Can psychopaths be morally responsible for their behaviors? The question is a difficult one -- with different theories of moral responsibility yielding different answers -- and I'm sure there will be some interesting discussion of it at the exciting conference this weekend organized by Manuel Vargas.
Shaun Nichols, Daniel Batson and I were curious about how ordinary people would approach this issue, and we recently ran an experiment to see if we could figure it out. All subjects were given a description of a disorder loosely based on psychopathy. Subjects were then asked whether people who had such a disorder could be morally responsible for the immoral actions they performed.
But different subjects were asked this question in different ways. Half of the subjects were simply asked in the abstract whether anyone who had this disorder could ever be morally responsible for the immoral actions they performed. The other half were given a concrete story about a person who had the disorder and who therefore decided to kill his own wife and children. They were then asked whether this particular person was morally responsible for what he had done.
By now, you have probably guessed the results. Subjects who were asked the abstract question tended to say that people with the disorder could not be morally responsible for their immoral actions, but subjects who were given the concrete story tended to say that this particular person actually was morally responsible for killing his wife and children.
These results certainly don't leave us with a clear picture of people's ordinary understanding of moral responsibility and psychopathy, but they do provide some puzzling data that cry out for explanation...