Brain Theory, Psychopaths, and Shoemaker’s New Book

Bill Hirstein and I have written a chapter in a new book called Brain Theory: Essays in Critical Neurophilosophy edited by Charles Wolfe.

In the chapter we very briefly argue that different theories of punishment (deontological theory, utilitarianism, and virtue theory) might generate different conclusions regarding the culpability of psychopaths because they emphasize different mental faculties as being necessary for criminal responsibility. This is an argument I intend to pursue in more detail in a paper I am working on this summer.

Interestingly, David Shoemaker makes a somewhat similar argument in his forthcoming book Responsibility from the Margins. A few weeks ago I attended a great symposium on David’s manuscript at Georgia State. I highly recommend the book to responsibility theorists, and I’ll post a link to it once it is released.

In the manuscript David argues that responsibility tracks three different “qualities of will”: judgment, character, and regard for others. With regard to psychopaths, David argues the first two of these qualities may be intact, whereas the third is often compromised. That is, psychopaths’ may have a normal capacity for judgment and also act in a way that expresses their character or “deep self”; however, many do not seem to have the capacity to express regard for others. This means we might feel reactive attitudes toward psychopaths that ground responsibility assessments with regard to their judgment and character, and yet at the same time feel responsibility for their lack or regard is mitigated.

If David’s theory is correct then different theories of punishment may emphasize different “qualities of will,” and thus generate different conclusions about the responsibility of psychopaths. For example, as we argued in our chapter in Brain Theory, a deontological theory that emphasizes regard for others as necessary for responsibility might excuse the psychopath, whereas virtue theory may be more inclined to hold the psychopath responsible on grounds of character.


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