Measuring Moral Identities: Psychopaths and Responsibility
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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 10.2 (2003) 185-187

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Measuring Moral Identities:
Psychopaths and Responsibility

Gwen Adshead

Doctor Ciocchetti examines the responsibility of psychopaths as a function of psychological capacities operating within relationships. He then argues against the punishment of psychopaths. I have some sympathy with both views, but perhaps argued in different ways, and from different standpoints, based on my clinical experience.

Doctor Ciocchetti's offers an unusual account of responsibility as a concept that involves at least two people, and perhaps many more than two; and this I would entirely support. In this sense, responsibility is a transitive and dynamic process that involves not only the personal sense of ownership of an action or thought, but also the attribution of responsibility by others. Moral, when applied to intentions, seems to me to suggest that they are intentions that involve another person and that they are held by an active agent who can make choices about those intentions. Responsibility implies not only causal responsibility, but also that the actor owns his own intentions about his behaviors toward others.

Responsibility, either as experienced by the actor or attributed by others, is a type of moral judgment; an exercise in moral reasoning. Following Gilligan (1987), I am persuaded that moral reasoning, or the discourse of ought-and-should is relational in nature and must be seen in the context of relationships. I think much of the early work on moral reasoning in offenders is flawed because it assumes that moral reasoning was a capacity like serum bilirubin: normally distributed out there in the population, and able to be measured by an objective observer, in a process independent of the findings. Unsurprisingly, these studies found either that offenders had immature moral reasoning capacities (which we might have guessed already), or they had normal moral reasoning capacity, which was disturbing and puzzling.

What we want to understand is how people come to let themselves do horrible things to others. Cioccchetti argues that psychopaths can do these things because they lack the affective capacities needed to respond to others' distress. Ordinary people care about harm to others (including the physical self/body and sentient animals) and demand explanations for the deliberate infliction of suffering on others. It is not only the lack of participant attitudes in the psychopath that bother us; it is our own responses, expressive of our participant attitudes, that tell us something about what this person is, and what is wrong. In my view, this is what punishment is all about for us, the larger social group [End Page 185] forced to respond to the distressing and disturbing actions of others.

As Ciocchetti suggests, it is the perceived guilt of the offender that justifies the punishment; it is also the experienced distress of those affected that drives the need for punishment. The distress is part of the relationship between the victim and the offender; the victim is often just as active as the offender.

The issue becomes most clear in relation to capital punishment and its supporters, especially those who wish not only to view executions, but also to broadcast them. In considering this, there are two useful sources of information: first, studies of the reactions of those who witness executions, and second, studies of the impact of murder on those related to the murder victim, so-called secondary victims. In those states that have capital punishment in the United States, it is often the secondary victims who witness the execution. They often have testified to the appalling impact of the offender's crime on them; most states give them a right to be present at the execution, even if they do not exercise it. It is hard not to think that it is the enormity of the feelings caused by the offender's wrongdoing that the death sentence is designed to address; the death of the offender changes the relationship between victim and offender, as much as the death of the original victim changes the relationship with their relatives. One might then wonder about the impact of his or her execution on the relatives...