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  • Freedom, Resentment, and the Psychopath
  • Piers Benn (bio)

This paper discusses the moral responsibility of psychopaths for their anti-social actions. Starting from P. F. Strawson’s discussion of our participant reactive attitudes, which stresses their indispensability for meaningful human relations, the paper contrasts a variety of “normal” wrongdoers with psychopaths. It suggests that the latter are often seriously deficient in their capacity to entertain these attitudes, and that their resulting lack of proper self-evaluation may explain both their callousness and their imprudence. It is then argued that only creatures able to entertain participant reactive attitudes can be proper objects of those attitudes, since these reactions have a communicative core whose expression has a point only in a shared moral world. For this reason, if psychopaths are incapable of moral understanding, they may not be proper targets of anger and resentment. This, however, may have an illiberal implication, in possibly excluding psychopaths from possessing certain rights.


participant reactive attitudes, Strawson, Kantian thought

The condition referred to by the modern term psychopathy has exercised philosophical and legal brains ever since the invention of the term moral insanity by J. C. Prichard (1835), which describes a condition that is commonly identified with it. Of course, in popular usage psychopathy refers to something imprecise, and popular images of madmen and violent maniacs, reinforced by tabloid newspapers and television dramas, tend to mislead. In the popular imagination, psychopaths are deranged and fearsome. They are responsible for many of the more horrific and well-publicized murders and assaults, and are thought to be a breed apart from the class of “normal” criminals, in that they are peculiarly vicious and dangerous. Prichard’s term moral insanity accords with this public perception: the things they do are thought to be so brutal and wicked that the agents cannot be considered genuinely sane.

A pressing psychiatric issue turns on the proper classification of the condition, and the question of the ways, if any, it can be seen as a disorder. Does the term psychopathy refer to a natural kind, a class of beings with some common nature? Or is the term—as many reasonably suspect with respect to some psychiatric classifications—a reference to a merely nominal kind, devised to suit our particular needs and interests? This is a reasonable question when it comes to such concepts as psychosis and delusion. For example, what makes a certain unusual and fiercely held conviction a delusion, rather than an “ordinarily” irrational or ill-founded belief, is a moot issue. It is plausible that the concepts in question are cluster concepts or Wittgensteinian “family resemblance” notions, with at best fuzzy boundaries and no defining set of necessary and sufficient conditions for their application. But these concepts do not only raise problems of psychiatric classification. With respect to psychopathy, some of the most interesting and intractable questions [End Page 29] are moral ones. One of the most intriguing concerns the moral dimensions of moral insanity. The idea of insanity suggests a disorder, or a rational incapacity that might be susceptible to treatment, but the qualification moral hints at something we would naturally contrast with psychiatric disorder: namely, a freely chosen condition for which the agent is morally responsible, and properly susceptible to praise and blame. Understood as equivalent to extreme wickedness—analogous perhaps to “insane” foolishness—the idea of moral insanity is, perhaps, intelligible. But construed more literally as behavior which reveals a rational incapacity, it becomes doubtful that it can be described in moral terms at all.

Participant Reactive Attitudes

My chief concern is with certain moral questions raised by the psychopathic condition. Specifically I am interested in psychopaths’ moral responsibility for their actions and lives, and the kind of moral claims upon the rest of us that they might have. But I begin with a fruitful way of looking at the whole question of responsibility, and our moral reactions to moral agents. My starting point is the well-known contribution of P. F. Strawson to the problem of freedom and responsibility, made in his acclaimed lecture, “Freedom and Resentment” (1962). This classic contribution was in part a response to discussions current at the time about the implications...

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pp. 29-39
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