Psychopathy and answerability

Antony Duff

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

Psychopathy and answerability

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There is more consensus among psychiatrists than there once was about the identifying characteristics of psychopathy: about the dimensions of affect, of moral concern, of lasting relationships, and of long-term prudence that seem to be missing from a psychopath's life. However, my concern here is not with psychiatric definitions of psychopathy, or with the explanations (genetic, developmental, or neurological) that psychologists or psychiatrists might offer of psychopathy. My concern, like that of other philosophers who find the figure of the psychopath puzzling or challenging, or a useful weapon in a philosophical dispute, is with responsibility; but the question of responsibility, of the criteria by which it should be determined, is not a psychiatric question, or one on which psychiatrists or psychologists can claim expertise. It is a question about the criteria that should structure the various practices in which responsibility is attributed, argued, accepted, or rejected (practices that include but are not limited to our moral interactions and the criminal law); it is therefore an ethical question, whose answer depends upon an understanding of those practices, of the principles by which they are structured, and of the conditions that make it appropriate or inappropriate to include someone within them (or to exclude someone from them). Once we have a clear conception of what it is to be or not to be, a responsible agent who can participate in these practices, we can look to psychiatry and to other scientific disciplines for expert advice in diagnosis and (if we are lucky) treatment; but the question of what it is that requires diagnosis, explanation and treatment – which is the question that concerns me here – is an ethical rather than a scientific question.

I will argue that there is logical space for a species of non-responsibility that is very like psychopathy as it is often portrayed, which I will therefore call ‘psychopathy’ in this chapter. By talking of ‘logical space’ I mean that we can describe a condition that largely matches the standard definitions of psychopathy, and realize that such a condition negates responsibility. I will not ask here whether or by how many people that space is occupied – although it would be surprising if it was empty. Nor will I tackle the difficult issues that we face in trying to decide which individuals fall within that space: whether particular people are non-responsible, or only disturbingly different, or morally reprehensible. My concern is with the prior question of whether there is such a space, and how it should be defined.

Before tackling that question directly, however, I must say a little about responsibility, as I will be using the notion here.

Chapter.  6711 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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