CFP: workshop 21-22 May 2012, Delft.

The CAPACITY-CHARACTER PROJECT brings together researchers from the areas of philosophy, law, history, sociology, as well as psychology and neuroscience to study the notions of character and mental capacity. For instance, one of our projects aims to shed light on the moral, legal and medical significance – as well as the conceptual and empirical basis – of the distinction between character flaws and mental incapacities. (Brief description further below.)

Following on from our previous workshop at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia in July 2011, we now invite expressions of interest from researchers and practitioners in relevant areas who would like to participate in the upcoming workshop on May 21st & 22nd, 2012, at Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands. Interested parties should send an email to, explaining in 350-500 words why they are interested in participating in the workshop. Expressions of interest must be received by March 5, 2012, and applicants will be advised in writing by March 19, 2012 of the success of their application.

Places will be allocated on the basis of how well the applicants’ interests and background align with the central themes of the CAPACITY-CHARACTER PROJECT. There is no registration fee, but vacancies will be strictly limited to ensure that there is ample time for discussion, and participants must fund their own travel and accommodation should this be required.

We look forward to hearing from you,

Dr Nicole Vincent
Macquarie University (Australia)
and TU Delft (The Netherlands)

Prof Jeanette Kennett
Macquarie University (Australia)



Mental Incapacities or Character Flaws?

The American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code states that “a person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law”. This idea, that certain mental incapacities excuse, has played an important role in recent discussions about the moral and legal responsibility of psychopaths. For instance, some have characterized psychopathy as a kind of insanity. They point to evidence of impairments to their rational and emotional capacities, and of differences in brain structure and function, to support the claim that psychopathy is a deficit, disorder or mental illness/disease that could excuse.

However, viewed from another perspective, it seems clear that psychopaths have serious character flaws. They are callous, manipulative, shallow, aggressive and predatory — their bad actions express a fixed bad character and corrupt values. But bad character is surely not an excuse for bad action, and so from this perspective it seems that psychopaths deserve to be condemned for the evils that they inflict.

So do psychopaths have mental incapacities, or do they have character flaws? Put another way, are psychopaths mad or are they bad? This apparent dichotomy between character and capacity has played a central role in the media’s coverage of such prominent legal cases as Anders Breivik’s massacre of 77 people in Norway on July 22, 2011. The question which is repeatedly being asked till this very day is whether Breivik is bad or mad, evil or insane — i.e. whether his actions expressed his evil character or his mental incapacities. Which interpretation is right and how should we decide?

The distinction between character (flaws) and mental (in)capacities is pivotal in important social debates, and one of this project’s aims is to help us better understand this distinction by studying its basis and significance in philosophy, law, psychology, neuroscience and medicine. In particular we want to know how these different fields conceive of character, whether the distinction between character and capacity survives scrutiny, and what purposes the distinction serves. The questions this project will address include: What is the moral, legal and medical significance of the distinction between character flaws and mental capacities? Do mental incapacities always excuse and do character flaws always condemn? What role does the notion of character play in criminal law — e.g. at guilt determination, sentencing and in parole decisions? Are we ever justified in using medical interventions, for example surgery or drugs, to modify a person’s character flaws? Do newly introduced psychiatric diagnostic categories, techniques, and medical treatments to change people’s behavior, turn what was once viewed as an immutable character flaw into a mental disorder which we can justifiably treat? Answering these questions will give due recognition to the important role that the notion of character plays in much of our moral thinking, while recognizing the ways in which our understanding of this important notion may need to be refined.

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