Psychopaths and Symmetry: A Reply to Nelkin

Philosophia 49 (3):1233-1245 (2021)
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An agent is morally competent if she can respond to moral considerations. There is a debate about whether agents are open to moral blame only if they are morally competent, and Dana Nelkin’s “Psychopaths, Incorrigible Racists, and the Faces of Responsibility” is an important contribution to this debate. Like others involved in this dispute, Nelkin takes the case of the psychopath to be instructive. This is because psychopaths are similar to responsible agents insofar as they act deliberately and on judgments about reasons, and yet psychopaths lack moral competence. Nelkin argues that, because of their moral incompetence, vices such as cruelty are not attributable to psychopaths. It follows that psychopaths are not open to moral blame since their behavior is only seemingly vicious. I have three aims in this reply to Nelkin. First, I respond to her claim that psychopaths are not capable of cruelty. Second, I respond to the related proposal—embedded in Nelkin’s “symmetry argument”—that a “pro-social psychopath” would not be capable of kindness. My responses to these claims are unified: even if the psychopath is not capable of “cruelty,” and the pro-social psychopath is not capable of “kindness,” the actions of these agents can have a significance for us that properly engages our blaming and praising practices. Finally, I argue that Nelkin’s strategy for showing that moral competence is required for cruelty supports a stronger conclusion than she anticipates: it supports the conclusion that blameworthiness requires not just moral competence, but actual moral understanding.
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