Can I a sociopath be held morally responsible for his/her crimes? Is there any

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Can I a sociopath be held morally responsible for his/her crimes? Is there any literature written on the subject of ethics in relation with those who lack empathy for others (or psychopaths who have uncontrollable urges to kill)?

This is a very interesting question--sociopaths and psychopaths have long figured in the literature on free will, but relatively little sustained attention has been devoted to the question of whether they are morally responsible for what they do until quite recently. One psychopath who has been treated at length is Robert Alton Harris, who figures prominently in Gary Watson's paper, "Responsibility and the Limits of Evil: Variations on a Strawsonian Theme": although the paper treats Harris's case at length, its chief aim is not to to determine whether Harris is morally responsible but instead to examine the relation between reactive attitudes and judgments of freedom and responsibility, and thereby to illuminate P. F. Strawson's fascinating and amazing article, "Freedom and Resentment." Recent sustained engagements with the question of whether psychopaths can be morally responsible include P. S. Greenspan, "Responsible Psychopaths," Philosophical Psychology, 16/3, 2003; Paul Litton, "Responsibility Status of the Psychopath: On Moral Reasoning and Rational Self-Governance," Rutgers Law Journal Volume 39 (2008): 350-392; Matt Talbert, "Blame and Responsiveness to Moral Reasons: Are Psychopaths Blameworth?" Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 89 (2008): 516-535; and Gary Watson, "The Trouble with Psychopaths" (forthcoming).

Before turning to the question of whether a sociopath or a psychopath can be held responsible for what s/he does, however, a couple of caveats should be entered. First, it seems to me that it may be a mistake to treat psychopaths and sociopaths interchangeably: although the DSM-IV treats them similarly, according to the various criteria that I have encountered, these are actually somewhat distinct disorders, with the chief difference consisting in the fact that psychopaths are quite 'organized', whereas sociopaths are not. This difference is related to the second caveat that I want to enter. It seems a bit quick and even question-begging to say that psychopaths and sociopaths are subject to "uncontrollable urges": if the urges are literally "uncontrollable," then an agent overcome by them wouldn't be responsible for what s/he is prompted to do by them, unless s/he is responsible for such urges. The question of whether there are such "uncontrollable urges," and if so, whether agents can be responsible for what they do that is prompted by such urges, is a distinct question that deserves independent treatment. (It's closely related to the question of whether agents can be responsible for their emotions, which are often characterized as being out of an agent's control, but for which agents are nevertheless often blamed, which seems to manifest a tension in how we conceive of the relation between emotions and responsibility.) Given the fact that psychopaths are sometimes distinguished from sociopaths with respect to their psychological 'organization', however, it may well be the case that sociopaths are subject to and prompted to act by "uncontrollable urges" whereas psychopaths are not. This is, however, a vexed empirical question on which I'm in no position to take a stand, so below I focus exclusively on psychopathic agency.

What's characteristic of a psychopath, according to the literature that I've read, is that the psychopath does not recognize the interests of others, nor does he recognize the claims that morality makes on him, especially with respect to interpersonal relations, yet the psychopath is capable of engaging in complicated instrumental reasoning in order to achieve his ends. Insofar as the psychopath is capable of reasoning, it would seem that his actions are attributable to him, and that he is responsible for them, because he is not merely being acted through by forces or urges; insofar as the psychopath does not recognize the interests of others or the claims of morality, he seems to take himself out of the intersubjective world in which judgments of responsibility are made. Psychopathy thus seems to reveal a tension between two different aspects of judgments of responsibility. One might claim that because the actions of the psychopath are attributable to him--as, say, the actions of a child are not, since the child cannot reason--then the psychopath is responsible for what he does; since, however, the psychopath does not recognize the claims of others on him, then it might seem that the psychopath is not a part of the moral community, and subject to blame for what he does, and, hence, is not responsible for what he does. It's not clear to me how to resolve the tension, which I think goes very deep, although attempts are made in various ways in the articles cited in the first paragraph to resolve it. But this is precisely the sort of case to which attention needs to be devoted if we are to understand the nature of responsibility.

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