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Responsibility Status of the Psychopath: On Moral Reasoning and Rational Self-Governance

45 Pages Posted: 7 Dec 2008  

Paul Litton

University of Missouri School of Law

Date Written: December 3, 2008


Responsibility theorists frequently discuss psychopathy because it challenges various accounts of the capacities required for appropriate ascriptions of moral and legal responsibility. As often described, the psychopath has the capacity to reason practically but lacks the capacity to grasp and control himself in light of moral considerations. As portrayed, then, the psychopath resides in the area of disagreement between two philosophical camps: (i) theorists who put forth the general capacity for practical reasoning or rational self-governance as sufficient for an agent to be appropriately held morally responsible for his conduct; and (ii) theorists who view that general capacity as necessary but not sufficient for moral responsibility, additionally requiring the capacity to grasp and respond to distinctly moral reasons. On the former view, we may appropriately hold psychopaths responsible for their wrongful actions, but not on the latter.

This article does not aim to describe the opposing views and argue for one over the other. Rather, I propose to deflate the debate as far as possible, attempting to reduce the area of disagreement. Meaningful disagreement exists only if there are, or could be, agents who have an undiminished capacity for practical reasoning or rational self-governance, yet truly are incapable of moral reasoning. However, I suggest that the capacity for rational self-governance entails the capacity to comprehend and act on moral considerations; thus, to the extent that an individual truly is incapable of grasping moral reasons, we should expect to find deeper, more general deficiencies in that individual's rational capacities. I appeal to the work of leading researchers who study individuals with psychopathy to determine whether psychopaths do represent rational self-governors without the capacity to grasp moral considerations. I argue that this work strongly suggests that the psychopath's incapacity for moral reasoning is, indeed, evidence of more general deficits in the rational capacities required for fully accountable agency. The Article closes with relevant considerations for thinking about any implications for criminal law.

Keywords: psychopathy, responsibility, compatibilism

Suggested Citation

Litton, Paul, Responsibility Status of the Psychopath: On Moral Reasoning and Rational Self-Governance (December 3, 2008). Rutgers Law Journal, Vol. 39, No. 349, 2008; University of Missouri School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2008-30. Available at SSRN:

Paul Litton (Contact Author)

University of Missouri School of Law ( email )

Missouri Avenue & Conley Avenue
Columbia, MO 65211
United States

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