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Christopher Ciocchetti - The Responsibility of the Psychopathic Offender - Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 10:2 Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 10.2 (2003) 175-183

The Responsibility of the Psychopathic Offender

Christopher Ciocchetti

In this paper, I argue that the responsibility affecting defect of psychopaths is their incapacity for responding to acts within relationships. I begin with Piers Benn's account of psychopaths as incapable of forming participant reactive attitudes. Benn argues that participant reactive attitudes are essentially communicative and the ability to form and understand participant reactive attitudes is crucial to being a member of the moral community. Against Benn, I argue that, although participant reactive attitudes can be communicative, they are not essentially communicative. Instead, they can be simply expressive. Therefore, we must consider psychopaths members of the moral community in Benn's sense; however, psychopaths fail to interpret their actions as part of relationships. This inability renders punishment, as an attempt to rectify wrong relationships, inappropriate for psychopaths. Psychopaths have diminished responsibility, insofar as they have forfeited some rights by committing an offense, but are not appropriate candidates for punishment because they cannot understand its significance.
Moral responsibility, reactive attitudes, emotions, punishment, relationships.


The category psychopath is problematic. Although it is agreed that psychopaths display antisocial behavior, this trait alone is not enough to distinguish psychopathic offenders from normal offenders. Many people display antisocial behavior at some point in their lives, and there are even people who regularly display antisocial behavior but show no other signs of mental illness or mental abnormality (Duff 1977). To be helpful, psychopath must designate a category of persons with a specific set of deficiencies that lead to antisocial behavior. If psychopath is to be a useful moral and legal category, these deficiencies must impair the agency of the psychopath sufficiently to either eliminate or diminish the responsibility of the psychopathic offender. 1

In the philosophical literature, psychopaths are typically identified as having a deficiency internal to a psychopath's cognitive or emotional capacities. Psychopaths are thought to lack a proper understanding of morality, failing to notice that the demands of morality apply to them. Alternately, psychopaths are thought to have an impaired or underdeveloped emotional capacity, implying a general emotional failure, a failure of empathy, a form of moral autism (Adshead 1999), a failure to form other-regarding beliefs, and, perhaps most interestingly, a failure to form reactive attitudes. All of these criteria, in one way or another, represent a failure to experience emotions as the normal agent does. Typically, commentators conclude that psychopaths are not responsible for their actions owing to their lack of relevant emotional capacities. [End Page 175]

This paper takes a different approach to the problem of the psychopathic offender. First, rather than approach the problem from the perspective of the capacities internal to the psychopath, I propose to examine the responsibility of psychopaths within relationships. There can be no doubt that an individual's capacities can affect an individual's relationships. If an individual is incapable of understanding relationships, for example, then he or she will not respond appropriately to his or her relationships; however, as I explicitly point out, an individual's capacities are relevant to the individual's responsibility as the relationship determines them. It is possible for a person to be deficient in almost any capacity that persons usually have. If we want to determine which capacities are responsibility affecting, however, I will that it is better to focus on individuals and their capacities within relationships than to focus simply on the capacities to necessary for emotion or understanding. The offender must have the capacities necessary to understand relationships to justify holding that offender responsible. In fact, although I cannot argue for this point here, it can be very difficult to distinguish between cognitive and emotional deficiencies. A failure to cognitively understand the meaning of a loss can produce a failure to be sad as easily as an inability to feel the emotion can produce the inability to understand the term. For individuals who are highly functional in other respects, there may be no distinction between a cognitive and an emotional incapacity, and, I will argue, such a distinction is unnecessary to determine the psychopathic offender's responsibility.

The second area my discussion of the responsibility of the psychopathic offender differs from many previous discussions is that I discuss responsibility solely with respect to the justification of punishment. A striking fact about psychopaths is that most psychopaths fail to respond appropriately to punishment. Punishment fails to communicate the wrongfulness of the action to the psychopath and it is often ineffective in preventing future crimes. This fact could be related to the emotional or cognitive capacities of psychopaths, but it need not be; however it is generated, the psychopath's failure to understand punishment as punishment is relevant to the justification of punishment and to the responsibility of the psychopathic offender. In making this argument, I make some controversial assumptions. I cannot adequately defend all these assumptions here, but some justification is necessary.

Punishment, as I use it in this article, is a combination of hard treatment and censure justified by the guilt of the offender (Feinburg 1970). We punish the guilty because they are guilty, and not for some further effect punishment may have. This use is controversial because it precludes punishing solely to control crime and refuses to term punishment anything that is simply negative reinforcement. It is useful to restrict our use of this word, because it identifies a distinct mode of responding to others. In some circumstances, we may be justified in imposing hard treatment on others to alter their behavior or control crime, but our reasons in these cases are different from the reasons we have to punish someone who is guilty of an offense.

If we accept my assertion that punishment is justified by the guilt of the offender, then we must conclude that, insofar as circumstances and capacities affect the force of the reasons that usually justify punishment, those circumstances and capacities are responsibility affecting as well. Consider a similar theft committed by individuals in two different states.

Suppose an otherwise good library patron checks out a paperback copy of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. In the time before the book is due, Bob packs up his belongings, including the book, and moves several states away. Bob is certainly guilty of stealing the library book, but the time, trouble, and expense involved in finding and punishing Bob may imply that punishing him is not justified. The reasons that punishment in this case is not justified are external to the justification of punishment. Bob is still guilty. If he could be apprehended inexpensively, then we should do so. Our consideration of the expense is outweighing the reasons we have to be sure Bob is treated according to his desert.

Suppose on the other hand, that James acts just as Bob did. James, however, suffers from a [End Page 176] delusion that prevents him from appreciating the nature and quality of his act, as M'Naghten requires. James is incapable of understanding what he has done. Due to this fact, James is also incapable of understanding his punishment. The censure of the punishment would be directed at a person who is incapable of grasping that we are censuring his theft. If we are justified in imposing any burdens on James for his theft, perhaps as part of the therapy or to control theft from the library, it cannot be punishment aimed at censuring James.

The reason censuring the guilty is important is that it alters the relationship between the offender and the victim (Ciocchetti 2003). Punishment for wrongdoing is necessary, and wrong acts cannot be allowed to stand because wrongdoing expresses a wrong relationship. By matching the wrong act with a punishment, we interpret the wrong act as a specific kind of wrong, we condemn it, and we alter the relationship. We express that the wrong act is not appropriate to the relationship and thereby right the wrong. Importantly, the change in the relationship is not a consequence of the punishment. The relationship is changed by the punishment in the same sense that one breaks the law by running a red light. Breaking the law is not a further consequence of running the red light. Instead, the actions, done under normal conditions, constitute a violation of the law (Michael 1992). Likewise, punishment, under normal conditions, constitutes a change in the relationship between the victim and the offender. So, for punishment to be justified, all involved must be capable of appreciating the punishment as a response condemning the offender for his or her guilt in committing the crime. This is far too fast and loose to do more than sketch the argument, but, hopefully, no more will be needed to understand the responsibility of the psychopathic offender.

Psychopaths, I argue, have a diminished capacity to act appropriately within a relationship. Our responses to others, including punishment, are appropriate if they are a fitting response to act within our relevant relationships. Mild anger is an appropriate response to a friend regularly failing to return phone calls. It fits the relationship and the reasonable expectations of both parties. If I am unable to appreciate that my friend's anger with me over the unreturned calls is appropriate and I am unable to offer an appropriate response, my responsibility for my actions is affected. Due to an impaired emotional capacity, an impaired cognitive capacity, or some combination of these underlying defects, psychopaths cannot treat their actions as fitting responses to their relationships with others. The psychopathic offender is unable to appreciate a crucial part of his or her punishment, so, I argue, psychopathy diminishes responsibility. To make this case, I address alternate accounts of responsibility of the psychopath.

Communities, Affects, and Emotional Presuppositions

One of the most persuasive accounts of the emotional deficiencies of psychopaths comes from Piers Benn (1999). On Benn's account, psychopaths are unique among offenders because psychopaths are unable to form "participant reactive attitudes." This failure, Benn concludes, excludes psychopaths from the moral community. Participant reactive attitudes, originally described by P.F. Strawson (1962) in his famous article "Freedom and Resentment," are attitudes that evaluate and value persons and their actions. Strawson's point was that participant reactive attitudes presume the freedom of the agent engaged in the act. We resent only actions taken by persons. We cannot resent the weather without personifying this impersonal process. At the same time, the practice of ascribing participant reactive attitudes seems impervious to criticism. We can offer reasons to think that it would be inappropriate to take participant reactive attitude toward a particular individual on a particular occasion ("he couldn't help it"), but we cannot easily rid ourselves of these attitudes. Benn's claim is that psychopaths are unable to form these attitudes. Although psychopaths act quite skillfully in some social situations, sometimes by faking participant reactive attitudes, they are unable to experience guilt, resentment, anger, and forgiveness. This deficiency is morally important [End Page 177] because Benn claims that participant reactive attitudes are communicative.

Consider anger. Anger, according to Benn (1999, p. 34), "is a participant response, one of whose purposes is to induce fear or shame in its recipient, and it is inspired by a perception of such things as injustice or cruelty." Anger arises in response to the perceived unjust acts of another. Anger has at least two purposes: to communicate the perceived injustice and create the appropriate participant reactive attitudes in those who committed the perceived injustice. It is crucial to the appropriate expression of participant reactive attitudes that the object of the attitude is capable of understanding the message intended by the expression of the attitude. It only makes sense to get angry with a person who can commit injustices and who can understand anger as communication about the injustice. While any given expression of anger may fail to get the desired response or may be misplaced, anger itself is an essentially communicative participant reactive attitude.

Because participant reactive attitudes are communicative, the capacity for participant reactive attitudes is necessary for a shared moral community. As Benn (1999, p. 33) puts it, "only beings capable of participant reactive attitudes can be proper objects of such attitudes." One cannot communicate with a creature incapable of understanding the communication. In the case of psychopaths, we do not have general failure to communicate. In fact, general failures are rare even with those who have severely diminished mental capacities. With regard to psychopaths, there is a very specific area of moral life about which we cannot communicate. Psychopaths are unable to form participant reactive attitudes, unable to understand them, and therefore are not proper objects of such attitudes. Being neither the subject nor the object of such attitudes places psychopaths outside of our shared moral community. The implications of this placement are unclear. Benn believes that placement outside of the moral community terminates any claim to rights on the part of the psychopath; however, given that the idea of the rights of children is not obviously wrongheaded while children's status as objects of participant reactive attitudes is diminished, we should be more cautious (Elliot and Harold 1999). Nonetheless, if it does not make sense to get angry with, feel resentment toward, or even to forgive a psychopath, our obligations toward psychopaths will be significantly different than our obligations toward other moral agents. Psychopathic offenders lack a morally relevant capacity, and as such require significantly different treatment than nonpsychopathic offenders.

Benn's account of the deficiencies of psychopaths is not without its critics. Although one may raise questions about whether these are, in fact, the deficiencies shown by those who are currently diagnosed as psychopaths, it would be more fruitful to pursue another course. After all, the definition and diagnostic criteria can always be changed if we have reason to make such a change.

My criticism of Benn's account focuses on his characterization of reactive attitudes as essentially communicative. Expressions of participant reactive attitudes need to have no intent to be participant reactive attitudes. Consider a case where anger is appropriate. Suppose I have failed to return a phone call to Mary. She is angry with me and she expresses that anger the next time we meet. According to Benn, the purpose of this expression is to confront me with the perceived injustice, and have me feel guilt and shame for my failure. Indeed, this may be Mary's aim, but it need not be. Perhaps Mary has given up on me and holds no hope that I will recognize my actions as wrong. I will never reliably return phone calls. Sam, however, is within earshot. Although I am the object of her expression of anger, Sam's behavior is the target. She hopes that by chastising me, she will inspire Sam to return her calls.

This case would not be a significant objection to Benn's theory if all that it shows is that anger may have other aims than the one he identified. Anger is still communicative, even if it is communicative in a different way than Benn provides; however, it is easy enough to alter the example to reveal that anger can be an expression with no further aim at all. Perhaps Mary is simply angry with me. She has reached her limit, had enough, and sees no reason to inhibit her display of anger. [End Page 178] It may be the case that I deserve to feel her wrath; the shame her anger provokes in me is entirely appropriate, but it was not her intent to create these feelings in me nor was it her intent to give me what I deserve. Mary has no more intent in her display of anger than a person who says "ouch" when she stubs her toe has any intent in making that expression. In each case, we have a spontaneous display. Perhaps, we might want to ascribe an intent anyway. Mary intends to express her anger, but any consequences the expression has are unintended.

Because expressions of anger are not essentially communicative, it can be appropriate to express anger at an object that cannot understand the expression. Cases of expressing anger toward someone when that person is absent are not simply rehearsals for later communication. Often, they have the intent of avoiding later expression. If participant reactive attitudes are not essentially communicative and do not rely on the object being capable of understanding the expression to be appropriate, then it is not the psychopath's failure to understand participant reactive attitudes that matters morally. Failure to understand an expression of anger may mitigate one's responsibility for responding to that expression of anger (if I fail to perceive that Mary is angry with me, it mitigates my blameworthiness for not apologizing to her), but it cannot mitigate one's responsibility for the intentional act that provoked the participant reactive attitude in the first place (I am still blameworthy for not returning Mary's call.) More importantly, it does not eliminate one from participation in the moral community. So, psychopaths may indeed be unable to form participant reactive attitudes, but we must look elsewhere for the incapacity that diminishes their responsibility.

It is common to think that emotions are relevant to responsibility in another way. Reactive attitudes may not communicate, and thereby require that persons who express reactive attitudes toward either actually or potentially share a community, but reactive attitudes may still be important for responsibility. Strawson himself makes the point that persons who do not assume the appropriate perspective to form reactive attitudes are not full participants. Reactive attitudes, then, require a participant perspective. Although this does not logically imply that a participant perspective requires reactive attitudes, it seems plausible to suggest that if a person cannot form reactive attitudes, he or she could not take the participant perspective and therefore cannot be held responsible. Perhaps it is the affect of emotions that psychopaths lack, and this leaves psychopathic offenders unable to appreciate themselves as actors and other people as affected by their actions. If I am unable to feel anger or guilt, then I may not be able to know what I am doing when I fail to return Mary's call, insofar as there is a significant dimension of my action that I do not grasp. The psychopath's defect is a set of emotional incapacities, with no further inference that emotions are communicative.

Although I am in no position to show that psychopaths do or do not have the relevant affective capacities, we can conclude that the presence of an affective capacity is not enough to establish responsibility, even if other relevant capacities are operating normally. A person who has the capacity to feel emotions and is otherwise normal may still be significantly disordered. Imagine that, rather than being angry with me for failing to return her phone calls, Mary is grateful. Rather than expressing her anger toward me for failing in my obligations toward her, she expresses her gratitude toward me for the very same thing. Our first inclination when receiving a response like this is to make sense of it by assuming that Mary has reason that would make sense of this response. I might anticipate that she will change her expression to one of anger by revealing that she is grateful to me because I have helped her to learn how truly unreliable I am. I might assume that she is grateful because she thought she wanted me to call about something important, but, after not receiving my call, she realized that it was not important after all, that the call would have interrupted a more important activity, or it would have caused her to think about work on the weekend. But, suppose that none of these reasons apply. I pursue Mary, seeking to figure out why she has expressed gratitude toward me, and [End Page 179] all she can say is that she did it because I failed in my obligations toward her. Perhaps we can get confirmation of this fact from others. Repeatedly, Mary expresses gratitude toward those who have failed in their obligations toward her. She seems to genuinely experience thankfulness at these events, even though, prior to them, she seeks to have others keep their obligations. This may seem an extremely odd and unlikely disorder to have, but psychopaths are often described as having a similar disorder. Psychopaths are often described as lacking sympathy and failing to respond to their own failure to keep their obligations with the appropriate emotions. Nonetheless, an emotional capacity is clearly not enough to have a well-ordered agent. Expressing an emotion is not just a matter of having the capacity to feel. Reactive attitudes are appropriate or inappropriate responses in certain situations, even if they are not communicative.

It should be noted that we could not escape the previous problems by arguing that psychopaths do not understand morality. An abstract understanding of morality and moral obligations is insufficient. It might be claimed that psychopaths lack an understanding of morality, either in the usual sense that they do not understand what moral terms mean or in the sense they are unable to appreciate that moral obligations apply to them. Although it is certainly possible that psychopaths do not understand that moral obligations apply to them, this deficiency is not enough to diminish the psychopath's responsibility. We need not conjecture that Mary, in the previous example, did not understand abstract theories of morality or that these abstract theories of morality applied to her or me. It is possible that, when pressed, Mary will reveal that she does not understand what it means to have an obligation and what it means to fail to live up to one. Her behavior would certainly support the claim that she did not understand obligations. If all we had to go on was her behavior, we might reach that conclusion. Suppose that, on further questioning, Mary revealed that she did understand morality. Mary, it turns out, knows her moral theory and is quite capable of discussing Kant and Mill with ease. In addition, Mary realizes that anyone who fits the correct description of a moral agent has obligations and she believes that we both fit that description. She concludes, easily, that I have obligations toward her and she has obligations toward me, she cares about these obligations, and freely reports this when asked. At this point, it would be very awkward to claim that Mary does not understand morality. The understanding of morality described above is a better understanding than many Philosophy 101 students show on the first day of class. Mary, however, continues to express gratitude for my failure. To describe this as a defect of understanding, rather than one of affect or volition, is to stretch the meaning of understanding beyond its useful limits. It offers no obvious advantage to speak of understanding is this manner. The description of Mary's responses seems a plausible description of a deficiency from which one could suffer, and, I submit, we are tempted to judge Mary as having diminished responsibility, even if we do not have an account of that responsibility yet.

Of course, with my arguments here I have done nothing more than suggest a variety of other ways a person might be impaired. Perhaps some psychopaths have an inability to feel certain emotions. Perhaps others have a warped emotional capacity, generating an inappropriate emotion in response to the situation. Perhaps others have an impaired understanding of morality, either in the strained sense that they do not adequately care about morality or in the sense that they do not grasp the principles or obligations involved. This seems to suggest a string of conditions necessary for full responsibility. Taken singly, any one of these fails to capture the problem. Together (perhaps with other underlying defects) they lead us to the locus of moral concern. My previous arguments suggest that a properly functioning agent will have appropriate reactive attitudes, appropriate emotions, and an adequate understanding of his or her actions. This description of a properly functioning agent requires an answer to a further question: To what must the reactive attitudes, emotions, and understanding of actions be appropriate? What is the basis from which we can judge a response [End Page 180] inappropriate? My examples discussed above suggest an answer. An impaired emotional capacity or an impaired understanding of moral obligations may produce psychopathy, but they only do so because they contribute to another failure: the failure to respond to actions as influencing interpersonal relationships. Mary's misplaced sense of gratitude is an inappropriate response within our relationship, whether it is generated by a defective emotional capacity, defective understanding, or by some other means. But, to understand the significance of actions within relationships, more needs to be said.

Relationships and the Psychopathic Offender

The morally relevant capacity that psychopaths lack is not the inability to form participant reactive attitudes, but it is the closely related ability to respond appropriately to actions within a relationship. 2 Psychopaths do not display an enduring understanding of how their acts alter the way they are related to others over time. Due to this fact, the responsibility of psychopathic offenders is diminished.

Consider the case of my failure to return Mary's call and her anger with me over this failure. Mary's display of anger need not be communicative. It need not have any intent short of expressing her feelings on the subject. Mary's anger indicates something about her perception of the nature of our relationship. She perceives us as being related in such a way that I ought to return her phone calls promptly. At the same time, my response springs from my perception of the relationship. If I express no shame in my response, then I interpret our relationship differently. Perhaps I do not believe that I am obligated to return her calls promptly. Perhaps she has failed to return my calls promptly in the past, or perhaps I am simply insensitive to Mary's feelings and my obligations toward her. These reactions are all part of a range of reactions, each of which indicates a different kind of relationship between Mary and myself. In one sense, all of the options among this range of responses are appropriate. We understand and respond to each of them. Someone whose reaction is taken from this range would, all things being equal, be responsible for his or her reaction. In another sense, there are appropriate and inappropriate responses within this range. If Mary is entitled to expect me to return her calls, then my feeling no shame when faced with her anger is a moral failing. My reaction indicates a certain kind of relationship between us, and it is also inappropriate. I have not given Mary the respect that our relationship indicates that I should.

It is the first, broad sense of appropriate response that is important for responsibility. If a psychopath's reactions fit within the broad range of reactions appropriate in this case, but simply gave the most insensitive appropriate reaction, then the psychopath would be better replaced with son-of-a-bitch, as Ralph Slovenko suggests (1999); however, if the psychopath's response is not even within this broad range of appropriate responses, if the response does not even make sense within the relationship, then it can mitigate against the psychopath's responsibility and have significant implications for the responsibility of the psychopathic offender. The psychopath's failure to be able to understand the significance of his or her responses to the acts of others within their relationship implies that punishment is inappropriate. With respect to some acts within some kinds of relationships, punishment is among the available appropriate responses. It is only a short step for Mary to move from being angry with me for not returning her calls to exacting some form of informal punishment. If she has a position of authority over me and that authority entitled her to expect that I return her phone calls promptly, then she may punish me formally. As before, the significance of this act depends on the nature of our relationship and our response to the punishment. It could be "the last straw," or Mary demonstrating that she will apply the rules fairly to all.

With respect to psychopaths, their acts and responses are not events within the relationship that alter or preserve the specific kind of relationship between the offender and the victim. Psychopaths simply do not respond to their punishment as punishment. To be sure, they can [End Page 181] understand that hard treatment is imposed on them. They may even understand that the hard treatment is being imposed on them because they broke a rule. Psychopaths fail to show an appreciation that the hard treatment is an appropriate response to their offense and should alter the nature of the relationship between the offender and the victim. This leaves the psychopath in a unique position. We have no reason to doubt that he or she committed an offense, but he or she cannot appreciate the responses of others in terms of the significance of that event for the psychopath's social relationships. 3

Although the problem I describe does not fit the M'Naghten rules nor the Model Penal Code standard for mental illness that eliminate responsibility, nor does psychopathy diminish responsibility because psychopaths cannot form criminal intent, it does track significant dimensions of moral responsibility. There is no reason to doubt that most psychopaths can appreciate the wrongfulness of an action insofar as it is a discrete action. One does not need to appreciate the fit of other's reactions to an action to know that an action is forbidden by an appropriate authority or is otherwise morally wrong. Similarly, there is no reason to claim that a psychopath cannot appreciate the nature and quality of their actions, again, unless we choose to inflate the concept of nature and quality of an act to require that a person be able to place his or her acts within the context of the relationship. Furthermore, a diminished capacity to intend does not necessarily follow from a diminished capacity to take part in interpersonal relationships. Normal agents need not intend to alter their relationships to have criminal intent, so it would be ad hoc to require it here.

Rather than describe the psychopath's responsibility in these terms, it is better to say that the psychopath's responsibility diminishes insofar as her or she is not a fit candidate for punishment. This state of diminished responsibility suggests that psychopaths forfeit some of their rights in committing the offense, as most offenders do, but do not have the necessary capacities to justify punishing them. It is plausible to think that, due to their offense, psychopathic offenders have forfeited their right to liberty to allow for forced detention and moderately invasive therapy. This is certainly a different status than the one Benn and others have ascribed to psychopaths. We have no reason, based on psychopathy alone, to claim that psychopaths are not persons and have no rights. Psychopathic non-offenders would have the usual rights to non-interference. Psychopathic offenders' responsibility is diminished in the sense that they have forfeited their rights to non-interference without giving us reason to punish them. Their treatment must be governed by their rights and the best psychiatric care we can reasonably provide, but not by their desert. Their offense is only relevant in that they forfeited some rights in committing it. It does not require hard treatment.


We should describe, for moral and legal purposes, psychopaths as persons who are unable to participate in relationships. This inability may or may not be caused by an inability to form participant reactive attitudes or any number of other mental or emotional defects. Psychopathy may admit of degrees or take slightly different forms depending on which underlying capacities are impaired. Nothing I have said will replace empirical investigation of the phenomenon. Instead, I have argued that the underlying causes of psychopathy are morally relevant only insofar as they manifest themselves in an incapacity to respond appropriately to acts within a relationship. Psychopaths fail to act in these terms, and therefore fail to respond to punishment as punishment. Hard treatment imposed on psychopaths will fail to alter the relationship between the psychopathic offender and his or her victim, whatever other good it may do the psychopath or society generally.


The author thanks Gordon Pettit, Brooke Sadler, Maya Mei-Tal, Kenneth Aizawa, Jennifer Koruna, and two anonymous reviewers for this journal for their challenging, insightful and useful comments. [End Page 182]

Christopher Ciocchetti received his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Kentucky in 2000. Since then, he has been working on philosophical issues of responsibility related to punishment and assessing desert. His recent publications include "The attraction of historical entitlements" in the Journal of Value Inquiry, and "Wrongdoing and relationships" in Social Theory and Practice. He can be reached at the Department of Philosophy, Centenary College of Louisiana, Shreveport, LA 71134 or via e-mail at


1. A definition of psychopathy can be developed according to the therapies that are effective or the underlying causal mechanisms. Therefore, it is possible that the category as defined by psychologists and psychiatrists would be significantly different from the category as defined by ethicists and jurists. This paper is concerned only with psychopathy as a responsibility affecting disorder; therefore, a definition of psychopathy can be developed independently of any theory of the underlying causal mechanisms or effective treatment.

2. The term relationship might be misleading. I do not intend that this term be restricted to intimate personal relationships. Although these are the most complex and paradigmatic relationships, strangers passing on the street share a relationship in a minimal way. Gestures and postures indicate deference and assertion. These will also mediate their common problem and allow the two to pass without collision. In any encounter, human beings mediate their interpersonal relationships with some mutual understanding; each action indicates a range of meaningful responses the other might return.

3. The psychopath is blameworthy for committing an offense, unless the offense is defined solely in terms of the effect on the relationship. I see no reason to claim that all offenses are of this nature; therefore, psychopaths are blameworthy for some of their actions.


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Benn, P. 1999. Freedom, resentment, and the psychopath. Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Psychology 6, no. 1:29-39.

Ciocchetti, C. 2003. Wrongdoing and relationships: An expressive justification of punishment. Social Theory and Practice 29, no. 1:65-86.

Duff, A. 1977. Psychopathy and moral understanding. American Philosophical Quarterly 14, no. 3:189-200.

Elliot, C., and J. Harold. 1999. Travelers, mercenaries, and psychopaths. Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Psychology 6, no. 1:45-48.

Feinburg, J. 1970. Doing and deserving. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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