Scanlon at Berkeley, Part III. Learning from Psychopaths.


Tim Scanlon’s final topic during his series of Townsend lectures at UC Berkeley was “Learning from Psychopaths”. This was not, as suggested by faculty member Mike Martin, about philosophy grad school.

Are psychopaths morally responsible for the crimes they commit? Gary Watson has argued that they are not, because they are incapable of seeing any reason to care about the interests of others. The lecture will examine Watson’s argument, and its implications for our ideas of moral responsibility.

Gary Watson contributed to a book of essays about Scanlon edited by Jay Wallace, who introduced Scanlon yesterday. (Reasons and Recognition: Essays on the Philosophy of T.M. Scanlon 2012 OUP)  Watson’s summary of his paper:

The Trouble with Psychopaths. Psychopathy underscores a persistent tension in our conception of moral agency. On the one hand, psychopaths are rational creatures who are capable of deliberately injuring, manipulating, and defrauding. When they do so, they strike us as apt candidates for resentment and moral indignation, and we typically respond accordingly. On the other hand, psychopaths are constitutionally incapable of recognizing the interests of others as making any valid claim on them. They are in this way disabled from participating in moral discourse and moral practice. This incapacity seems to be necessary for moral accountability. Their capacity for malice supports the attribution of responsible agency to them. Their lack of accountability supports the denial of responsibility. This tension explains the ambivalence that many feel toward psychopaths. This paper explores some implications of this tension for moral theory and practice, with special reference to T. M. Scanlon’s account of moral agency as the capacity for rational self-governance. I argue that Scanlon’s account fails to capture the condition of accountability and is furthermore at odds with a natural understanding of the agency required for contractualist moral theory. Nonetheless, we find in his work a conception of blame that illuminates our responses to psychopathic agency.

Psychopaths are not insane. They could not be found NGI–not guilty by reason of insanity–for their crimes. Per Scanlon, ”psychopaths are rational creatures who are capable of deliberately injuring, manipulating, and defrauding.” However, psychopaths are “constitutionally incapable  of recognizing the interests of others as making any valid claim on them.”

In the terminology of BQTA contributor Rick Lenon, Darwin did not install a recognition of the interests of others in psychopaths. What Darwin does or does not bless us with is out of our control; nobody can be held accountable for his errors. So how can psychopaths be blamed for not recognizing the interests of others? That’s Darwin’s fault, not theirs.

Lurking behind this point is “free will”. The idea would be that psychs are not free to use the interests of others to guide their actions. They can only view others as social robots, like the “hosts” on Westworld, who have no moral claim on them. They are not free to think any other way. Moral responsibility only applies if the culprit “could have done otherwise” than the evil he did.

The problem is… what is free will and how can anyone have it? Scanlon thinks free will is an illusion and doesn’t matter. He is a compatibilist, following Hume: “the laws of nature do not coerce.” (Kant called compatibilism a “wretched subterfuge” and “word jugglery” in The Critique of Practical Reason.) Scanlon discussed the lack of moral responsibility of children and tigers, and mentioned a paper by Galen Strawson “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility”. Along most dimensions, Scanlon would hold psychopaths morally responsible for their crimes.

Suppose aliens install remote controls inside your body. As a result, you no longer control the motions of your body. If the aliens use your body to commit crimes, nobody would hold you morally responsible. Even compatibilists would agree that when your actions are caused by outside forces, you are not responsible. The problem is that the gradually developing sciences of psychology and neurobiology seem to be saying that the causes of behavior are deep in the subconscious or even deeper in neuron firings. We have no more control over those forces originating inside our bodies than we do the alien installation.

During Q&A, Scanlon was asked about a serial killer named Harris, apparently discussed by Watson. Suppose Harris was a victim of defective installation by Darwin and child abuse, which caused him to be a psychopathic serial killer. Scanlon would still hold him morally responsible, while feeling sorry for his miserable childhood.

I still think “free will” lurks, unresolved. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Incidentally, free will = mental causation, if anyone is wondering.


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