Monday, January 19, 2009

New work on moral responsibility and psychopaths

Doing some reading on moral responsibility and following some leads has uncovered a few couple of recent papers relating to psychopathy.

Paul J. Litton. Responsibility Status of the Psychopath: On Moral Reasoning and Rational Self-Governance, Symposium: Living on the Edge: The Margins of Legal Personhood, 39 RUTGERS LAW JOURNAL 349 (2008). Available Online

Absent, Full and Partial Responsibility of the Psychopaths
Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, Volume 38, Number 1, March 2008 , pp. 87-103(17)

I just read "Moral Address, Moral Responsibility, and the Boundaries of the Moral Community" by David Shoemaker at Bowling Green State University. Ethics 118 (October 2007): 70-108.

Shoemaker is interested in what criterion we should use to demarcate our moral community, and he takes as his starting point the work of Peter Strawson and R. Jay Wallace on the participant reactive attitudes. He calls their approach the "Moral Reasons-Based Theory" and summarizes its basic claim as follows:
One is a member of the moral community, a moral agent eligible for moral responsibility and interpersonal relationships,if and only if (a) one has the capacity to recognize and apply moral reasons and (b) one has the capacity to control one's behavior in light of such reasons.

He considers a number of cases of people who are possibly at the borders of our moral community: people with psychopathy, moral fetishism, autism, and mild mental retardation. After each case, he amends the MRBT theory, and by the end he reaches

MRBT VERSION 5: One is a member of the moral community, a moral agent eligible for moral responsibility and interpersonal relationships, if and only if (a) one has the capacity to recognize and apply second-personal moral reasons one is capable of discovering via identifying empathy with either the affected party (or parties) of one's behavior or an appropriate representative, regardless of the method of identification and (b) one is capable of being motivated by those second-personal moral reasons because one is capable of caring about their source (viz., the affected party/parties or an appropriate representative), insofar as one is susceptible to being moved to identifying empathy with that source by the moral address expressible via the reactive attitudes in both its reason-based and emotional aspects.

It's an interesting paper, but I have to say that I found the method of argument especially flawed because of its crude approach to the borderline cases. Shoemaker's discussion of psychopathy is a good one with which to make my point. He starts off, quite sensibly, saying "we need to get clear on just what the nature of psychopathy is." Fair enough. Then he proceeds to lump it together with sociopathy under the DSM-IV disagnostic catetory for antisocial personality disorder. Astonishingly, in making this reference, he cites the website, rather than the DSM itself. In a footnote mentioning some disagreements on how to understand psychopathy, his source is Wikipedia (and he refers to the same source again later for more information about psychopaths). Shoemaker argues that psychopaths are able to recognize and follow moral rules, and he cites some philosophers (Jeffrey Murphy, Anthony Duff, Herbert Fingarette) to support his claim, and then he brings in his further evidence: fictional psychopaths, including Hannibal Lecter, Alex Delarge from A Clockwork Orange, and Eric Cartman from South Park.

It becomes clear that Shoemaker is not really interested in psychopathy as a real phenomenon, but rather whatever conceptually possible condition that will serve his purposes for his argument. Of course, he is assuming that psychopaths are not part of our moral community, which is a rather shakey assumption in real life, and is completely unsupported as a claim about his idealized concept of psychopathy that serves as his counterexample.

I find it surprising that anyone would use Wikipedia as a source of information for a scholarly paper, and especially troubling in this case because it leads to a great oversimplification and a neglect of scholarly discussion that is precisely relevant to the whole point of the paper, viz, how to understand psychopathy. It's only through understanding the psychiatric controversies over the nature of psychopathy and the responsibility of psychopaths, (as well as recent discussion in philosophy of psychiatry and neuroethics) that psychopathy can serve as a useful example for such discussion of moral responsibility.

1 comment:

Rob said...

Astonishingly weak scholarship indeed. I'm amazed anybody would write about psychopathy without referring to Robert Hare's work, developer of the Psychopathy Check List (PCL) and PCL-R (Revised).

In clinical forensic work, borderline cases of psychopathy are frequent, and (in Canada at least) this becomes very important in an application for Dangerous Offender status after a criminal conviction.