Dangerous Psychopaths: Criminally Responsible but Not Morally Responsible, Subject to Criminal Punishment and to Preventive Detention
97 Pages Posted: 2 Feb 2012 Last revised: 9 Jan 2015
Date Written: Fall 2011
I argue for two propositions. First, contrary to the common wisdom, we may justly punish individuals who are not morally responsible for their crimes. Psychopaths – individuals who lack the capacity to feel sympathy – help to prove this point. Scholars are increasingly arguing that psychopaths are not morally responsible for their behavior because they suffer from a neurological disorder that makes it impossible for them to understand, and therefore be motivated by, moral reasons. These same scholars then infer from this conclusion (that psychopaths lack moral responsibility) that they must also lack criminal responsibility and therefore that our continuing to punish psychopaths for their crimes is unjust. My response is that this inference is entirely fallacious.
Criminal responsibility turns out to be quite distinct from moral responsibility. The two kinds of responsibility require very different conditions to be satisfied. In particular, criminal responsibility, unlike moral responsibility, does not require an agent be able to grasp and follow moral reasons; it requires only that the individual be able to grasp and follow criminal laws. Once this point is recognized, it becomes much easier to accept my thesis: while the subset of psychopaths who commit crimes are not morally responsible for their criminal behavior because they cannot understand moral reasons, they are still criminally responsible because they can understand what the consequences will be if they get caught. For this reason, even though I concede that psychopaths are not morally responsible for the crimes that they commit, our practice of punishing them for these crimes is still just.
Second, I argue that psychopathy is a mental illness and should be recognized as such. One reason that it should be recognized as a mental illness is simply because it is; it satisfies the main criteria for inclusion in the DSM-IV, the “bible” of mental disorders. The other reason is more practical than conceptual. It starts with two facts: (1) the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that the preventive detention of any individual who is not a criminal suspect is not constitutional unless the individual is not only dangerous but also mentally ill; and (2) psychopathy is not currently considered to be a mental illness. So, as things now stand, we cannot preventively commit dangerous psychopaths – that is, psychopaths who have clearly indicated that they will be committing serious crimes. Instead, we must wait for them to commit the crimes before we can lock them up. Unfortunately, this incarceration always comes too late for the victims. It would therefore be better if we could lock them up before they actually inflict any harm. Once again, then, I propose that the legal and psychological communities classify psychopathy as a mental illness.
Keywords: psychopath, antisocial personality disorder, PCL-R, moral responsibility, criminal responsibility, control, insane, insanity defense, mental illness, punishment, preventive detention, commitment
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation