I’m very pleased to be able to introduce our next featured philosopher: Heidi Maibom. Take it away Heidi!
Years ago, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong invited me to participate in a symposium on psychopaths and responsibility. That was the first time I started thinking professionally about this issue. I was excited, yet intimidated. Not only is psychopathy not as neat and easy to classify a disorder as some think, but responsibility itself is an extraordinarily vexed issue. People far smarter than I have failed to make much progress. What to do?
I decided to attack the issue from the legal angle. This seemed more manageable, and also more pressing when it comes to psychopaths. Other philosophers were insisting that psychopaths do not have the required capacities to be held legally responsible. A popular move is to argue that without the ability to empathize with others, one cannot fully understand that harming them is wrong (in itself). This means that one does not have the required understanding for legal responsibility (cf. the insanity defense).
A number of assumptions are packed into this charge, namely that psychopaths lack the ability to empathize with others, that empathizing with others is a prerequisite for understanding that harming them is wrong, and that one must fully understand the wrongness of one’s actions in order to be held legally responsible for them. All these assumptions can be questioned. Let us begin with the last idea. How deeply must I understand some wrong in order to be held legally responsible for committing it? Mostly I just have to be able to understand that it is wrong. A philosopher-psychiatrist friend I told about the debate thinks it’s stupid. Psychopaths are capable of understanding that harming others is wrong at least in the relatively superficial sense that I am able to understand, say, why jaywalking is wrong, and that is enough to hold them responsible for harming others. I am not sure I agree, but it’s a refreshingly simple view.
Is empathy required for legal responsibility? Suppose I do not have the ability to empathize with anyone, but I am a devout Kantian. For reasons we do not need to go into here, I kill my nemesis. As a result, I am charged with murder. My lawyer argues that I should be excused on the basis of insanity since I am unable to empathize with others and thus cannot truly appreciate why killing someone is wrong. Does this seem reasonable? Not to me (I am, after all, a hardcore Kantian ;)). Although I am not capable of appreciating empathically the wrongness of killing someone, I still seem able to appreciate enough about the wrongness of killing to hold me responsible for doing so. We don’t know whether there are many hardcore Kantians in the wild. But we also have no reason to think that empathy is the only route to understanding the wrongness of our actions. People with autism, for instance, have empathic deficits too, yet they seem to understand that harming others is wrong.
We can also ask: do psychopaths lack empathy? Far from being a clear-cut case, the evidence is mixed. We have evidence that psychopaths orient to pain in others just fine. Where the trouble starts is in the subsequent response. Where nonpsychopaths show sustained interest in others’ pain and mobilize a strong fear response, psychopaths do not. But this response is known to be under conscious control. It looks just like the response doctors have when they do things like administer painful injections to patients. It seems psychopaths have the ability to muster a full empathic response, but choose not to. It is hard to see how this could be excusing.
Years later, another invitation got me thinking more about Socrates’ idea that no man does evil willingly. Many theories of responsibility, however, seem to work with the tacit assumption that we hold people responsible because when they do wrong they know, in some interesting sense of know, what they do is wrong. But if that is so, we cannot hold most of the people responsible that we do. Something has gone wrong. I think our condition must be looser. Someone is responsible as long as she could have known what she was doing was wrong, as long as gaining that knowledge is not too onerous. But what, more precisely, does this amount to?
The problem with much wrongdoing, it seems to me, is that people do not think of what they are doing under the relevant description. Cases of neglect bring this out. What happens here is that people are stuck in their own point of view and are thinking of their actions purely in terms of the degree to which they satisfy their interests. They fail to adopt a different point of view. One important perspective that is often neglected is that of the victim. But it may not be the only point of view that matters. For one perspective does not automatically trump another. Being able to take the point of view of someone who is not an interested party is also important. If we are unable to do any of these things, we will fail to understand what we are doing in many cases.
How this applies to the responsibility debate is straightforward. One cannot be held responsible for doing something that one could not have known one was doing. If part of what knowing what one is doing rests on one’s ability to take another point of view on one’s action, then being able to take other people’s perspectives is a necessary condition for (moral) responsibility. This view allows that we can be responsible for acting in ways we did not think we were acting at the time, as long as it was not too onerous for us to take up the relevant point of view. It is a consequence of this view that we can be held responsible for being biased and prejudiced. I develop these ideas more in my manuscript: Knowing Me, Knowing You.
If you want to know more, go to my website: heidimaibom.com