Moral Responsibility of the Psychopath


Should a psychopath be punished if he or she is to commit murder? Currently, society answers in the affirmative. But the answer, in any case, is not as straightforward as it might seem. This is in fact a very philosophically intriguing question.

Part of the reason there is so much speculation around this topic is due to the lack of agreement about just what psychopathy is. Do we label it as a mental illness or a personality disorder? In any case, we need to examine whether the symptoms of psychopathy render the sufferer exempt from legal consequence. Just quickly, these include excessive deceit and untruthfulness, poor judgement and inhibition to learn from mistakes, tendency to manipulate, and a lack of remorse or guilt.

If a psychopath is biologically programmed to be more likely to get in trouble with the law, how should the law deal with these individuals? If a psychopath had the ability to avoid legal trouble like the rest of us, but chose instead to make a conscious decision to break the law, then I believe it is reasonable for them to feel the full force of the law. If the current justice system is configured for socially competent people, are we doing a horrible disservice to psychopathy suffers by treating them with the same system?

I want to draw upon an example used by Sam Harris in his lecture on free will. Suppose one day you found yourself in the woods under attack by a grizzly bear who decided to maul your leg badly. Luckily, you were able to get away safely in the end. When you reflect upon this incident, you don’t have any feelings of anger or hatred toward the bear because you understand that grizzlies are territorial and aggressive. It’s in their nature. The bear was simply being a bear.

Now in contrast, if a psychopathic axe murderer chased you through the woods before mauling your leg badly, we tend to have a different response. In court, you’d be likely to press charges and you might also feel severe hatred toward your attacker. But just like the bear, the psychopath was simply being a psychopath. Just like the bear, the axe murderer is unable to empathise with you and has no remorse for their actions. They’re impulsive and unable to plan ahead for the consequences that would await them (i.e. life in prison). A non-psychopathic murderer at least has the clarity and foresight of consequence when deciding to murder. The non-psychopathic murderer will likely be driven by extreme anger or hatred of their victim and therefore be able to rationalise that murder is the best way to ensure justice.

If a psychopath is lying, deceitful, and antisocial, does this make them a bad person? If a “normal” person is lying, deceitful, and antisocial, why of course it does! But the normal person has the choice whereas the psychopath doesn’t – they’re simply a result of unfortunate biological programming. Should they be made to suffer for this?

Psychopaths, differing from sociopaths, are born with this particular disposition whereas sociopaths typically acquire their antisocial behaviour through environmental conditioning. It might be reasonable to assume sociopaths may have some sort of say in how they turn out whereas psychopaths are predestined to be this way in the exact same manner homosexuals don’t get to choose their sexual orientation.

So does this mean psychopaths should be exempt from moral responsibility? What if the default position for humanity was psychopathy? Would we then live in a society that favours the personality traits of psychopaths? It seems obvious to me that there should be increased ethical scrutiny placed upon the treatment of the psychopaths in today’s society. What are your thoughts?

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  1. Mister Burke

    You can’t blame a psychopath for their nature just like you mentioned in the grizzly bear scenario, that I agree with. However, people look for safety in places they reside. If a grizzly bear entered your yard you know what it is capable of it is much larger than you, it’s brain clearly doesn’t function like most normal humans do and is not capable of using reason. We know wild animals such as the bear act entirely on instinct . Psychopaths are human beings however, charming and intelligent ones at that they know how to manipulate almost anyone their ability to detach from emotion is what makes them truly incredible. They operate efficiently and can constantly change their outward personalities to match the situation. Its the fact that you are left oblivious to what they are truly capable of. Not all of us like to live in anxious fear being cautious of every single person, also you are assuming that the psychopath is only out to injure. In that rare scenario where the psychopath’s intent was to hurt your leg and let you live I think special treatment should be granted.

    I have never heard of any psychopath that just injured his/her victim and walked away anyways, those people aren’t psychopaths those are sociopaths. A psychopath has no intention of getting caught and will avoid capture with their talents.

    • Harvey Meale

      This idea of people having a right to safety seems somewhat irrelevant to me. It is entirely wrong for someone to be attacked by someone else in a place where the victim feels safe. While this is so, it isn’t necessarily a factor in determining how much of the moral responsibility the psychopath should take. The psychopath doesn’t have a “habitat” in the same way the bear does either. I’m also not assuming the psychopath is only out to injure or execute their victims – it’s outside of the scope of the topic. In most cases, psychopaths are as benign as the next guy. You also cannot distinguish whether someone is a psychopath or a sociopath from the severity of the injuries they impart on their victims. My example also doesn’t account for unforeseen (and irrelevant) interferences such as police intervention.

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