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  • Psychopaths and Moral Knowledge
  • Manuel Vargas (bio) and Shaun Nichols (bio)

psychopaths, moral knowledge, moral responsibility, exculpation, moral/conventional task

Neil Levy argues that empirical data show that psychopaths lack the moral knowledge required for moral responsibility. His account is intriguing, and it offers a promising way to think about the significance of psychopaths for work on moral responsibility. In what follows, we focus on three lines of concern connected to Levy's account: His interpretation of the data, the scope of exculpation, and the significance of biological explanations for antisocial behavior.

The Moral/Conventional Distinction

In this section, we shall argue that (1) Levy overclaims what the data show about the moral/ conventional distinction; (2) the moral/conventional distinction does not neatly enough track any facts about moral knowledge and moralized judgments to warrant the implications he draws from the data; (3) the nature of morality matters, and cursory consideration of some meta-ethical issues suggests that we may be better of supposing psychopaths can be responsible, at least sometimes; and (4) even if all the preceding points (one through three) are false, it is still not clear why a grasp of purely conventional norms is not sufficient to ground responsibility, in at least some cases.

First, Levy draws on data from Blair to conclude that psychopaths1 "fail to grasp the [moral/conventional] distinction; for them, all transgressions are rule dependent" (2007, p. 131). They "lack the ability to distinguish moral from conventional transgressions" (2007, p. 131). But Blair's data do not show anything this strong. In Blair's classic study (1995), what he finds is that a group of psychopathic prisoners does not show a significant difference on any of the standard measures used in the moral/conventional task. However, it is crucial to note that there were only ten subjects in the group, and so it is possible (indeed, quite likely given the overall responses) that with a bigger sample, a distinction would emerge between the moral and conventional items for psychopaths. What Blair does find (see especially Blair [1997]) is a diminished sensitivity or capacity with respect to making the distinction, comparing across children who have or lack psychopathic tendencies. However, even if psychopaths have a diminished appreciation of moral considerations, it is a further issue whether their diminished capacity leaves them with a partial or variable capacity that suffices for responsibility in some contexts, even if not in others. We return to this issue in the next section.

It is worth bearing in mind that experiments on psychopathologies usually produce data that is less ordered than we might hope for. For example, it [End Page 157] is not as though all autistic children fail the false belief task. Nor do psychopaths miss every case of the moral/conventional task. Rather, psychopathologies tend to show relatively diminished response. This, of course, does not undermine the importance of Blair's results for discerning the psychological mechanisms implicated in moral judgment. The fact that a defective emotion system is correlated with a defective moral system is a very interesting fact for theorizing in moral psychology. However, it is misleading to say that autistic children lack theory of mind or that psychopaths cannot draw the moral/conventional distinction.

Second, although the moral/conventional task might reveal important psychological capacities, it is important to notice the domain of the "moral" in this task is much narrower than the domain of morality as we think of it in philosophy. There are moral notions that do not map on to the distinction as it is conceived of and tested for by psychological researchers: Aretaic notions and particular welfarist notions, for example. There are also cases where the overlap between the moral and the conventional is vague. What of duties to the self? What of the possibility that some moral reasons are prudential, or reflect some idealized observer's recommendations of prudence?

We take it that all of this points to a third line of concern: one's meta-ethics matter. Suppose one accepts that some genuinely moral reasons are prudential (a line that would be familiar to ethicists in ancient Greece). And, suppose we thought that psychopaths could govern...


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pp. 157-162
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