Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Adam Cureton

Committee Members

David Reidy, David Palmer, Lois Presser


This dissertation examines the moral responsibility of psychopaths. I begin with an analysis of the concept of psychopathy by situating it within the context of a central debate in the philosophy of psychiatry over the conceptual nature of mental illness to demonstrate that psychopathy is an inherently value-laden concept. I argue against the disease-model of psychopathy and against their automatic exemption from moral responsibility as argued for by many moral philosophers. Psychopaths possess sufficient agency such that exempting them from moral responsibility is problematic both epistemically and morally. Yet psychopaths frequently offer reasons for their behavior that reveal their distance from full moral agency. So how are we to respond to such middle ground moral agents when they do terrible things to other people? The discussion then turns to the normative question of how we should respond to wrongdoing psychopaths. This analysis begins with the framework for general responses to moral wrongdoing as provided by moral philosopher P.F. Strawson. The enduring distinction between the reactive attitudes and the objective view is challenged as overly coarse and potentially morally disrespectful to the mentally ill, including specifically, psychopaths. I conclude that the question of whether or not psychopaths are ‘in fact’ morally responsible remains open and thus, forces us to take up the question of how we should understand our responses to psychopathic wrongdoing, including whether or not we can or should hold psychopaths responsible. The case of psychopaths reveals to us alternative ways of understanding how we ‘hold responsible,’ beyond resentment and blame for example, that do not loose moral content simply by straying from the paradigmatic reactive attitudes. If we forgo the blame paradigm of moral responsibility we find morally sensible ways of responding to wrongdoing psychopaths.

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