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  • Psychopathy, Other-Regarding Moral Beliefs, and Responsibility
  • Lloyd Fields (bio)

In this paper I seek to show that at least one kind of psychopath is incapable of forming other-regarding moral beliefs; hence that they cannot act for other-regarding moral reasons; and hence that they are not appropriate subjects for the assessment of either moral or legal responsibility. Various attempts to characterize psychopaths are considered and rejected, in particular the widely held view that psychopaths are, in general, incapable of understanding moral concepts. The particular disability proposed here, the incapacity to form other-regarding moral beliefs, is then derived from an analysis of what is required for someone to be a responsible agent. This is illustrated with a detailed case history. A defect of this kind is shown to vitiate moral responsibility, because it renders the psychopath irresponsive to the social pressures which normally ensure respect for moral norms. It is also shown that the psychopath is not a suitable subject for the assessment of legal responsibility, because he lacks the capacity to act from common prudence to avoid sanctions. I conclude that the attempt to characterize particular defects from among the heterogeneity of psychopathic subjects, could lead to better targeted, and hence to more effective, management of particular cases.


Criminality, mental illness, personality disorder, blame, liability, moral beliefs, guilt, social morality


The term “psychopath” has been used with a wide variety of different meanings and, no doubt, covers a heterogeneous group of subjects (Criminal behaviour and mental health 1992). My aim in this paper is to argue that at least a subgroup of those subjects are characterized by an inability to form other-regarding moral beliefs—and hence, for this particular reason, are not morally responsible agents—and that they also lack the capacity for prudence, and hence are not legally responsible agents.

I begin by distinguishing the particular sense in which I will be using the term “psychopathy.” I then consider some suggestions in the literature regarding the defect by which psychopaths might be characterized—that they are mentally ill, or incapable of understanding moral concepts. In rejecting these, I come to the suggestion that the relevant defect is an inability to form other-regarding moral beliefs, a defect which is graphically illustrated by a case report from the literature. I explore the implication of this kind of defect for [End Page 261] moral responsibility as a socially-embedded notion, and the implication of the psychopath’s inability to exercise prudence in relation to legal liability.

Nothing in this paper should be taken to suggest that psychopaths are irredeemable. On the contrary, as I argue in an endnote, correctly characterizing the defect from which they suffer leads directly to forms of treatment whose effectiveness has acquired a measure of empirical support.

The Nature of Psychopathy

Psychopathy is not a homogeneous concept; there are different types of psychopaths. For example, Henderson identified a type of psychopath who he classified as “Predominantly Creative,” exemplified by such figures as T. E. Lawrence and Joan of Arc. In people of this type genius is associated with heightened sensitivity, psychosexual immaturity and emotional instability (Henderson 1939, 108–20; Henderson and Gillespie 1969, 317). Predominantly creative psychopaths do not come within my purview.

By “psychopathy” I shall mean the specific form of personality disorder described by Cleckley in his book, The Mask of Sanity (Cleckley 1964). Cleckley’s description forms the basis of Hare’s Revised (20-item) Psychopathy Checklist. The Checklist includes the following personality traits and deviant behaviors:

  1. 1. Glibness/superficial charm.

  2. 2. Grandiose sense of self-worth.

  3. 3. Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom.

  4. 4. Pathological lying.

  5. 5. Conning/manipulative.

  6. 6. Lack of remorse or guilt.

  7. 7. Shallow affect.

  8. 8. Callous/lack of empathy.

  9. 9. Parasitic lifestyle.

  10. 10. Poor behavioral controls.

  11. 11. Promiscuous sexual behavior.

  12. 12. Early behavior problems.

  13. 13. Lack of realistic, long-term plans.

  14. 14. Impulsivity.

  15. 15. Irresponsibility.

  16. 16. Failure to accept responsibility for own actions.

  17. 17. Many short-term marital relationships.

  18. 18. Juvenile delinquency.

  19. 19. Revocation of conditional release.

  20. 20. Criminal versatility (Hare 1986, 18). 1

This conceptualization resembles in many respects the category of Antisocial Personality Disorder as described in the American Psychiatric...

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