Blaming the Psychopath?
Understanding the ethical issues involved in moral transgressions on the part of psychopaths is an area rich in labyrinthine byways of analysis and discovery. Since most experts agree that psychopathy is a psychological disorder, the immediate question is whether the law can blame and punish a sick person for having symptoms. Sounds kind of heartless to blame a sick person for his sickness. Justin Caouette, writing in AJOB Neuroscience, explores the subject matter in his essay, Moral Responsibility and Psychopathy: Why We Do Not Have Special Obligations To The Psychopath. He is responding specifically to an article by Grant Gillett and Flora Huang called What We Owe the Psychopath: A Neuroethical Analysis, from the same publication, AJOB Neuroscience. Dr. Caouette never named the article (I always name what I am refuting as well as linking to it) he is rebutting but I found the abstract to the article. AJOB restricts it’s access but doesn’t state what the criteria are for access. I could buy the article for $42.50. I don’t believe in selling ideas. I don’t charge for my ideas and neither should they.
The abstract of the forbidden article reads:
Psychopaths are often regarded as a scourge of contemporary society and, as such, are the focus of much public vilification and outrage. But, arguably, psychopaths are both sinned against as well as sinners. If that is true, then their status as the victims of abusive subcultures partially mitigates their moral responsibility for the harms they cause. We argue, from the neuroethics of psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), that communities have a moral obligation to psychopaths as well as a case against them. A reflection on the genesis and developmental epidemiology of psychopathy reveals an individualist, attribution-type error evident in much Western psychological and legal thinking—an error that obscures important moral truths about psychopaths. The resulting analysis makes us reconsider the distinction between disorders and moral failings and the ethical significance of the biological or neurocognitive mechanisms underpinning psychopathy. We claim that casting aside the deficit model (based on the presupposition that psychopaths are intrinsically unlike the rest of us) in favor of a relational and holistic view of personality potentiates a more informed and inclusive set of ethical, forensic, and therapeutic attitudes.
So the gist of it seems to be that psychopaths are victims of abuse which should mitigate the blame that their acts would otherwise place on them. I don’t think this idea is all that unique. I’ve come across it before (without paying $42.50). On the face of it, I disagree. Everyone is what he/she is due to heredity and environment. If our behavior is caused, that doesn’t absolve us of moral responsibility. Dr. Caouette seems to have the same opinion.
There is another article on this subject by John Danaher called Psychopaths and Moral Blame (reblogged here as Psychopaths and Moral Blame). Dr. Danaher says, “What is to be done about this state of affairs? Empirical studies seem to suggest that psychopaths lack important moral capacities (such as the capacity for empathy). And some philosophers use this empirical evidence to suggest that psychopaths fail to meet the basic conditions for moral blameworthiness.” His article focuses on an article by Marion Godman and Anneli Jefferson, On Blaming and Punishing Psychopaths.
The person must have the ability to choose whether to perform an action and s/he must understand that it is morally wrong. For example, if someone has an epileptic seizure and his convulsing body inadvertently pushes another person off a cliff, for example, he is not to blame because he had no control over what his body was doing. If someone stabs another person in the heart, he is not to blame if he is psychotic and either doesn’t know what he’s doing or is acting under a delusion such as the belief that the other person was about to kill an innocent person. To the best of this person’s knowledge, his actions are based on moral principles even though they were objectively unethical.
A criminal or “wrongdoer” is also blameless if he truly didn’t understand what had been wrong with having stabbed that person. Does the “inability” to understand why an act is morally wrong also absolve the actor from moral responsibility? It doesn’t absolve hir from legal responsibility. The defendant can speak loudly and clearly that s/he doesn’t think what s/he did was “wrong.” The judge will simply reply that it is “wrong” in the eyes of the law. If we are to regard criminal justice as primarily a deterrent to crime, rather than the fulfillment of “justice,” the system is right to punish psychopaths. In fact, if we don’t punish ourselves with guilt, since we don’t have a conscience, the only deterrent is the possibility of consequences. Psychologists have recently found that they have more success in “rehabilitating” a criminal psychopath by getting hir to understand that s/he can have a better life on the “right side of the law” than through crime. The approach to criminal psychopathy that absolves psychopaths of responsibility for crime by seeing him as incapable of making a moral choice as a schizophrenic is not something that I, as a psychopath, would embrace. The novel, The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson, spells out very clearly the disadvantage of being treated as mentally unable to be legally responsible for crime. A convict has to do hir time and knows when s/he can walk free. Of course, parole can shorten the sentence and a diagnosis of psychopathy can work against hir with the parole board since they consider the probability of the candidate reoffending and psychopathy is considered a factor making reoffense likely. But parole is a privilege, not a right. Civil commitment, on the other hand, doesn’t recognize the rights of the prisoner. In fact, absolving someone from criminal liability also removes that person’s civil rights. Jon Ronson’s (anti?)hero committed an offense which wasn’t considered all that serious in the eyes of the law. Faking insanity got him out of jail and into a mental hospital. He ended up “serving” a much longer “sentence” than he would have for his offense.
Marion Goodman and Anneli Jefferson say,
However, this line of argument has been cast into doubt by recent empirical and philosophical work. On the empirical side, recent studies on psychopaths and themoral/conventional distinction have not reproduced Blair’s original results. Aharoni et al.(2012) tested psychopaths’ ability to distinguish between moral and conventional transgressions in a forced choice setting, telling the participants that half of the transgressions described were moral and the other half, conventional.
An example of the former is that I am, for all intents and purposes, a utilitarian: the action which has the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people is the correct (or “morally right”) action to take. This gels very well with my logical mind; in every day life I decide what to do based on a cost-benefit analysis. When the benefit is there, using utilitarianism as a moral compass to live as easy as possible is very useful indeed. When the cost is more significant (for example when utility would demand a very great sacrifice on my part for the overall benefit of others), utilitarianism can be abandoned for something altogether more selfish.
- AJOB Neuroscience
- Moral Responsibility and Psychopathy: Why We Do Not Have Special Obligations To The Psychopath, by Justin Caouette
- What We Owe the Psychopath: A Neuroethical Analysis, by Grant Gillett and Flora Huang
- On Blaming and Punishing the Psychopath, by Marion Godman and Anneli Jefferson
- A Psychopath’s Take on Morality, by James Renard
- Mad, Bad or Rad, by yours truly