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Psychopathy has widely been noted as a challenge for the law as it is a hard concept to formulate laws around protecting society, respecting a human agency and holding individual’s responsible for said agency (Fox et al, 2013 p.1). The issue of responsibility is a contentious topic when discussing individuals with psychopathy as there are varying factors in place such as their functioning capabilities which affect their decision making (Fox et al, 2013 p.2). This essay will explore the notion of diminished responsibility for criminal actions and utilize the work of Fox et al to interpret various possibilities for the criminal legal system in establishing an avenue for appropriate legal ramification for individuals who experience psychopathy while arguing that psychopathy does not diminish responsibility for criminal actions however it may affect how they should be punished.
As defined by Fox et al, psychopaths lack a list of attributes that are ascribed to the average person’s moral behavior such as the lack of ability to empathize with the aversive conditions of others, they lack the understanding of the differences of conventional and moral rules, and they appear not to learn from error’s in the same way that an individual without psychopathy would do so (Fox et al, 2013 p.1). These attributes that psychopaths present are regarded as antisocial acts which appear to equip a psychopath to act without remorse or consideration for needs that are beyond their own. The issue that is present is when a psychopath commits a crime is the legal system being tasked with justifying the punishment for a crime that the individual has committed (Fox et al, 2013 p.1). Generally, within the legal system there is a propensity to consider or excuse certain behavior when there is a contributing cause such as cases for insanity (Fox et al, 2013 p.2 ) as it would impede on justice to treat those individuals as they were unaffected functioning adults, thus the problem of punishment of psychopaths arise as they are not functioning as unaffected individuals. However, the main concern is over if they are functional enough to deserve full punishments for the crimes they commit.
As Fox et al notes, psychopathy is one of the less desirable traits an individual could have in the eyes of the law as psychopathy predisposes a person towards the most severely punished forms of aggression (Fox et al, 2013 p.2). Psychopathy is not considered a mental illness in the terms of alleviating responsibility and in practice. It is considered as an aggravating condition in the criminal sentencing process perhaps in part due to the high rate of recidivism or the perceived lack of remorse that a psychopath possess for their actions (Fox et al, 2013 p.3).
Psychopathy is noted as not impairing the ability to differentiate acts as right or wrong but individuals are psychopathic have an impaired ability in understanding the concept of moral wrong and why an act is in fact wrong (Fox et al, 2013 p.2). This type of impairment is not recognized as a factor of alleviation of punishment under current law (Fox et al, 2013 p.3). I argue psychopathy makes a strong case to be classed as a factor for consideration in the criminal sentencing process due to Blair et al. (2004) whom conducted a study on incarcerated individuals with and without psychopathy, in their study they found that individuals who were not psychopathic were easily able to learn to avoid responding to stimuli that were associated with negative outcome unlike individuals who were psychopathic, these individuals appeared to stop learning early in the task with a large amount of error occurring which persisted even after multiple opportunities for learning. Thus demonstrating that individuals who are classed as psychopaths need different avenues for punishment than a normal individual. This is not to say that psychopaths should be relieved of all criminal misconduct, it is instead to persist that the criminal justice system should instead create punishments which are effective for psychopaths which may help reduce the rate of future reoffending.
Fox et al identities within the text that the arguments for holding psychopaths responsible for crime without diminished culpability is (1) they do not appear to exhibit a lack of control in a manner which is consistent with the absence of agency (2) they can understand the notion of rules (3) their impaired understanding of the rules in place do not exonerate their crime or their disregard for moral rules (Fox et al, 2013 p.15).
While psychopaths show a deficit in the understanding the justification of moral rules, studies such as Blair et al which involve question of moral rules appear to show that psychopath’s have an understanding of the general concept of moral rule, therefore they are still aware of the socially accepted understanding of acceptable legal behavior and that criminal ramification occur when they commit crimes against moral rules(Blair et al, 2004). The argument that psychopaths should not be held responsible for their acts seemingly then does not take into account their knowledge of moral rules and in an essence then holds them above the law without criminal responsibility. This, in turn creates a major problem that society must face as psychopaths still pose a heightened threat to the welfare of the general public (Fox et al, 2013 p.22)
Fox et al notes within the analysis that the evidence on psychopathy shows that psychopaths do not meet the criteria for full criminal responsibility however they should retain some criminal responsibility. This notion of fractured responsibility appears as the most appropriate course of action for the criminal justice system as studies such as Blair et al 2004 have demonstrated that while psychopaths are not average functioning individual’s they still possess the knowledge to identify wrongful action and that they are not devoid of agency over themselves when they commit criminal acts (Fox et al, 2013 p.24).
To conclude, criminal responsibility in terms of the punishment of psychopaths is a contentious topic however it is one that needs more focus in terms of alternative avenues of punishment. While psychopaths are impaired in their functionality of understanding why certain moral actions are wrong, they do however have knowledge of right and wrong and thus do need to be held accountable for their crimes. If not held accountable their rate of recidivism may continue to increase and the barrier of the legal system may not be able to provide incentives for not part taking in criminal activity. However, psychopaths should be sentenced accordingly and should not be regarded in the criminal system as average functioning individuals as this would impede on their right to equitable justice.
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