There’s a longstanding dispute about whether psychopaths are morally responsible. For our purposes, just stipulate that psychopaths are blind to moral reasons, that is, they lack moral, or normative, competence. There’s not much disagreement on this point (for psychopaths who score very highly on the Hare Checklist). The disagreement, instead, is over whether normative competence is necessary for moral responsibility. Suppose a psychopath sees that hitting you with a baseball bat will cause you pain, but he does it anyway because it’s fun. So, it’s thought, he judges hitting you to be worth doing, and he also judges that your interests don’t matter. Isn’t that sufficient to ground apt moral blame, and so sufficient for his being morally responsible?
Or so a school of thought goes (represented by Tim Scanlon, Angela Smith, Matt Talbert, and Pamela Hieronymi). What matters is that the psychopath at least has the rational capacity to form judgments of worth, i.e., make evaluative judgments of reasons. If he does, then it doesn’t matter if he’s blind to one subset of reasons; he’s still blameworthy for judging that the bad thing is worth doing and judging that other considerations don’t matter.
I want to try out an argument against this stance and see what you think.
Most normative ethicists and metaethicists tend to agree that “good” stands to “better” like “tall” stands to “taller.” That is, “tall” just means “taller than some specified group.” And so “good” just means “better than some specified group.” So just like someone couldn’t mean that you are tall exclusively in virtue of being six feet (independently of some contrast class), so too someone couldn’t mean that a pursuit is good without reference to what it’s better than.
What this suggests is that people who are able to see only facts about their own interests as salient can’t, in pursuing those interests, be doing so in virtue of judging those pursuits good when moral considerations are in play, as they lack access to the relevant contrast class (moral reasons) relative to which the pursuit is better. So my thought is that those who are incapable of seeing the relevant constraining reasons lack the capacity even to judge as to the worth of reasons generally (or at least lack the capacity to judge as to the worth of their self-interested reasons). And lacking the capacity for evaluative judgment in this domain just entails that such people aren’t responsible on the very Scanlonian terms themselves. (Thanks to Doug Portmore for discussion of some of these ideas.)