Psychopathy, Identification and Mental Time Travel

Free Will and Action (2018)

Recently some have argued that psychopaths might suffer generalised cognitive impairments that affect their capacity for mental time travel. In relation to the past, mental time travel is the capacity to have memories of past episodes in which the agent was personally involved. In relation to the future, mental time travel involves prospection, the capacity to imagine future situations where the agent might be involved. The authors argue that certain studies on the instrumental learning of psychopaths show that, in relation to certain specific situations, these subjects might be impaired in certain capacities for mental time travel. Following Harry Frankfurt, they maintain that moral responsibility requires a capacity to identify with certain desires. This process of identification involves accepting desires in virtue of an evaluation that is sensitive to commitments that stem from previously formed mental states. Therefore, identification relies on some basic capacities of mental time travel. The authors argue that a process of “detachment” from current operative desires is of central importance in the process of identification. They claim that certain experiments concerning the instrumental learning in psychopaths show that, in certain cases, they are incapable to register changes in their situation that determine a lack of detachment from certain current operative motivational states. However, other experiments show that psychopaths, in other circumstances, are capable of “detaching” from certain of their motivational states. These empirical findings allow the authors to argue that the process of identification in psychopathic offenders in certain specific circumstances might be impaired.
Keywords Detachment  Harry Frankfurt  Identification  Mental time travel  Psychopathy   Responsibility
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