By In Ideas, Moral Psychology, Normative Ethics, Reasons and rationality Comments (15)

Can psychopaths make judgments of worth?

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.)

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15 Responses to Can psychopaths make judgments of worth?

  1. Ben M-Y says:

    Dave,

    This is an interesting argument. And I am very sympathetic to the conclusion you are after–that there is something incorrect about the Scanlonian account of psychopathic responsibility. However, I’m not so sure that the Scanlonian will be moved by your argument.

    Here’s why. The Scanlonian position, as I understand it (and please correct me if need be), crucially turns on the claim that the inability to judge that C is a reason not to X does not show that it is inappropriate to attribute to one the judgment that it is not the case that C is a reason not to X. Compare Scanlon (1998, 288): “A person who is unable to see why the fact that his action would injure me should count against it still holds that this *doesn’t* count against it.”

    Now apply this move to the issue you raise. Suppose that the psychopath cannot grasp some set of moral reasons M that counts against Xing in a particular scenario. You suggest that it follows that this psychopath cannot judge that X is worth doing in this scenario because he cannot make the requisite comparative judgment regarding the self-interested considerations C (in favor) and moral reasons M (against) that bear on Xing in this scenario. But it seems that the Scanlonian would disagree. We can, on that view, attribute negative judgments to one regarding reasons one cannot grasp. And these negative judgments might support comparative judgments of the sort you claim are necessary for judgments of worth. Suppose that the psychopath can judge that it is not the case that M counts against Xing and that he can judge that C counts in favor of Xing. It would seem, then, that he can judge that Xing is worth doing, where this is cashed out in terms of a comparative judgment that the considerations in favor of Xing (C) are better than competing considerations against Xing (M).

    To put the point another way: you are interested in comparative judgments of the form x is better than y. But the argument place for y may be satisfied by a negative judgment that a set of reasons doesn’t count against something. And this negative judgment, on the Scnalonian view, is attributable even to someone who cannot grasp the relevant reasons. Thus, I think the Scanlonian would not be moved by your argument.

    But I wonder what you think.

  2. Matt King says:

    Hi Dave,

    I think my thought is roughly the same as Ben’s. I don’t see why the psychopath can’t judge their action worth doing. They need not be judging that it is good simplicter — they can judge it to be better than all alternatives.

    In other words, i don’t see why the psychopath’s incapacity negates the ability to judge that whatever action they perform is the one that’s “better than the alternatives considered”.

    The argument, it seems to me, only suggests that psychopath’s judgments of worth or what’s good can’t be sensitive to moral reasons. But that ought to follow from the stipulation of the argument alone.

  3. Shelley Tremain says:

    Hi David,

    I would like to challenge these claims:

    “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).”

    There is in fact a great deal of disagreement about the status of psychiatric classifications and their use. Among other things, they are increasingly recognized as culturally and historically specific. Furthermore, the criteria of the Hare scale are outdated, value laden and seem to target certain marginalized and disadvantaged populations, including sexual minorities.

  4. David Shoemaker says:

    Thanks, Ben and Matt, for your engagement with the argument.

    Ben, you’ve got the likely Scanlonian rejoinder right. This argument is an attempt to cut the legs out from under that move, though. The question is, what’s the precise nature of the so-called negative judgment that can be attributed to the psychopath? Here’s how you put it: “It would seem, then, that he can judge that Xing is worth doing, where this is cashed out in terms of a comparative judgment that the considerations in favor of Xing (C) are better than competing considerations against Xing (M).” But if he cannot recognize *that there are even any reasons* against Xing, then on what basis can we say that his rejection of any competitors is actually a comparative judgment that the self-interested considerations are better than those other *considerations*?

    I take it that what he’s saying is this: “I ‘judge’ that hurting you will be worth doing, because it’ll be fun, *and nothing else matters*.” My question: Is this an actual evaluative judgment? Isn’t this just like saying, “I ‘judge’ that Peter Dinklage is tall, because he’s 4’5″”? With no contrast class included? The latter strikes me as no actual “tallness” judgment at all, just as the former strikes me as no evaluative judgment at all.

    Similar remarks go to Matt. You say, “I don’t see why the psychopath’s incapacity negates the ability to judge that whatever action they perform is the one that’s ‘better than the alternatives considered’.” But here’s the thing: By stipulation, nothing about those alternatives counts, for him, as a *consideration* in favor of doing anything. He can’t recognize moral reasons. So he sees that hitting me will cause me pain, but, for him, that fact has the exact same status as all other facts about me, including the width of my ear lobes or the rate of my heartbeat. So there aren’t *any* considerations in favor of anything else. There is just the one consideration (self-interest). And even if that provides an *incentive* to do the thing, it nevertheless can’t be a thing *worth doing* without a comparative judgment relative to the class of moral reasons.

  5. Ben M-Y says:

    Dave,

    Thanks for your reply. I am *very* sympathetic with the view that there is something amiss with attributing a judgment to someone about a set of reasons s/he cannot grasp. That is, I think that what I called the crucial Scanlonian claim is false. It seems you agree.

    The point I was trying to make in my comment, however, was that I do not see how your argument “takes the legs out from under that move.” Rather, it seems to me that your argument is a novel way of highlighting that move. For this reason, I find your argument very interesting. I just don’t see yet how it is supposed to undercut the Scanlonian view.

    You say: “if he cannot recognize *that there are even any reasons* against Xing, then on what basis can we say that his rejection of any competitors is actually a comparative judgment that the self-interested considerations are better than those other *considerations*?” To this, I think the Scanlonian will reply: because we can attribute a judgment that it is not the case that M counts against X, even when the psychopath cannot grasp M as reasons against Xing. Your argument will have forced the Scanlonian’s hand, as it were. But I don’t see that, in itself, the argument shows that the claim on which the Scanlonian will lean is false. Something else is needed for that.

    Am I missing something here? (It would be great if I were, as I am on your side here.)

  6. David Shoemaker says:

    Ben, thanks. This is a very helpful exchange, and I’m grateful for your sympathy in it. I think I see your point. But part of what I’m doing is trying to undercut the idea that a “judgment that it is not the case that M counts against X” is the kind of thing that can even count as a *judgment* on the Scanlonian’s own terms. What are evaluative judgments, for the Scanlonian? They aren’t exactly judgments about the worth of doing some thing; rather, they are judgments about the worth of *reasons* in favor of doing some thing. So there’s a difference between discounting some facts as irrelevant to one’s pursuit and discounting the worth of some reasons (that one recognizes as such) against one’s pursuit. The psychopath can (by stipulation) only do the former, but my argument aims to show that, unless he can do the latter, then *he’s not even judging as to the worth of the reasons of self-interest* (again, on the Scanlonian’s own terms). All he’s doing, then, is responding to incentives. But that’s insufficient to establish his rational, evaluative competence. I hope that makes sense.

  7. Ben M-Y says:

    Dave,

    This is very helpful for me as well. And what you say does make sense. But I still think that the argument can at best serve to lay bare a (striking!) commitment of the Scanlonian view. It can’t, alas, impugn it–so far as I can see.

    You say: “there’s a difference between discounting some facts as irrelevant to one’s pursuit and discounting the worth of some reasons (that one recognizes as such) against one’s pursuit.” I agree. But the Scanlonian can also agree to everything except the parenthetical remark about recognition. What I have been referring to as the “crucial claim” at the heart of the Scanlonian view flatly denies that recognition of reasons as such is required for judgments about their worth. According to my understanding of the Scanlonian position, one can make negative judgments about the worth of reasons that one cannot recognize as reasons. And this, even according to the Scanlonian, is not the same thing as making a judgment about the worth of facts (because some facts are non-normative).

    Once again (and I am sorry to sound like a broken record here), I don’t see that the argument gets you more than highlighting the Scanlonian view’s commitments. And I am inclined to see your insertion of the claim about recognition in parentheses as supporting this point. The disagreement between you (us, really) and the Scanlonian may be put in terms of what’s in the parentheses. Is it required for the attribution of a judgment, even a negative judgment, about reasons that one be able to recognize the relevant considerations as reasons? The Scanlonian says ‘no.’ But you (and I) say ‘yes.’ This disagreement, I think, survives the argument about evaluative judgments, though that argument very usefully helps to sharpen our focus on where the differences between the two positions lies.

    (I sincerely hope that I am not just repeating myself here, but I fear I may be. If so, I apologize. You’ve got me thinking about some interesting stuff.)

  8. Matt King says:

    Dave —

    Suppose I’m deliberating about how to treat you. Some things will strike me as reasons to do x, like how it will serve my self-interest. Other things will strike me as reasons not to do it, like the chance I might cause you pain. Still other things won’t strike me as reasons either way, like the fact that it will accelerate your heartbeat or move some air molecules around. My doing x suggests I took the reasons in favor to be stronger (let us suppose). So I didn’t treat the moral reasons against as sufficiently strong to make the action not worth doing.

    For the psychopath, by stipulation, all moral reasons are like those latter non-reasons I considered — they don’t count against the action (nor for any action). They don’t see them as reasons for or against an action.

    You seem to reject the claim for the psychopath but, I assume, not for me. But I’m not sure what the difference is in terms of how the agent treats whether the facts are reasons or not. Especially since I could think some things don’t matter morally (like whether your feelings will be hurt) that I ought to think matter morally, and so not treat them as reasons either way, but that won’t presumably get me off the hook.

  9. Bear with me, I’m thick.

    Ben, you say: “What I have been referring to as the “crucial claim” at the heart of the Scanlonian view flatly denies that recognition of reasons as such is required for judgments about their worth.” Yes. But if we grant that goodness is about betterness, then why can’t we simply deny the crucial claim, given that a ‘judgment’ about the ‘worth’ of one reason (“it would be “good” to do the thing it counsels”), in order to COUNT as a judgment about the worth of that reason, must be a judgment about its being better than *some other reason* to which one has access? I may be willing to accede to your thought that my argument is just a nice way to highlight the costs of their view, but I’m not there yet. Be patient.

    Matt: Good. Here’s the difference: Whether something merely strikes me in a “reasonish” way isn’t good enough to get to what the Scanlonians want yet. Judgment plays two critical roles: It judges as to whether facts that merely appear to me to be reasons really are reasons, and it judges as to whether one has sufficient reason to adopt the attitude being counseled (Scanlon, WWOTEO, 65-66–judgments are all about the forming of attitudes, for him). I think what I’m denying (although I admit, it’s getting fuzzier) is in part that psychopaths can in fact engage in the first, as sometimes facts (like self-interest) don’t even count as considerations in favor of some attitude when there are sufficiently strong moral considerations in play. But I’m also thinking that, even if we allow that they can at least judge that certain reasonish considerations ARE reasons, they can’t make judgments about whether they are *sufficient* for adopting certain attitudes, as that’s a judgment of worth, and without access to relevant constraining moral reasons, they lack the relevant contrast class to make judgments of worth generally.

    But I realize this will leave both of you unsatisfied, and I also realize I’ve got to think my way more carefully through this minefield.

  10. Ben M-Y says:

    Dave,

    I think it is I who have been thick. I am beginning to see an argument against the Scanlonian view here. Let me see if I am (finally!) understanding what you’ve been getting at.

    You say: “if we grant that goodness is about betterness, then why can’t we simply deny the crucial claim, given that a ‘judgment’ about the ‘worth’ of one reason (“it would be “good” to do the thing it counsels”), in order to COUNT as a judgment about the worth of that reason, must be a judgment about its being better than *some other reason* to which one has access?”

    We can say this (you and I). And I am inclined to think this is the correct thing to say. But I am imagining that the Scanlonian would reply: one need not have “access” to the reasons that form the contrast class, call them R, in order for it to appropriate to attribute to one a judgment of the form ‘R does not matter’. And it would seem to follow from this that any reason that does matter (e.g., a reason of self-interest, which the psychopath can grasp) would be better than R. Thus, the psychopath can make judgments about the worth of actions, even when the relevant contrast class includes moral reasons. He can do so because he can make judgments of the form ‘x is better than y’ where x is a set for reasons he can grasp (e.g., reasons of self-interest) and y is a set of reasons he cannot grasp (e.g., moral reasons). The two key ideas here are (i) negative judgments about reasons one cannot grasp may be attributable to one and (ii) these negative judgments can be the basis for relevant comparative judgments.

    But I think I am seeing an argument against this in your analogy with the relation ‘taller than’. It would seem inapt to think that a judgment of the form ‘x is taller than y’ is attributable to someone who cannot grasp any members of the relevant contrast class that satisfies y. If one is incapable of grasping anything about the height of the members of a set of individuals, then it would seem inappropriate to attribute a judgment to one about their height. And so it would seem that one cannot make any comparative judgments regarding who or what is taller than they are. So, if good stands to better as tall stands to taller in the sense you are suggesting it does, then it would seem to follow that both (i) and (ii), above, are false.

    Am I on the right track here? (I hope so, not only because I don’t want to be wasting your time, but also because this strikes me as a cool argument!)

  11. Shelley Tremain says:

    Hi David,

    perhaps you misunderstood why I submitted my comment; so, I should clarify. I hoped that you would address the fact that your ethical claims rely upon assumptions about the epistemological and ontological status of disability that are contestable. The post takes these assumptions for granted. Philosophers should not assume that disability is a self-evident and philosophically uninteresting category on which they can base their normative claims.

  12. Matt King says:

    I also wanted to return to the analogy with ‘tall’. Dave — would you want to say only things with height can be taller than or shorter than? So, suppose someone had height-blindness with respect to a certain class of things (Y-things). Then you might think that X-things can’t be taller than Y-things, since the latter have no height. It just isn’t the sort of judgment you can make (e.g., that sequoia is taller than the color blue).

    Maybe then, on analogy, the moral facts that make actions less good are non-comparables, but that means that the psychopath’s self-interest can’t be better than them since they lack reason-giving force (where that is the feature analogous to height).

    I wonder still sbout whether the analogy quite supports the argument, however. If I can’t see a giraffe (because it’s camouflaged or behind a large tree) and I judge that the elephant is the tallest animal in my view, I’m mistaken. But I’m still capable of making that judgment regarding the relevant contrast class. What I’m mistaken about is what the comparison class is. I see some height, just not everything with height. (Similarly, I just can’t see very small things, so if I judge the field mouse as the smallest animal on the plain, I’m mistaken because there are lots of insects and microbes, etc., that are smaller.)

    The psychopath, by stipulation, sees some things with reason-giving force, just not others. But then it would seem to me the psychopath is still judging their action as good relative to the members of the only contrast class he sees.

    I think what the analogy with ‘tall’ and ‘small’ might suggest is that the psychopath is missing out on a large portion of things that are good. So it’s similar to not being able to see but a small fraction of the animals in the field. I might think the mouse large, because I can’t see any of the really big animals around. But even so, I can make the judgment, it seems, I just won’t be correct.

    Hope some of that is helpful.

  13. David Shoemaker says:

    Ben: Yes!! That’s it exactly. And you’ve put it in a way that really sharpens the point in a way I’d merely been flailing around. Now let us go forth and conquer together. (This has been extremely helpful to me, so thanks for your patience and good will.)

  14. David Shoemaker says:

    Thanks, again, Matt. Yeah, it might be interesting to see what we can say about your analogy. It’s not quite in line yet with what I have in mind, though. So perhaps I only see vertical extension in a small subset of things, say, dachshunds. And let’s say they all appear to me to have exactly the same vertical extension (height). But everything else appears to me as a horizontal mush. Does that make sense? So now I see a dachshund, and I say, “That’s dog is tall!” Given that I have no comparison class, is this really a judgment of tallness on my part? Seems I’m instead incapable of making judgments of tallness.

    Now let’s suppose that among those things that appear to me heightwise, there is some difference between them. Now when I say that some dachshund I see is tall, I may be making a very limited judgment of tallness, but it’s translated as “taller than many other dachshunds.” But to say that it’s a tall *thing* is a mistake, a function of my incapacity to see other heighted things. So too it may be that, while psychopaths can discriminate between the strength of different reasons *of self-interest*, and so might be able to make limited judgments of worth in the domain of prudence, they can’t make judgments of worth requiring contrast classes of, say, moral reasons. (This, I take, is suggested by your points at the end.)

    This would then mean, I think, that psychopaths could be criticizable only for poor judgments about their self-interest, where two or more competing *self-interested* reasons are at stake. I think I’d be fine with that, as the Scanlonians definitely want there to be *moral* criticizability for psychopaths, and that’s all I’m resisting (and have been trying to resist for going on 10 years now; Jeez, I need to get a life!).

  15. David Shoemaker says:

    Thanks, Shelley, for your comments.