restricted access On Building Arguments on Shifting Sands
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On Building Arguments on Shifting Sands

psychopathy, responsibility

Psychopathy fascinates. Modernist writers construct out of it an image of alienated individualism pursuing the moment, killing they know not why, exploiting in passing, troubled, if troubled at all, not by guilt, but by perplexity (Camus 1989; Gide 1995; Mailer 1957; Musil 1996). Psychiatrists and psychologists—even those who should know better—are drawn by it to take off into philosophical speculation about morality, evil, and the beast in man (Mullen 1992; Simon 1996). Philosophers succumb to the temptation of attempting to ground speculation in the supposed facticity of psychopathy.

Psychopathy is a cultural construct with roots going back to the eighteenth century, but which only came to full flower over the last fifty years (Hare 1998; Lewis 1974). The currently fashionable constructions of psychopathy find wide acceptance among clinicians and academics. The problem is, however, whether the concept has connections that have been established to the behavior, psychopathology, or the structure and function of brain worthy of according even a modest level of scientific status. There is little point in basing an argument on some supposed scientific gold standard if what glitters is iron pyrites (fools' gold).

Neil Levy's opening paragraph contains the statement "Yet in other respects they seem quite irrational; so much so that the term moral insanity has sometimes been applied to them" (p. 129). This both asserts that there is a category "them," namely the psychopaths, and connects them to "moral insanity." Moral insanity entered the language of psychiatry when Pritchard chose to use the term to translate Pinel's category of mania sans deliré (Pritchard 1836). Pinel was attempting to conceptualize a range of disorders that bordered on insanity in the sense of severe disturbances of affect, judgment, and behavior, but that were not accompanied by hallucinations or delusions (Pinel 1798/1964). In today's terminology, the cases he described would probably fall into diagnostic groups, including major depression, bipolar disorder, epilepsy, and a range of personality disorders. A number of his more striking case histories involved antisocial and even murderous behavior, which probably reflected Pinel's role in assessing offenders for the criminal courts of Paris. Pritchard's use of the English word "moral" reflected an appeal first to its use at the time to designate something which was like or similar, but not identical (a usage the OED labels "vulgar"), and second moral in the sense of ethical, conforming to virtuous behavior. Anglophones seized on the latter meaning, although Pinel emphasized the [End Page 143] former. Forty years later, Henry Maudsley, the most widely read psychiatrist of his generation, could assert that moral insanity was as real as Colour blindness, some people being Colour blind and some moral blind (Maudsley 1879). Moral insanity became connected variously to phrenology with its own bump over the underlying moral cortex, with the twisted genetics of degeneration, with atavistic theories of criminality, and with a range of disorders of brain from epilepsy to frontal lobe damage (Combed 1853; Ellis 1890; Pick 1989). Although it is anachronistic to use the terms "psychopathy" and "moral insanity" together, it is clear they occupied a similar social and psychiatric space, albeit in different era. This should caution against too ready acceptance of psychopathy which may turn out to be as empty and dangerous a conceptualization as moral insanity. Why dangerous? Dangerous to those labeled, because the morally insane and the moral imbeciles were placed in preventive detention in asylums and prisons, and even sterilized in some jurisdictions. Dangerous to society, because it gave a spurious scientific justification for viewing crime not as reflecting the social evils of deprivation, ignorance, and inequality but as the ravages of the born criminals.

Psychopaths are not, as Levy asserts, "(causally) responsible for … more than fifty percent of violent crime" (p. 129). A proportion of violent offenders, which varies widely between observers, are labeled psychopaths. This is often on the basis of Hare's psychopathy checklist, which is a subjective, albeit through training aspiring to be reproducible, and to some extent self-sustaining, evaluation system (Hare 1980, 2003). Part of the checklist gathers data on prior antisocial behavior; part constrains the...