Reasons, emotion, and moral judgement in the psychopath

Jeanette Kennett

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

Reasons, emotion, and moral judgement in the psychopath

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What can we learn about the elements of moral agency by studying a disorder whose most notable aspect is profound amoralism? Discussions of psychopathy in meta-ethics have most often been predicated on the assumption that the morally relevant deficit in psychopathy must be either emotional or rational. Evidence for an emotional deficit is taken to support a sentimentalist, or emotivist, or perhaps a social intuitionist account of moral agency and moral judgement. It can also be also taken by externalists to illustrate their claim that there is no necessary connection between moral judgment and moral motivation. If, on the other hand, it can be shown that the psychopath is deficient in the capacities rationalists take to be central to an account of moral agency or judgement, then rationalism will escape a putative counter-example. The psychopath will not rightly be characterised as a ‘rational’ amoralist. I will suggest however that the psychopath is deficient in multiple respects and this invites a reconsideration of the capacities essential to moral agency, the processes engaged in moral cognition, and the interactions between them.

In this chapter, I outline the range of meta-ethical stances that may be taken with respect to moral judgement in the psychopath. I argue that the proponents of these views have to a large extent been talking past one another. Although I favour a rationalist account of moral agency and moral responsibility I believe that this is not incompatible with the data relied on by sentimentalists and some of the insights they offer (Kennett, 2001, Kennett, 2006, Kennett and Fine, 2009). Indeed, rationalists and sentimentalists can agree on much more than it may initially appear. In order to see this let us first investigate their mutual rejection of externalist interpretations of psychopathic moral indifference and then probe the notion of receptivity to morality, a notion that I believe is important to both rationalists and sentimentalists in their characterization of the moral deficits exhibited by the psychopath.

Chapter.  7393 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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