Psychopathy is a developmental disorder that confers greatly increased risk to life-long behavioral problems. First, psychopaths are notoriously domineering, exploitative of others, and deficient (or entirely lacking) in proper moral emotions such as guilt, remorse, and empathy. They are also stunningly hyper-aggressive, predatory, and recidivistic. Despite the fact that only about .05 to 1% of the population is thought to be afflicted with psychopathy, some estimates suggest that psychopathic individuals could nevertheless be responsible for as much as 30%-40% of all violent crime. Furthermore, psychopaths are prone to a number of interpersonal problems such as glibness, self-grandiosity, pathological lying, manipulativeness, remorselessness, shallow affect, callousness, and they usually refuse to take responsibility for their actions, often choosing to blame their victims instead. Finally, psychopaths lead a "chronically unstable and antisocial lifestyle" (Hare et al. 1990, p. 340)—e.g., poor behavioral control, sexual promiscuity, lack of realistic, long-term goals, impulsivity, early behavior problems, and juvenile delinquency.
In addition to these aforementioned behavioral impairments, psychopaths also appear to have impairments in moral cognition. For instance, there is evidence that both adult psychopaths and children with psychopathic tendencies perform differently than normals on the so-called “moral/conventional” task (Blair 1996; 1997)—a task whereby participants are asked to distinguish authority-dependent conventional norms from authority-independent moral norms. Whereas even normal three year old children are able to navigate the task, psychopaths seem to explain all norms in terms of their authority-dependence. Second, psychopaths tend to consider themselves to be “above the rules”—i.e., they tend not to think that moral and legal norms really apply to them (Chandler & Moran 1990). Third, when reasoning about real-world rather than merely hypothetical moral dilemmas, they appeal far more often than normals to the moral legitimacy of their own needs and interests (Trevethan & Walker 1989). Finally, psychopaths seem to misapply and misunderstand moral concepts. For instance, Hare (1993) provides the following example: “When asked if he experienced remorse over a murder he’d committed, one young inmate told us, “Yeah, sure, I feel remorse.” Pressed further, he said that he “didn’t feel bad inside about it” (p.41).
The issue I now want to address is a potential problem psychopaths pose for retributivist theories of punishment. In short, I think the disorder of psychopathy presents the retributivist with a dilemma—namely, either the retributivist must (a) weaken the conditions for full blown moral desert sufficiently to accommodate the psychopath, or (b) concede that psychopaths have diminished responsibility in light of their cognitive, affective, and behavioral impairments. If the retributivist opts for (a), then she must set the bar for responsibility so low that she runs the risk of opening the door for full blown responsibility to other groups of individuals we usually don’t hold fully responsible—e.g., children. If, on the other hand, the retributivist opts for (b), then she is committed to punishing psychopaths less harshly than their non-psychopathic counterparts. However, given that psychopaths are highly recidivistic and prone to instrumental and not merely impulsive aggression, this means that the retributivist is committed to releasing markedly more dangerous individuals into society while detaining less dangerous non-psychopathic offenders who committed the same kind of crime. I find (b) especially problematic for the retributivist since it commits her to mitigating the responsibility of a group of offenders who are arguably the apex predators of the world of crime.
As we continue to learn more about the developmental, genetic, and neural underpinnings of psychopathy, I believe that the problem of psychopathy will put increasing pressure on retributive theories of punishment. Any thoughts?
p.s. I think the same type of dilemma applies when it comes to the practical implications of compatibilist theories of responsibility. So, if you’d like to comment on that instead, I would be happy to discuss that in the thread.