Policies, law, and psychopathy: a critical stance from political philosophy

Matt Matravers

in Responsibility and psychopathy

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print August 2010 | ISBN: 9780199551637
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754630 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Policies, law, and psychopathy: a critical stance from political philosophy

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Political philosophers should tread wearily when entering the fields of law and public policy, and more carefully still when discussing actual politics. In the seminar room, it is possible to separate and hold constant different variables in an argument, and to assume certain things ex hypothesi, so as to ease the search for conceptual clarity. In the real world, social and political phenomena bump up against each other with a frustrating lack of regularity and, despite the ardent wishes of those who apply philosophical thinking to politics, politicians tend not to worry too much about whether or not the theoretical bases for their decisions are consistent. For example, it is not uncommon for political and moral philosophers to insist on separating deontological from consequentialist considerations whilst politicians are equally insistent on advancing policies on the grounds that the proposed courses of action will both respect rights and advance the good.

Moreover, it is the disciplines of sociology and history that are better placed to explain the rise and fall of political issues, including politicians’ responses to those issues. As one recent commentator puts it in relation to the irregular but not infrequent appearance of the ‘child molester’ as a politically salient character, ‘problems rise and fall, evolve and mutate, depending on such intertwined factors as demographic changes, shifting gender expectations, economic strains, and racial conflicts as well as the social, political, and religious ideologies built upon these underlying realities’ (Jenkins, 1998). This is as true for the psychopath, and more generally for the problem of ‘dangerousness’, as for the child molester (itself a category that sometimes overlaps in the public mind with that of the psychopath).

To add to the complications, discussions of psychopathy have been both medical and political and policies that can be classified as in response to conditions that bear a family resemblance to psychopathy have appeared in both the criminal law and in mental health legislation. The mention of ‘family resemblance’ is important, of course, because the medical and legal status of ‘psychopathy’ varies both over time and (medical and legal) jurisdiction. Indeed, one of the more remarkable things about ‘psychopathy’ currently is that it is often conspicuous by its absence. It does not appear as a diagnosis in either the DSM-IV-TR or the ICD-10, but is associated with Antisocial Personality Disorder and Dissocial Personality Disorder, respectively. Dropped from mental health law in England and Wales in 2007, it nevertheless features in public discussion of those whom the UK Government prefers to call dangerous and severely personality disordered. Meanwhile, in the United States, ‘psychopathy’ appears in discussions of sexual predator laws, including laws specifically designed for those whose victims are children, despite the connections between psychopathy and specifically sexual offences being at best tenuous.

Given the motley nature of both objects of enquiry – psychopathy and the social, political, and legal processes associated with it – it might be wondered whether any general enquiry is worthwhile whether from the point of view of political philosophy or any other. Of course, one might take each and every legislative proposal and subject it to critical assessment. However, that is beyond the scope of this chapter. Instead, I want to consider two things that seem to have general application (at least in broadly liberal democracies). First, the nature of the perceived problem that ‘psychopaths’ – and in particular ‘psychopathic offenders’ – cause for the liberal state. Second, I want to consider the possibility that the debate over psychopathy and related categories reveals an uncertainty within liberalism about human agency. Before that, though, it is worth clearing away some potential confusion about terms.

For the purposes of this chapter, I take it for granted that psychopathy or something like it is a genuine condition, i.e. that there are people with distinctive patterns of ‘interpersonal, affective, and behavioural symptoms’ such that interpersonally they are ‘grandiose, arrogant, callous, superficial, and manipulative; affectively, they are short-tempered, unable to form strong emotional bonds with others, and lacking in guilt and anxiety; and behaviourally, they are irresponsible, impulsive, and prone to delinquency and criminality’ (Hare, Cooke et al., 1999: 555–56). Those who meet this description do not all commit criminal offences, but many do and it is with this latter group that I shall be predominantly concerned.

Chapter.  5638 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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