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Neil Levy: ‘Psychopaths and Responsibility’ – Podcast

In this talk, (which you can listen to here) Neil Levy brings a new perspective to the debate concerning the moral responsibility of psychopaths. Previously, this debate has been thought to turn on the question of whether psychopaths have moral knowledge. Here, Levy argues that regardless of whether psychopaths count as having moral knowledge, we ought to believe that they lack moral responsibility on the grounds that their intentions don’t have the kinds of contents that can underwrite full-blown moral responsibility.

Having provided a brief overview of psychopathic traits, Levy frames his argument by beginning with a discussion of some of his earlier work concerning the question of whether psychopaths have moral knowledge. Rather than appealing to widespread intuitions in order to claim that psychopaths lack moral knowledge, Levy argues for this conclusion by appealing to data on psychopaths’ performance on moral/conventional tasks. On these tasks, subjects are initially asked about the validity of certain norms (for example, ‘is it wrong to steal?’) before being asked if it would be permissible to transgress that norm if they were given permission by an authority figure. Early research by James Blair in this area suggests that psychopaths are in fact able to recognise an offence as being morally wrong, even if there is no authority enforcing the norm which the offence violates.

According to Blair, this early data suggests that psychopaths are unable to pick out a core set of moral wrongs because they have very low levels of empathy; as such, they do not regard the fact that an action causes harm to another as being a moral reason not to perform that act. The fact that they claim the violation of norms are authority-independently wrong is explained, on Blair’s account, by the fact that psychopaths have a reason to present themselves to others as appearing to be bound by these norms in order to appear reformed. Levy on the other hand speculates that psychopaths fail to regard conventional norms as being morally binding because, for them, they are not backed up by 2nd order norms (like they are for normal people); as such, for psychopaths all wrongs have the status of trivial transgressions of conventional norms. He suggests that psychopaths thus lack adequate moral knowledge.

Rather than address objections to this particular position, Levy goes on to argue that one can establish that psychopaths lack moral responsibility regardless of whether they have moral knowledge. Levy suggests that psychopaths do not understand moral norms because they lack an understanding of the fact that harm is sufficient for the obtaining of core moral concepts. On Levy’s account, the fact that the welfare of others fails to even figure in the practical deliberation of a psychopath (on account of this non-culpable lack of understanding) means that they exhibit neither a contempt for the welfare of others, or an indifference to moral norms (both of which would make the psychopath an appropriate target of negative Strawsonian reactive attitudes); rather, when psychopaths cause harm they do not even realise that they are doing something morally wrong. The fact that an action harms another thus does not even provide psychopaths with a pro tanto reason not to act in that way. As such, Levy claims that psychopaths cannot be said to ever intend harm in a morally reprehensible sense; their intentions just lack the sort of content.

Finally, Levy bolsters this conclusion, by pointing out that psychopaths are unable to comprehend a particularly central moral norm in so far as they cannot intend harm to persons. On Levy’s view, personhood requires a set of psychological capacities which allow them to engage in cross-temporal planning or what Levy terms ‘mental time travel’. However, empirical research shows that psychopaths have severe deficiencies in these sorts of capacities. For Levy, this means that psychopaths cannot fully intend harm to persons, since they lack an understanding of the fact that they can impair another person’s autonomy, insofar as they lack an understanding of what it is for a person to have cross-temporal plans of the sort that undergird autonomous agency.

Levy presents a fascinating new perspective on this salient practical debate which raises some new and important questions. In particular, I thought that the final section concerning harm to persons raised an interesting question with regards to the moral status of psychopaths. Although Levy argues that psychopaths lack a proper understanding of personhood, he also intimates that he does not want to endorse the conclusion that psychopaths themselves lack the capacity for personhood. This view is appealing; after all, the claim that psychopaths are not persons would lead to some problematic practical implications. It seems that one way in which it could be possible to cash out the claim that psychopaths have the capacity for personhood is to claim that they have some lesser degree of autonomy that is sufficient for personhood. An interesting corollary of endorsing this view in conjunction with Levy’s conclusion regarding the moral responsibility of psychopaths would be that one would be making the claim that psychopaths can be autonomous and yet lack moral responsibility. This would be an interesting position to maintain, given that these two concepts are often (although perhaps mistakenly) thought to be coextensive. As such, as well as addressing obvious practical issues, I believe that Levy’s talk potentially raises an interesting theoretical puzzle for those interested in the relationship between autonomy and moral responsibility.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. It seems to me that this issue is related to the issue of “natural evil.” Is a lion evil for killing an antelope? No, for lions have to eat, and that’s what lions do. Is a rabid bat evil for infecting a human with rabies? No, the bat isn’t even aware that it is doing so. Both of those instances are “natural” enough, and we take steps to protect ourselves from lions and from rabid bats.

    The problem with sociopaths is that they break our paradigm as to what constitutes a psychiatric illness. They are normally intelligent, they do not hallucinate, they are rational, they are not emotionally out of control, and their self-aggrandizing ways are not so extreme as to trigger a red light. Further, they usually exude charm (clue: “charm” is spelled “c-harm,” which is pronounced “see-harm”) so they, like the well-camouflaged lion awaiting an antelope, leave their victims unprepared for the attack. When caught they manipulate their way out of trouble, succeeding at that because manipulation is part of their natural camouflage. The most capable of the lot even manage to get “retention bonuses” and taxpayer bailouts after brazenly defrauding entire markets.

    We are starting to learn enough about the neurophysiology of sociopathy, that it should be possible to aim for a medical treatment and potentially a cure. This should be one of medical science’s highest priorities, as it would immediately produce a radical reduction in all types of crime from violent street thuggery to major white collar fraud. And yes, it should be possible to mandate psychiatric confinement and treatment, just as we do with quarantine for certain infectious illnesses.

    Nobody has a right to spread multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, for example, even though doing so (other than with specific malicious intent) is not a crime. In the same way, nobody has a right to foist the fruits of their own antisocial personality disorder upon others, even though most of that sort of activity is not overtly criminal. The fact that the MDR-TB patient, or the APD patient, themselves, suffer from an illness, does not provide an excuse for foisting that illness upon others.

    Natural evil does not require to make sense in terms of ordinary human evil, in order for us to seek to protect ourselves against it. One needn’t dehumanize sociopaths, only conclude that they are too dangerous to be allowed to run around loose. This disturbs our sense of liberty, but so do lions and rabid bats, and we haven’t slipped into tyranny over either of them (or tigers or bears, oh my!).

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