A Philosopher's Blog

Mental Illness or Evil?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 21, 2012
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(Photo credit: Robbie Wroblewski)

When a person does terrible things that seem utterly senseless, like murder children, there is sometimes a division in the assessment of the person. Some people will take the view that the person is mentally ill on the grounds that a normal, sane person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Others take the view that the person is evil on the grounds that a normal, non-evil person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Both of these views express an attempt to explain and understand what occurred. As might be imagined, the distinction between being evil and being mentally ill is a matter of significant concern.

One key point of concern is the matter of responsibility and the correct way to respond to a person who has done something terrible. If a person acts from mental illness rather than evil, then it seems somewhat reasonable to regard them as not being accountable for the action (at least to the degree the person is ill). After all, if something terrible occurs because a person suffers from a physical illness, the person is generally not held accountable (there are, obviously, exceptions). For example, my running friend Jay told me about a situation in which a person driving on his street had an unexpected seizure. Oddly, the person’s foot stomped down on the gas pedal and the car rocketed down the street, smashing into another car and coming to a stop in someone’s back yard. The car could have easily plowed over my friend, injuring or killing him. However, since the person was not physically in control of his actions (and he had no reason to think he would have a seizure) he was not held morally accountable. That is, he did nothing wrong. If a person had intentionally tried to murder my friend with his car, then that would be seen as an evil action. Unless, perhaps, the driver was mentally ill in a way that disabled him in a way comparable to a stroke. In that case, the driver might be as “innocent” as the stroke victim.

There seem to be at least two ways that a mentally ill person might be absolved of moral responsibility (at least to the degree she is mentally ill).

First, the person might be suffering from what could be classified as perceptual and interpretative disorders. That is, they have mental defects that cause them to perceive and interpret reality incorrectly.  For example, a person suffering from extreme paranoia might think that my friend Jay intends to steal his brain, even Jay has no such intention. In such a case, it seems reasonable to not regard the person as evil if he tries to harm Jay—after all, he is acting in what he thinks is legitimate self-defense rather than from a wicked motivation. In contrast, someone who wanted to kill Jay to rob his house or just for fun would be acting in an evil way. Put in general terms, mental conditions that distort a person’s perception and interpretation of reality might lead him to engage in acts of wrongful violence even though his moral reasoning might remain normal.  Following Thomas Aquinas, it seems sensible to consider that such people might be following their conscience as best they can, only they have distorted information to work with in their decision making process and this distortion results from mental illness.

Second, the person might be suffering from what could be regarded as a disorder of judgment. That is, the person’s ability to engage in reasoning is damaged or defective due to a mental illness. The person might (or might not) have correct information to work with, but the processing is defective in a way that causes a person to make judgments that would be regarded as evil if made by a “normal” person. For example, a person might infer from the fact that someone is wearing a blue hat that the person should be killed.

One obvious point of concern is that “normal” people are generally bad at reasoning and commit fallacies with alarming regularity. As such, there would be a need to sort out the sort of reasoning that is merely bad reasoning from reasoning that would count as being mentally ill. One point worth considering is that bad reasoning could be fixed by education whereas a mental illness would not be fixed by learning, for example, logic.

A second obvious point of concern is discerning between mental illness as a cause of such judgments and evil as a cause of such judgments. After all, evil people can be seen as having a distorted sense of judgment in regards to value. In fact, some philosophers (such as Kant and Socrates) regard evil as a mental defect or a form of irrationality. This has some intuitive appeal—after all, people who do terrible and senseless things would certainly seem to have something wrong with them. Whether this is a moral wrongness or health wrongness is, of course, the big question here.

One of the main reasons to try to sort out the difference is figuring out whether a person should be treated (cured) or punished (which might also cure the person). As noted above, a person who did something terrible because of mental illness would (to a degree) not be accountable for the act and hence should not be punished (or the punishment should be duly tempered). For some it is tempting to claim that the choice of evil is an illusion because there is no actual free choice (that is, we do what we do because of the biochemical and electrical workings of the bodies that are us). As such, people should not be punished, rather they should be repaired. Of course, there is a certain irony in such advice: if we do not have choice, then advising us to not punish makes no sense since we will just do what we do. Of course, the person advising against punishment would presumably have no choice but to give such advice.

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16 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on December 21, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    Why did the Sandy Hook killer choose a children’s school and not a police department?

    • biomass2 said, on December 21, 2012 at 2:13 pm

      Damn good question. Any answers? Has an answer been found on his computer?

      • magus71 said, on December 21, 2012 at 2:35 pm

        My point is that he was evil not merely mentally ill. From a legal perspective, it is clear he would not have been eligible for a mental illness defense, because he understood what he was doing. Mental illness as a legal defense rarely holds up; if the person does anything in the course of their crime to hide the act, deceive, protect themselves, it shows an a knowledge of right and wrong.

        So, my point is that he chose a school because:

        1) Soft target–he knew people couldn’t fight back.

        2) He knew the death of children would cause more pain the almost any other act he was capable of pulling off.

        Thus, he was evil, not defensibly insane. I would classify the most egregious evil as that which intentionally causes pain for no reason other than to cause pain. Not even a “greater good” or utilitarian argument.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 21, 2012 at 2:46 pm

      A difficult question. A sane person would chose neither of those, so sorting out why he did what he did would require some insight into his mental workings.

      Someone who wanted to die for sure might go after a police station. Someone who wanted to murder children would go to a school. Perhaps he was just driving and saw the school. Unless he left behind something explaining his motives, we won’t know why he picked the school.

      • magus71 said, on December 21, 2012 at 2:52 pm

        Legally, he was sane. Of course his defense lawyers would have argued otherwise, and likely lost.

        I do not classify “insane” merely as “someone who would do something that people I like wouldn’t”.

        Also, he smashed his computer hard drive to make it more difficult, or impossible to investigate his correspondences. He killed his mother in her sleep. He could have tried to kill her at any time.

        Cain must have been mentally ill, too. He was depressed after God told him he did wrong.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 21, 2012 at 2:56 pm

          Insanity is a tricky thing.

          In one class on ethics, we got into it over insanity and evil. Someone made the point that it makes more sense to destroy insane people than people who are sane but do evil from clear motives such as gain or revenge. The argument, as I recall, was that crazy people cannot be deterred because they are, well, insane. Rational evil people will only act when it is to their advantage, so they can be deterred and kept from doing bad again.

          • magus71 said, on December 21, 2012 at 3:01 pm

            Ralph Peters has an article where he compares Islamic terrorists to the IRA, saying that the IRA was much easier to deal with because they had clear political goals here on earth. Those who view death as a promotion are significantly more problematic.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on December 21, 2012 at 6:24 pm

    Does evil even exist in a Godless universe?

    • magus71 said, on December 21, 2012 at 7:02 pm

      Mike would say it does. I contend it does not.

      • magus71 said, on December 21, 2012 at 7:12 pm

        But I also admit that my definition holds a metaphysical bent, and thus finds mysticism a necessary aspect for the existence of both good and evil.

        Other people’s definitions may be different, likely involving merely what makes them feel good or bad. But upon closer inspection this definition could easily be picked apart.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 21, 2012 at 7:07 pm

      Depends on the nature of the universe.

      Moral theorists have presented accounts of evil that do not require God’s existence, so the idea of evil without God certainly makes sense. Divine Command Theory would be the most obvious exception, of course.

  3. magus71 said, on December 21, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    Mike, you should do a blog post on why liberals so often fail to understand how to deal with force. Maybe they should be required to read Hobbes until a nose bleed commences.

  4. Norm said, on December 21, 2012 at 10:08 pm

    But then again, some people take the only proper position, and that is, that a personality disorder, e.g., antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, paranoid personality disorder, etc, is NOT a “mental illness” as that phrase is understood by mental health professionals.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 22, 2012 at 12:07 pm

      There is a clear challenge determining what is an actual illness and what is not. There is probably a big gray area here.

  5. Norm said, on December 21, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    Most mass murders have been found to be afflicted with anti social personality disorders. Such people, commonly known as sociopaths, are not mentally ill.

  6. James Blair said, on December 25, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    Well, my view is that past a certain point it really doesn’t matter if mental illness was an issue or not. Sufficiently advanced mental illness can be indistinguishable from evil (and vice versa).


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