Comment: Psychopaths are morally responsible

The following is an essay I wrote for a first year philosophy subject, PHIL107 Values, Mind and Self, in May 2016. My essay responds to a paper by Neil Levy The responsibility of the psychopath revisited. I’ve added some content that wasn’t included in the original essay to make full use of this platform. If you’re reading this, keep in mind that this is my first philosophy essay. While I got a reasonable mark, I’m aware there’s room to improve so please be kind in the comments if you’re that way inclined.

Different but equal: A response to Neil Levy’s claims that psychopaths are not morally responsible for their actions.

Neil Levy’s paper, The responsibility of the psychopath revisited, has attracted a fair amount of attention from professional philosophers who’ve critiqued or commended his arguments. Levy remarks that we need to seek out a new methodology to determine the moral responsibility of psychopaths and that we should abandon meta-ethical debates in the process. Levy challenges the status quo and concludes that we should refrain from blaming psychopaths. Ultimately, Levy makes the assertion that psychopaths cannot be blamed because of their inability to draw the moral/conventional distinction.

Considering the content of the paper, it’s easily deemed valuable reading for anyone concerned with how society and the law deal with criminal psychopaths. Segments of Levy’s argument need to be challenged though, particularly as the underlying premise of this debate is whether psychopaths can and should be absolved, which is a matter that affects the whole of society.

In this paper, I outline my own thinking and challenges to Levy’s argument. Specifically, I argue that: empathy is not essential for an individual to acquire moral knowledge; simultaneously, I argue that, while it is widely accepted that psychopaths by definition naturally lack empathy, there is evidence to suggest that empathy could be learnt and acquired. Given this, even if empathy was the one and only true path to morality, the psychopath could develop moral knowledge and can therefore still be considered an eligible member of the moral community. I conclude that Levy grossly overstates the ability of the moral/conventional distinction to settle the debate about the responsibility of the psychopath.

Paths to moral knowledge

Levy’s argument makes two critical assumptions: he assumes that the psychopath has no capacity for moral knowledge because of difficulties with emotional processing and that empathy is essential to moral understanding (Levy, 2007, p. 131). There is no reason to believe that emotional processing has a monopoly on moral development though. There’s also no reason to think that empathy is essential for moral understanding.

I propose that there is in fact many ways in which someone can acquire moral understanding. The road to morality varies among empathic and psychopathic individuals alike.

For example, an individual’s moral code is influenced by their belief system, their surroundings, their socialisation, upbringing, experiences, and intellect (Dienstbier, 1978, pp. 199). Regardless of whether it be religion, socialisation or intellect that leads a person to their moral compass, each pathway, until proven otherwise, is plausible. Worth noting too is that morality is fluid. For any number of reasons an individual may change their moral values at any given time (sometimes it’s a shift influenced by age and experience, sometimes a believer becomes an atheist). All of this suggests that it is reasonable to say that there are no moral facts; that there is no single and true path to morality and that no individual experiences it in the same way.

It’s worth noting here too that there is a number of established theories regarding moral development out there: some argue that morality requires practical reasoning skills and therefore intellectual abilities (essentially Kant’s moral philosophy); others say that morality requires intellectual and emotional abilities, which is a theory attributed to Aristotle (Matravers, 2008, p. 139). Which theory any individual subscribes to exactly is irrelevant at this time. The important point is that there is no consensus on morality, moral development, knowledge or understanding (Matravers, 2008, p. 139).

Considering this, it’s logical to conclude that moral knowledge is not a direct and exclusive product of empathy, as Levy implies. And so I propose that we can not reasonably say that psychopaths have zero capacity for moral knowledge simply because of an emotional impairment.

Empathy can be acquired

For the record, I do not disagree with Levy’s description of what a psychopath is or his analysis of their nature. Nor do I disagree with the statement that psychopaths are emotionally impaired (Levy, 2007, p. 130). I do disagree however with the idea that a diminished ability to empathise means having absolutely no ability to empathise and that a natural deficit of empathy means a permanent one.  Modern neuroscience presents us with plenty of reasons to believe that the brain is not fixed – that an amygdala dysfunction, cognitive deficits, or certain neurological characteristics, can be modified.

Research recently conducted in the Netherlands shows that psychopaths can turn empathy on and off, like a switch. By comparing the brain activity of a group of diagnosed criminal psychopaths to a group of control subjects, neuroscientists determined that when given specific instructions, the part of the brain associated with pain was activated in psychopaths. This research suggests that psychopaths are not entirely void of empathy, rather they have a diminished capacity to spontaneously react with empathy, but that this can be overcome with training (Bartels, den Boer, Gazzola, Harma, Keysers, 2013, pp. 2560). This is significant as it shows that Levy’s claim that psychopaths lack the capacity for empathy is not accurate.

Another example of a case that speaks to the brain’s ability to change is a recent study involving a schizophrenic patient. The study found that therapy and environmental events could “modify neuroplasticity in schizophrenia and improve cognitive function” (Lee, Puskar, Slivka, Martin, Witt, 2016, 95).

It is not a giant leap to suppose that the same would apply to psychopaths. Based on the theory that the brain is malleable and that our thought processes and subsequent behaviour are also pliant, it is plausible that people, particularly those with a less severe level of psychopathy, can change and become a moral agent by anyone’s definition. And if psychopaths can learn to feel the emotions they naturally lack and begin to understand morals in the way that Levy argues is necessary for morality and moral responsibility then psychopaths are capable of acquiring moral knowledge. As a side note, there’s scope within this theory to debate whether the psychopath could be deemed negligent for not seeking therapy or rehabilitation that would improve his or her ability to empathise.

At this point it is important to note that I am by no means suggesting that we can easily and quickly address or alter psychopathy in any individual. My point is that it is possible and because it is possible I am compelled to conclude that Levy has overstated the relevance of the moral/conventional distinction in determining whether or not psychopaths can be held responsible for their actions.

The value of conventional transgressions

Here I would like to quickly address Levy’s apparent disregard for conventional transgressions. Even if someone were to reject my arguments for acquired empathy and varied pathways to moral understanding, an understanding of conventional transgressions could logically render a rational person responsible for their actions, legally and morally. This aspect of the debate is important too because Levy, while trying to focus on moral responsibility, is inevitably arguing that psychopaths aren’t criminally responsible.

It’s widely known that psychopaths are less likely to refer to another person’s welfare when asked why something is wrong. Much of Levy’s argument hangs on this unique characteristic, which has been documented in studies by Larry Nucci, Elliot Turiel and James Blair, all of whom Levy cites in his paper. But psychopaths do make what Heidi Maibom calls normative justifications (justifications by reference to a rule or a norm), and they are generally quite adept at this, which Levy recognises. Nonetheless, Levy maintains that moral transgressions are more significant: “For psychopaths, all offences are merely conventional,” Levy says.

Another thing that most experts can agree on is that psychopaths are clever, often highly intelligent, organised and perceptive. They’re also known not to be mentally ill – they’re not insane, they don’t experience hallucinations, and they aren’t out of control (Maibom, 2008, pp. 3). Even the author of the renowned Psychopathy Checklist, Robert D Hare, has said that “psychopaths certainly know enough about what they are doing to be held accountable for their actions” (Hare, 1993, pp. 143). So excusing a psychopath of their wrongdoings because they haven’t understood the moral implications of it seems unnecessary.


It is easy to see why so many conclude that psychopaths are a lost cause, that they are amoral and their makeup automatically positions them outside surrounding moral communities. Psychopaths are after all responsible for a large percentage of crimes, particularly violent crimes, and they are likely to reoffend (Levy, 2008, pp. 129 – 130). They are not helped by the fact that they generally don’t respond well to typical rehabilitation programs (Anderson, Kiehl, 2014, pp. 110).

But neuroscience has shown us that it is possible for the psychopath’s natural deficits to be overcome. In light of this information, we are presented with an opportunity to rethink what’s become widely accepted about them and their susceptibility to positive and meaningful rehabilitation. Most importantly, considering the prospects that neuroscience has revealed to us with a new understanding of the plasticity of the brain and subsequent thought processes, values and behaviour, we can not reasonably say that morality is entirely out of the reach of natural psychopaths.


Anderson, N, Kiehl, K, 2014, ‘Psychopathy: Developmental perspectives and their implications for treatment’, Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, vol. 32, pp. 103 – 117.

Bartels, A, den Boer, J.A., Gazzola, V, Harma, M, Keysers, C, 2013, ‘Reduced spontaneous but relatively normal deliberate vicarious representations in psychopathy’, Brain, A Journal of Neurology, vol. 136, pp. 2550 – 2562.

Dienstbier, R, 1978, ‘Attribution, Socialization, and Moral Decision Making’, New Directions in Attribution Research, vol. 2, pp. 181 – 206.

Fox, A, Kvaran, T, & Fontaine, R, 2013, ‘Psychopathy and culpability: How responsible is the psychopath for criminal wrongdoing?‘, Law & Social Inquiry, vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 1 – 26.

Glenn, A & Raine, A, 2014, Ethical issues in Psychopathy: An Introduction to Biological Findings and Their Implications, New York, New York University Press, pp. 160 – 176.

Hare, R, 1993, Without Conscience, The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, New York, Simon & Schuster.

Hogenboom, M, 2013, ‘Psychopathic criminals have empathy switch’, BBC, 25 July, viewed 14 April 2016.

Lee, H, Puskar, K, Slivka, C, Martin, C, Witt, M, 2016, ‘A Case Study on Promoting Neuroplasticity in a Patient With Schizophrenia’, Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, vol. 52, pp. 95 – 101.

Levy, N, 2007. ‘The responsibility of the psychopath revisited’, Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 129 – 138.

Maibom, H, 2008, ‘The mad, the bad, and the psychopath’, Neuroethics, vol 1, no. 2, pp. 167 – 184.

Matravers, M, 2007, ‘Holding psychopaths responsible’, Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 139 – 142.

Nichols, S, & Vargas, M, 2007, ‘How to be fair to psychopaths’, Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 153 – 155.

Nichols, S, & Vargas, M, 2008, ‘Psychopaths and moral knowledge’, Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 157 – 162.

Shoemaker, D.W., 2011, ‘Psychopathy, responsibility, and the moral/conventional distinction‘, Southern Journal of Philosophy, vol. 49, pp. 99 – 124.

Talbert, M, 2014, ‘The significance of psychopathic wrongdoing’ in Schramme, T,  (ed) Being Amoral: Psychopathy and Moral Incapacity, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, pp. 275 – 300.

Watson, G. ‘The trouble with psychopaths’, in Wallace, J, Kumar, R & Freeman, S, (eds), Reasons and Recognition: Essays on the Philosophy of T. M. Scanlon, Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 307 – 331.

Vargas, M, & Nichols, S, 2007, ‘Psychopaths and moral knowledge’, Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 157 – 162.



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