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  • Commentary on “Psychopathy, Other-Regarding Moral Beliefs, and Responsibility”
  • R. A. Duff (bio)

I make four criticisms of Fields’s account of one type of psychopathy as a responsibility-negating personality disorder which involves an incapacity to form other-regarding moral beliefs. First, his account of what it is to hold moral beliefs (in terms of accepting universal practical principles) actually specifies neither a necessary, nor a sufficient, condition for holding a moral belief. Second, he is too quick to dismiss the suggestion that what psychopaths suffer from is an inability to understand moral concepts and values. Third, he does not show why we should ascribe an incapacity to accept moral beliefs to the psychopath, rather than a culpable failure to do so. Fourth, he suggests too weak a criterion of criminal liability, as requiring only the capacity to act for prudential reasons.


Moral beliefs, moral understanding, incapacity, criminal liability

Fields argues that we can properly count at least one type of psychopathy as a personality disorder which negates moral responsibility. This is not because, as others have argued, such psychopaths cannot understand moral concepts and moral values, but because they suffer an incapacity to form other-regarding moral beliefs, i. e., to accept practical moral principles; we cannot hold them morally responsible for failing to accept or obey moral principles which they lack the capacity to accept. Nor, he also argues, should we hold them criminally liable, since they lack that capacity to act for prudential reasons to which a deterrent system of law appeals.

His paper rightly emphasizes the interdependence of psychiatry and philosophy, in this as in other contexts. A psychiatric account of psychopathy as a disorder involving some kind of moral incapacity must depend for its precise sense on an adequate account of the concepts of moral capacity and incapacity: an account which should draw on the resources of moral philosophy. Philosophers who aim to understand those concepts will do well to attend, as Fields does attend, to psychiatric discussions and case histories: not only because this is necessary if their comments on mental disorder or on psychopathy are to be adequately informed, but also because careful attention to the problematic phenomena of mental disorder can also illuminate our understanding of the rational powers and capacities which are lacking or distorted in the disordered, and which philosophers hope to analyze. Fields is also clearly right to emphasize that the criteria of moral responsibility might not be the same as the appropriate [End Page 283] criteria of criminal liability: that the question of whether psychopaths should be criminally liable cannot necessarily be answered simply by determining whether they are morally responsible.

However, I do not think that he has provided an adequate account of psychopathy as a personality disorder which negates moral responsibility and criminal liability. I will comment on four aspects of his discussion.

First, as Fields recognizes, one who wants to argue that psychopaths lack the capacity to form moral beliefs owes us an account of what it is to form, or hold, a moral belief. Fields’s account is familiar, but arguable. To hold a moral belief is to accept, and to be motivated by, a universal practical principle: a principle which one regards as providing very strong reasons for action, and breaches of which arouse such responses as (third-person) disapproval or (first-person) guilt. It could be plausibly objected, however, that accepting some universal practical principle is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for holding a moral belief.

It is not a sufficient condition, partly because not any universal practical principle which an agent treats as being important can intelligibly count as a moral principle. The principle “One should never split an infinitive” cannot, by itself, count as a moral principle; and if someone treated it as if it were a moral principle, we would judge his moral understanding, and his rational capacities, to be seriously impaired. This suggests that a purely formal account of the “moral,” like Fields’s (an account that pays no attention to the content of what could count as a moral principle) cannot be adequate (see Foot 1978). A further, related reason for the...

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pp. 283-286
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