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In an objectivist society, would there be an insanity defense?

The insanity defense traditionally is justified as follows:

(1) only voluntary behavior can be culpable,

(2) we should not punish non-culpable behavior, and

(3) the behavior of the insane is not voluntary (different definitions of insanity abound--for purposes of this question, please assume that this premise is true);

(1)+(2)+(3) => the insane are not culpable and should not be punished.

However, it seems to me that the fact that a person cannot control their behavior makes them a better candidate for punishment than a person who voluntarily engages in evil behavior. It seems to me that we punish wrongdoers because we hope to remove the evil their actions manifest from society, so as to protect others from rights violations; we think punishment accomplishes this by (a) incentivizing the wrongdoer to change his character for the better, and/or (b) by incapacitating evil doers until they do change their character. If this rationale applies to voluntary behavior, it should apply a fortiori to the insane: they cannot control their behavior => they cannot change their character => they need to be incapacitated indefinitely.

asked Oct 27 '11 at 11:43

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

May I just point out that your assumption that "we punish wrongdoers because we hope to remove the evil their actions manifest from society, so as to protect others from rights violations" is quite shaky - punishment is retaliation (on an individual level!), not a measure taken for the greater good of society as a whole.

(Oct 27 '11 at 18:37) FCH FCH's gravatar image

To add to FCH's comment, incarceration of criminals is not for the punishment of the criminal activity, but rather to remove the criminal from the environment at large providing protection for those do not demonstrate criminal and perhaps (a nod toward your question) insane behavior.

(Oct 27 '11 at 19:01) dream_weaver ♦ dream_weaver's gravatar image

If something -- anything -- represents a threat, then people have a right to mitigate that threat, whether it is a criminal, a wild animal, a disease, an approaching wildfire, a foreign nation, or an insane person.

An insane person is incarcerated by government not only to protect normal people, but to prevent confrontations with normal people, which might be unduly harmful to the insane person. The incarceration is to make sure the insane person is treated justly. It's to protect the innocent -- from normal, free people.

Were an insane person left free, then normal people might accidentally hold him to the exact same standards of behavior as a normal person. Failing to recognize insanity, normal people might punish the insane in a cruel manner. Government incarceration prevents this kind of trouble.

An insane person has a right to life, but not to liberty and the pursuit of his own happiness -- because he cannot pursue happiness in a manner which is safe to himself and to others.

Note that incarceration, as such, is not necessarily a form of punishment. In this case, it is a form of protection -- from a dangerous world full of people who expect normal behavior.

The insanity defense is valid -- and so is the incarceration of insane people.

answered Oct 29 '11 at 08:23

John%20Paquette's gravatar image

John Paquette ♦

edited Oct 29 '11 at 08:56

The concept of "punishment" requires that the person being punished understand what they did wrong, and that they are able to learn to do things differently. People with severe psychiatric illnesses are not capable in either respect, and should therefore not be punished. From a purely practical perspective it wouldn't be effective; from a moral perspective, it would be damaging to try to force someone to do something they are incapable of.

The morally correct societal approach to someone with severe psychiatric illness is treatment, not prison. In most cases, prison would just make things worse, both for the patient and others.

The original question seems to imply that if someone is found not guilty by reason of insanity, that they would then be released back into the population. In practice, that's not the way it works. Normally, hospitalization is required, which has the potential of involving a nearly indefinite term (until they are "better" or until drug treatment is found to be effective). In terms of time spent in confinement, it can actually be worse than being found guilty.

answered Oct 30 '11 at 02:25

Rick's gravatar image

Rick ♦

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Asked: Oct 27 '11 at 11:43

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Last updated: Oct 30 '11 at 02:25