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  • Commentary on “Psychopathy, Other-Regarding Moral Beliefs, and Responsibility”
  • Jennifer Radden (bio)

Fields’s line of reasoning may be summarized, though to do so is to lose much that is nice, and important, in the details. He begins by distinguishing the kind of disorder we are dealing with. Psychopathy is a personality disorder: an unchanging, trait-based condition, not a mental disease or illness. Then he asks why we might judge the presence of psychopathy to vitiate moral and legal responsibility, and answers that psychopathy must reflect some kind of disability. It has been hypothesized (by Duff) that this disability concerns moral understanding, but Fields offers an alternative account. Rather than lacking moral understanding, he argues, the psychopath is disabled in that he cannot form other-regarding moral beliefs. A very convincing argument is then made to persuade us that such a disability would—or should—constitute an excuse.

Much of this reasoning is unassailable, and Fields’s careful and systematic approach is impressive. Yet I am left with a lingering concern. He has not convinced me that the psychopath is incapable of forming instead of merely disinclined to form the required sort of moral beliefs. And rather than furthering or supporting his incapacity explanation, Cleckley’s example of Milt undermines it.

Maybe the example of Milt’s callousness is the place to start, although whether this is as strong an example as Fields and Cleckley seem to think of psychopathy, is questionable. It is a rather underdescribed example, certainly. We are told that this is the unvarying pattern of Milt’s behavior. Indeed, it has to be to fit the clinical definition of psychopathy as a trait-based character disorder rather than a short-lived “out of character” response. And yet Milt has reached driving age and his mother is still naive enough to expect he’ll pick her up! We need to know more. If mother hasn’t grasped Milt’s dispositional traits yet, why not? Perhaps these traits are not so unvarying and entrenched after all. Or mother is colluding, or denying? Perhaps the understanding between mother and son contained meanings not apparent in the bald clinical description provided by Cleckley. There may be more to this story than meets the eye.

So I’m not sure that the example successfully illustrates the clinical definition of psychopathy. But let’s say it does. If we accept the story as we are told it, there remains a gap in the reasoning. That Milt lacks the capacity to form such (other regarding) beliefs, and to harbor guilt feelings as Fields asserts, would explain his irresponsible [End Page 287] behavior—why he “so easily gives way to whims, even though he knows that to do so is to leave his mother . . . stranded”(p. 33).

An incapacity to form other-regarding beliefs may explain this behavior, true. But so equally might being someone given to whims. After all Milt might just have the personality trait, also long established and unchanging, that he gives in to whims more often than most. This is what people sometimes mean when they attribute impulsiveness. And impulsiveness is not only a rather common trait; as it happens it is also one associated with this particular disorder (among others).

Fields recognizes the type of explanation which refers to the presence of an unthought out impulse to act, a whim explanation. But he fails to give this kind of explanation its due, using it only selectively and arbitrarily. If, as Field establishes, it is more coherent to think that Milt’s initial offer to his mother was a matter of whim—rather than evidence of the other-regarding belief that one ought to concern oneself with the welfare of one’s parents—then there is no reason to suppose that his failure to follow through and pick her up was not also a whim. This second whim represents an equally satisfactory (simple, plausible, explanatory, not ad hoc ) explanation: Milt might have come to pick up his mum but he whimfully chose not to.

And this is a separate and distinct explanation from the one Fields proposes in terms of incapacity. A whim is not (immediate) evidence of incapacity...

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pp. 287-289
Launched on MUSE
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