Psychopathy, responsibility, and the moral/conventional distinction

Neil Levy

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, responsibility, and the moral/conventional distinction

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It is, in my view, a mistake to attempt to answer questions about the responsibility of the psychopath from the armchair. That is not because I wish to join others – the so-called experimental philosophers – in setting fire to my armchair; a great deal can be achieved by conceptual analysis of the sort philosophers have traditionally engaged in (it is a mistake for anyone to set fire to their armchair; we need somewhere to sit while we design studies and reflect upon their results). Free will is, I think, largely a conceptual issue, and much productive work on the topic remains to be done that is more or less purely conceptual. However, when we are concerned with the question of the moral responsibility of a particular subset of human beings, defined by their mental abnormalities, conceptual work must be driven by empirical data.

Data-driven philosophical work is peculiarly risky and provisional. When a philosopher begins to build a theory on data, he/she runs the risk of building on shifting sands. As science progresses, new interpretations of old data are offered, and new data overturns old theories. In previous work (Levy 2007a, 2007b), I have presented a data-driven case for the claim that psychopaths are not morally responsible. However, the data on which my case rested is controversial, and might be overturned. In this chapter, I provide indirect evidence for the same conclusion. I aim to show that given what we know about our epistemic access to moral norms, and given what we know about psychopaths, it is reasonable to conclude that psychopaths are blind to central moral considerations. It follows, I will argue, that they cannot be held responsible for failing to respond to these moral considerations. Making my case will involve not only examining data on psychopaths, but also sketching an account of the evolutionary origins of morality.

Chapter.  6427 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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