Featured Philosopher: Heidi Maibom

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

10 Replies to “Featured Philosopher: Heidi Maibom

  1. I’m curious if you have thought about the bearing of the empirical literature on empathy to do the discussion of how best to respond, legally, to violence by psychopaths. All I know about this literature is what is reported in Paul Bloom’s book, “Against Empathy”, but it seems like there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that empathic response (understood as a kind of mirroring of the emotional or mental state of another) interferes with the ability to behave as we ought. People who anonymously give their kidneys to strangers, for instance, tend to score low on mesaures of empathy. I’ve wondered whether such findings suggest that perhaps psychopaths ought to be held to even higher moral standards than the rest of us, since they don’t labor under the same obstacles to behaving well. But I’m not sure. Curious what your thoughts are.

  2. Fascinating stuff, Heidi. I’m looking forward to the book!

    I’m especially curious to see what the “too onerous” condition looks like. I wonder if you’d say that sometimes acquiring knowledge about what one is doing can be too onerous for one person but not another, or at one time but not another. To motivate the idea, we could look to studies by Daryl Cameron and his collaborators that suggest we cognitively empathize with victims more if we don’t predict it will be so emotionally or financially taxing. “Choice” may not be the right word (it’s Cameron’s); perhaps it’s more appropriate to say it’s a matter of character. Either way, it seems whether perspective-taking is too onerous for an individual at a time depends on one’s prior choices or character, which are moral matters themselves.

    This makes me think of two connected questions:

    (1) How would your framework deal with the (purported) fact that the difficulties of perspective-taking vary quite a bit across individuals (and across times within an individual)? I’m not sure whether that’s a bullet to bite or just a welcome detail. Perhaps the answer depends in part on the next question.

    (2) Do you see your epistemic condition as grounding degrees of responsibility, such that one is *less* blameworthy (but not fully excused) if it’s *more difficult* for that individual to take on other perspectives? Even if it isn’t *too* onerous for a psychopath or a narcissist to figure out what he’s doing by thinking about other people’s perspectives, is it *more* onerous? And if so does that affect blameworthiness on your view?

  3. Sorry, I didn’t put my name and email in correctly in the previous comment. I’m doing it here now so that I can receive follow-up comments by email. 🙂

  4. Re. Gideon’s interesting post above: it’s probably a mixed bag, isn’t it? A disposition to keenly feel for others that is untutored and unrestrained (something like an Aristotelian natural virtue) will make conducting ourselves well relatively easier in some domains (think: being a good friend), but more difficult in others. Of course, psychopaths seem to have *other* problems that might place moral behavior strictly beyond their reach. At any rate, v. interested to hear what Heidi thinks!

    I’m curious about the role of testimony here. Presumably, even someone who is unable to imaginatively occupy another person’s perspective could still, if she were sufficiently epistemically humble, accept testimony about the proper description of her actions. So, maybe I can’t *see* why my behavior counts as indecent, since I’m so unimaginative that I’m stuck seeing it the way I originally did: as a bit of charming fun, say. But can’t I still form reliable correct beliefs about the relevant description of my behavior. It seems to me that a knowledge deficit is not guaranteed in a case like this, although an understanding deficit is.

  5. Thanks, Heidi! Ohhhhhh, so much to say…., must hold back…. First, quickly, to Gideon, Bloom’s work against empathy is seriously problematic, I think. Yes, empathy can focus our attention too parochially. But no one said virtue was easy, and the fact that parochial empathy has non-maximal effects means nothing for whether *expanded* empathy is both possible and desirable (which it is). Indeed, empathy is what we most demand of one another when holding others accountable for wronging us. What successfully predicts forgiveness (overwhelmingly) is remorse, a ruminative emotion that has us thinking again and again about the loss of value we caused in someone else from their perspective, i.e., *acknowledgment*.

    But of course, that’s interpersonal life. What of legal/criminal life? Here empathy is less important, it seems to me. That’s because in interpersonal life, what we demand of one another goes most fundamentally to their quality of will, to their attitudes toward us, to their *motives* for what they do. Motives don’t matter so much in criminal responsibility, though; what matters there are fundamentally defendants’ *intentions*, or at least some form of *mens rea* (which includes negligence, recklessness, and the reasonable foresight Heidi seems to be referring to), as this pertains to their *actions* and treatment of us. To the extent that psychopaths can recognize penalties for violating laws, and they are capable of forming intentions to violate laws (where they know or could know that penalties attach to such intention-guided actions), then that does seem sufficient to ground their criminal responsibility.

    But Heidi, you seem to be suggesting that this result cuts across *all* responsibility domains, including the interpersonal. If so, I have real doubts, given what I’ve said above about the demand for acknowledgment that plays the central role in holding others accountable. (I fully appreciate that this is a compressed version of about 10 of my articles and half a book, but whatcha gonna do? It’s a blog comment.)

  6. Thanks for all the comments. This is great!
    Gideon: Bloom presents a very partial view of empathy, and the main critique seems to be that empathy alone cannot do the job that morality would. Empathy can no doubt interfere with acting the right way, just as speculation, anger, compassion, and so on can. So I’m inclined to leave this issue to the side, and it means that we cannot use Bloom to hold psychopaths to a higher standard also.
    Josh: yes, that onerous condition will need some unpacking. I think there is an additional factor that plays a role here and that is the severity of the action. It has to be EXTREMELY onerous for me to take the perspective of a person for me not to be held responsible for enslaving them, raping them, and so on. When it comes to an offhand comment, things are different. So we might not want to hold a psychopath responsible for saying thoughtless things, but assuming that they have basic perspective taking abilities, we can hold them responsible for persecuting someone, beating them to a pulp, and so on. So far, I think one of the virtues of the idea is that it is sensitive to the environment a person is in, their individual capacities, and so on. Perhaps further discussion will make me think otherwise, but so far I’ll stick with this idea.
    Olivia: Yes this is an interesting alternative. What I think right now is that being able to see how one’s action looks from the outside is an essential part of accepting the veracity of that description instead of simply being a foreign label. A bit more developing here would be good, for sure, but I’ve got 20 essays to grade and a book review to finish by tomorrow 😉
    David: I want to respond but I find myself not knowing what “this result” refers to. Could you elaborate? Thanks!

  7. “This result” = “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.”

  8. David, I’m sorry. I’m still not sure what your worry is. It seems to be about the interpersonal domain, but here I would have thought it would be congenial to you since it appeals to what some call cognitive empathy. But I’m not doubt missing something

  9. Sorry, Heidi, for my extreme unclarity. It is due to my empathic impairments. Kidding! (Or am I?)

    I was thinking that your two general points (about psychopaths/empathy/criminal responsibility and about knowing that what one is doing is wrong) were meant to be continuous, so I was taking what you said in the second part to apply mostly to criminal responsibility, and then was surprised when it was meant to extend to moral responsibility as well (across all responsibility domains). So then what is the verdict supposed to be about psychopaths in the interpersonal moral domain? If psychopaths, as you say, have the capacity to “choose” to engage their empathy (a verdict that Daryl Cameron has put as such but that is somewhat misleading, as Josh rightly points out), then they aren’t subject to the excuse you offer about incapacity to know what one is doing is wrong. But I take them to be excused (or exempted; that part is squishy) in the interpersonal domain but not the criminal domain, given that empathy is indeed less important in the criminal domain but is essential in the interpersonal domain (on one type of responsibility, accountability).

    Further, if what you’re talking about is merely cognitive empathy, I don’t take that to be the significant feature of interpersonal moral life, which is, I think, about resonant emotional empathy.

  10. David, the two claims are not designed to be continuous. They are two different parts of my thinking about responsibility. The former is really about legal responsibility. When it comes to perspective taking, I take that to be crucial for moral responsibility. However, I also think that affectively empathizing with someone IS a way of taking their perspective. So, in the case of psychopaths, I don’t see their difficulties with empathy as being excusing for the more serious wrongs, such as raping, torturing, or murdering someone. When it comes to being a bit of an asshole, if you pardon my French, they may be excused.

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