conditions that would interfere with moral responsibility. But without knowing what that underlying condition is, it's no better than a reasonable guess that a psychopath is not morally responsible.

(*) I find it especially interesting that refusal to accept responsibility is one of the criteria. If you're correct that psychopaths are not morally responsible, then it seems like they'd be correct not to accept moral responsibility, and so part of what their diagnosis is based on would be *them behaving perfectly reasonably*.

Two stray comments, re factual info:

(1) Blair et al, in _Psychopathy: Emotions and the Brain_, report that psychopaths differ from other cases of ASPD in that they exhibit instrumental as well as reactive violence.

(2) Though Blair seems to think that psychopaths are necessarily violent, though, that's not the common view (e.g., Hare's). A student in one of my classes last term has put me onto a man working at UM on something computer-related who's been diagnosed as a psychopath. (This came up in discussion of Blair's earlier theory of psychopathy as based on lack of a "violence inhibition mechanism," or VIM, and hence as unable to make the moral/conventional distinction - as this man apparently can, though my student said his diagnosis as a psychopath did seem to fit his own experience with him.). With the man's consent, I've been given his email address but have yet to get in touch, in part because I'm not on campus when classes aren't in session. Who knows how competent the diagnosis was - I'll ask him for details - or whether he'll tell me the truth, but maybe others can suggest some good questions for me to ask him, if and when we meet.

Sorry for the delayed response, Thomas. I've been off the blogging grid for a couple days.

Re: the quote: notice my use of "us". *I* take a 16-yr-old to be morally responsible for much of what they do (generally speaking of course). I was just trying to use language we could all get on board with. :) (Nice catch!)

Re: your question I would either answer (e), or (a). But, it wouldn't follow from accepting that psychopathy is a mental illness that one with that illness is not morally responsible for much of what they do.

The details will matter of course. But, how do the details matter? That's the biggy! So, I'll gesture at some mental illnesses I find to be exculpating in the next post and maybe that will help to unravel where we part ways (more specifically, anyway).

Mark, I'm very sympathetic to what you say!

Pat, I'm not sure what I would ask. I would likely ask questions related to ethical theory to see if he could "understand" opposing ethical views and why folks might adopt such views. My guess is that he can. I'd also ask questions about his emotions in general. Does he "feel" (or has he felt) for *anyone* other than himself? My guess is that he likely has meaningful emotional interactions (non-anger) with others, though likely far less than the norm.

This line of questioning would help to understand if he can meet the epistemic condition (maybe).

Anyway, I look forward to hearing how it goes if and when you interview him.

Thomas, I forgot to say THANKS for the references! Nelkin's piece was not on my radar.

I realize I'm extremely late to the party, Justin, sorry about that. Your last two posts were really interesting – thank you!

I have just a few comments.

I agree with those who argued re: your earlier post that responsibility admits of degrees depending upon some set of mental capacities, probably those that underpin self-control. Juveniles are less criminally responsible – not exempt from responsibility, not fully responsible – because they have underdeveloped capacities relevant to self-control. The law is often forced to draw bright lines that lead to categories that seem somewhat arbitrary as applied to specific cases (e.g. one has the capacity to vote at 18, but not at 17 ½, and the capacities to drive alone at 16 but not 15). However, with regard to juvenile responsibility the common law has actually created a category between no responsibility and full responsibility where one is thought to be the sort of agent that is only partly responsible for their acts. Thus I think the criminal law recognizes degrees of agent responsibility which then informs what punishment is appropriate.

I’m not surprised that there is so much disagreement regarding whether psychopaths are responsible, because they are a heterogeneous category with regard to the capacities that underpin self-control. I tend to think of such capacities in term of executive function, and there have been some excellent studies indicating that high PCL-R scores only loosely indicate lower levels of executive control over behavior. Some psychopaths, often called “unsuccessful psychopaths” in the literature, have many interactions with the criminal law, possibly because they have executive deficits. Other psychopaths, “successful” ones, have higher IQs and normal levels of executive function, and seem able to conform their behavior to law despite the fact that they have empathy/emotional deficits. (See Giao and Raine 2010 for some of this data.) This “successful” group includes the sort of psychopath often portrayed in movies and books: serial killers. Interestingly, it seems that successful psychopaths may not suffer from flattened affect, but instead have heightened emotional responses that are erratic and thus not useful to higher level cognition. But this has not been well-studied.

So it would seem that a psychopathy diagnoses may tell a judge or jury nothing at all about whether it was easily, difficult, or impossible for a psychopath to conform his behavior to the demands of the law. And even if there is good evidence of a significant lack of self-control on the part of particular psychopathic defendant, courts are often hesitant to consider psychopathy a mental illness which might constitute an excuse or as a mitigating condition. Maybe they are suspicious of the heterogeneous nature of the category.

Thanks for the kind words, Katrina! I very much look forward to your stint as FA in the near future.

Re: the degrees in the criminal law - I'd be interested to hear what "partially responsible" means. One thing it could mean is that they have met the conditions of responsibility but other factors (maturity, etc.) mean that they ought no be punished in the same fashion.

Re: psychopaths - I think you're right that they (jurors and judges) might be suspicious of the heterogeneous nature of the category. It's likely why I have issues with it being used to exculpate in the moral domain. But even if we were able to separate each kind into different categories (maybe something like autism spectrum disorder or bipolar disorder) and give a more particular diagnosis, I'm not convinced that the data is telling against even the most severe cases that they are unable to refrain from doing what they do or that their wiring disallows them to gain necessary knowledge to act against their impulses or desires.

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read the posts!

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