The Trouble with Psychopaths<sup>1</sup>

Gary Watson

in Reasons and Recognition

Published in print September 2011 | ISBN: 9780199753673
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780199918829 | DOI:
The Trouble with Psychopaths1

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Psychopathy underscores a persistent tension in our conception of moral agency. On the one hand, psychopaths are rational creatures who are capable of deliberately injuring, manipulating, and defrauding. When they do so, they strike us as apt candidates for resentment and moral indignation, and we typically respond accordingly. On the other hand, psychopaths are constitutionally incapable recognizing the interests of others as making any valid claim on them. They are in this way disabled from participating in moral discourse and moral practice. This incapacity seems to be necessary for moral accountability. Their capacity for malice supports the attribution of responsible agency to them. Their lack of accountability supports the denial of responsibility. This tension explains the ambivalence that many feel toward psychopaths. This paper explores some implications of this tension for moral theory and practice, with special reference to T. M. Scanlon’s account of moral agency as the capacity for rational self-governance. I argue that Scanlon’s account fails to capture the condition of accountability and is furthermore at odds with a natural understanding of the agency required for contractualist moral theory. Nonetheless, we find in his work a conception of blame that illuminates our responses to psychopathic agency.

Keywords: Accountability; blame; moral agency; normative competence; reciprocity; mutual recognition; punishment

Chapter.  13225 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy

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