Rethinking Normality, Insanity, Mental Wellness, the Insanity Defense, and the Distinction Between Acceptable and Unacceptable Forms of Violence

Psychology is a young and developing field of study. Psychology literally means “study of the soul” and is derived from the Greek ψυχή or psukhē, meaning “soul” or mind and λογοςor or logos, meaning “study of.” It did not begin as a scientific field of study since the underlying neural processes that create consciousness were not understood at this time, but today the focus is shifting to these processes and the science that drives them.

Psychoanalysis was only founded about 100 years ago by Sigmund Freud and his ideas were not at all rooted in science. He developed many absurd theories about human behavior that were based purely on his own observations and Greek myths like his “Oedipus Complex” theory, which speculated that during the “phallic stage” of development, young boys want to kill their fathers and have sex with their mothers and young girls want to have sex with their fathers. (He believed this largely because he assumed infants breast fed due to sexual desire, which is not the case. The theory is also based on the Greek mythological character of Oedipus who kills his father and marries his mother.) Further, he believed incomplete resolution of this complex results in homosexuality or pedophilia as if the two are equatable. Freud also focused far too much on the subconscious, dreams, and other processes that were not scientifically understood.

The field of psychology is still quite basic. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) that many psychologists and psychiatrists refer to lists over 500 mental disorders, but it does not once define mental health or explain how to achieve it. This is a serious problem for those who look to the DSM for this information. Mental health is flexible and different for everyone. But the manual is not flexible. It just provides formal names for all of the most common emotions and behaviors, and it focuses far too much on perceived sickness and not enough on health, as many therapists do.

Normality is a very subjective concept. Many therapists (especially those in psychiatric wards and mental hospitals) essentially strive to remove strong emotion from their patients because they are easily controlled if they are docile and emotionless. Being sad, angry, anxious, or even happy is sometimes considered “abnormal” or interpreted as mania or some other ridiculous condition. But these emotions are unavoidable facets of a healthy life. Being sad and angry can be healthy. It all depends on the source of these emotions and how we react to them. But the field of psychiatry treats these emotions as symptoms of “diseases” that can only be fixed with a drug. But no drug can change the source of these emotions. If someone is sad about the death of a loved one, the problem isn’t a “chemical imbalance.” It is the death. Purely chemical imbalances inherited from parents’ genes or mutations do certainly exist but they are rare. Most people experience negative emotions because of negative experiences or events that drugs won’t change.

What is considered normal and sane is just what is popular, and what is popular is defined by the institutions and people that control us. “Normal” people support their government. They refrain from questioning authority; they pursue mindless jobs in order to buy bigger houses, better cars, and anything corporations tell us we need. “Normal” people are religious and they pray to their God every night. They also act like the people they see on television and in films and aspire to be them. This conception of normality encourages sameness and sycophantic submission to authority for the benefit of the few people who control us. But what is often not seriously considered is that the most common and popular beliefs are irrational, and this is why the people branded “radicals” who go against the majority are almost always marginalized and considered insane or abnormal. But the most useful ideas are often the most initially unpopular. Most people don’t want to hear they are wrong due to cognitive dissonance.

Punitive psychiatry has been used by dictatorships and so-called “democracies” alike to punish and silence political dissidents for decades. For example, many of the CIA’s “interrogation” (torture) techniques used to extract information from detainees (including those at Gitmo) were devised by psychologists hired by the CIA, and the APA’s ethical guidelines were rewritten to condone these techniques.1 Stephen Behnke, the APA’s ethics chief was fired for his role in rewriting the APA’s ethical guidelines for this purpose. According to The Guardian he also ghostwrote statements opposing member motions to rebuke torture; was involved in voter irregularity on motion passings; spiked ethics complaints; and took other actions to suppress complaints.” The Guardian also reported “According to two landmark Senate reports, one from the armed services committee in 2009 and the other from the intelligence committee in 2014, psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were instrumental in persuading the CIA to adopt stress positions, temperature and dietary manipulation, sleep deprivation, and waterboarding in interrogations.” Psychologists even “joined “behavioral science consultation teams” that advised interrogations at Guantánamo Bay.”2 For example, APA member, psychologist, and former US army reserve major, John Leso, helped torture Mohammed al-Qahtani at Gitmo but the APA declined to reprimand him in any way.

In the 20th century, the CIA also hired psychiatrists like Dr. Martin Theodore Orne, Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron, and Louis Jolyon West as consultants and subcontractors for mind control projects like MKULTRA. Dr. Ewen, in particular, tortured patients, resulting in lifelong disabilities.

More broadly, many therapists who work in psychiatric wards and state mental hospitals, as well as most political and corporate rulers see selflessness as a mental disorder. If individuals put the interests of strangers before their own, they are often considered “insane.” This is why selfless political dissidents were put in labor camps and mental institutions by the Soviet Union and many other dictatorships.

It is impossible to know what it feels like to be someone who is deemed insane if no one asks the individual. This is what therapists should be doing. They should be learning from mental patients and not merely instructing them. Many psychiatric doctors treat their patients like cattle. They try to analyze humanity and feel they are separate from it or superior to it. But in order to understand anyone, we must realize the interconnectedness of humanity. We become different, but if we are born healthy and intact, we are almost indistinguishable. And no one can enter another person’s head. Individuals know what it is like to be themselves better than anyone else can ever know.

Many mentally troubled people do need support and guidance, but most are not getting it because of the money to be made on unnecessary medication and hospitalization. Most of money generated by mental hospitals goes to their owners and the insurance companies that pay the doctors. Psychiatric doctors and even social workers who work in mental hospitals and psychiatric wards are often incentivized to keep patients hospitalized as long as possible and the nurses generally follow their directions. Owners of mental hospitals and insurance companies also receive pay-outs from large pharmaceutical companies for endorsing, as well as facilitating excessive prescription of their medications. The longer patients stay, the more medication they can prescribe. They also lie about the effects of these drugs to their patients. Big pharmaceutical representatives often visit hospitals and cozy up to the doctors who work there in order to push whatever they are selling, much like illicit drug dealers do with their clientele, and many doctors believe them. These kinds of corrupt doctors are most prevalent in under-funded mental institutions. Not all are intentionally malevolent. Some just trust that these billion dollar corporations know what they’re doing and assume they wouldn’t lie. Most people in civilizations more broadly trust the so-called “professionals” and assume the most lucrative corporations only became so lucrative by “doing something right,” even though the opposite is generally the case.

Many popular occupations could be considered symptomatic of greater mental disorders than the so-called “disorders” many are hospitalized for. For example, many of the most powerful CEOs qualify as psychopaths on different tests for “psychopathy.” Many politicians and cops do as well, because they answer questions like “Should some people have much, much more than others?” with “Absolutely. Why not?” It would not be surprising if most zealous pro-war and fundamentalist individuals also qualify as psychopaths on tests for it. Capitalism turns life into a zero-sum equation and it is therefore psychopathic or at least misanthropic and ecocidal.

Religious convictions are often fueled by self-interest as well, even though they are regularly disguised as philanthropic. Many claim they know their religion is best and that they are “helping” people by converting them, and many believe this. Those of us who pray also literally believe a being in the sky can hear our thoughts and grant us wishes. Most of our religions are not considered crazy because they have a great deal of history and generations of billions have taught their offspring to believe in them. But put in context with what we can demonstrate is true from the scientific method, our religious convictions are often bizarre, unrealistic, primitive, and not very relevant. We live in the present and we should learn from our ancestor’s trials and errors and try as best we can to avoid repeating their mistakes.

Many people tolerate social conventions that are imposed on us to avoid negative social or legal consequences that can come from opposing them. But many social conventions do not exist for justifiable reasons. Abhorrent human rights violations like slavery and rape have been considered normal in the past. Questioning them was considered insane by some who believed human beings are tools and not equal beings with equal rights and this prolonged its use.

Normal” human behavior is often defined as the average of all of human behaviors or the most common behaviors. But the most common behaviors are, for the most part, irrational. People have their own different beliefs about normality, and corporate media outlets, governments, corporations, and religions help shape them for their own benefit. The value of behaviors is rarely defined by their positive social or environmental impacts because the powers that shape conceptions of normality do not do so for the greater good.

Defining normality and insanity is difficult because most popular behaviors and trends don’t exist for good reasons. Every action we take is technically a “natural” reaction because we are a part of nature, so debating what is “natural” and what is not seems to be a waste of time. What mimics the rest of nature seems like a more debatable topic. Neurotransmission and electrical impulses cause all human actions, and given the right stimulus any behavior (within the confines of scientific laws) is possible. Many separate their conception of themselves from the physical processes that cause our thoughts and actions, but this doesn’t make much sense because it alienates people with certain personalities and behaviors. “Insanity” becomes some ambiguous, scary “disease.” But any behavior deemed insane has a neurological cause. It can be understood and explained. Insanity could be defined as irrationality, but irrationality can be subjective as well.

Another problem with attempting to define insanity is that anyone can act in ways deemed insane by society just to be perceived insane but have perfectly healthy brains. Insanity can be feigned, but cancer cannot since there are tests that can confirm if a biopsied tumor is malignant and PET (positron emission tomography) scans that can show the development of cancerous tumors. There are no scans or blood tests for insanity, however, or for any mental disorder for that matter. Behaviors deemed insane can be triggered by a host of different stimuli, internal and external. Psychosis is measurable, but “insanity” is not.

Most often the legal concept of “sanity” in court is determined by the nature of the crimes in question and not by the mental state of the accused. The word insanity is not used by doctors in medical contexts who deserve diplomas. Some doctorates, especially those in forensic psychology use the word, but it is simply a legal term that removes culpability. Psychologists, juries, and judges decide who is insane without an agreed upon, universal definition of “insanity.” These individuals have their own biases about normality and insanity and they can easily misunderstand people and their behaviors as a result. Contrasting behaviors can also be used by therapists to diagnosis patients with mental disorders and justify their institutionalization.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This is a good start, but people can do this because they are uniformed, psychotic, or because they have physical brain damage or symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder. None of this implies “insanity.” A more complete definition might be that insanity is repeating the same thing and expecting a different outcome while having the information to know that the outcome will be the same.

The word sane derives from the Latin word sanus, which means “healthy.” Therefore, insanity, means unhealthy or,more specifically it refers to poor health of the mind. But it can be difficult to define mental health. The severity of brain damage and its effect on mental health can be fairly accurately assessed. But when the mental issues individuals have are less tangible, it is much more difficult to make objective assessments about their mental health. A healthy mind could be considered a happy mind or a mind that correctly discerns what is real and what is not. But those two states are not always correlated. One could also be very happy and very disconnected from reality or be very sad without being at all psychotic or delusional. Since there is so much we have yet to learn about our world, very different interpretations of reality can also be considered equally plausible, which further confuses the issue.

Despite all of this, insanity remains an accepted, all-encompassing legal term. The words “psychotic” and “psychosis” have replaced insanity in most medical contexts and these words are often used synonymously with schizophrenia, which just adds to the confusion about these terms.

Psychosis is derived from the Greek word I mentioned, ψυχή or “psyche” and ωσις or “osis.” Osis means an abnormal condition, so psychosis literally means an abnormal condition of the mind. If a person has frank hallucinations, this does not mean he or she is necessarily incapable of acting rationally or peacefully, so it should not always remove culpability in court (so long as courts exist). This determination should be affected by a range of factors. Psychosis can range from very severe to very mild, and psychosis can be induced by a wide range of unrelated conditions and natural processes as stated.

The purpose of the brain is to collect information from external stimuli, process it coherently, and produce a meaningful, appropriate response. Psychosis occurs when internal spontaneous activity (caused by one or more of the aforementioned conditions) in the primary sensory areas of the brain is misinterpreted by secondary sensory areas of the brain as information from external stimuli. When this happens the mind is sensing stimuli that do not exist externally or to anyone else.

Hallucinations can also be induced by drugs as stated, some of which increase spontaneous cortical activity and overwhelm information gathered from external stimuli in the real world. Hallucinations are not always considered psychotic, however. If a person has sensory hallucinations but can recognize that they are hallucinations created by his or her own mind and not real external stimuli, then that person would not be considered psychotic. This is sometimes not taken into account in court.

Another word is also needed to describe a condition in which a person is uncertain whether the stimuli sensed are internal or external. (“Quasi-psychotic” may be fitting.) Surely, a person could still act rationally with some uncertainty about the source of sensory activity, especially with guidance from others who could help ground the person to reality.

The label of psychotic is often used pejoratively by the state to brand behaviors they deem unwanted, even when these behaviors are not psychotic and desired by the patient. The word psychosis was synonymous with madness or insanity up until the definition was divided to describe bipolar disorder and schizophrenia separately. But splitting the definition of psychosis to describe two different disorders was not all that sensible because it just created two different labels for sets of behaviors that doctors cannot fully explain or measure using scientific means or even discern in many cases and the diagnoses are often mixed up.


5.16 Questioning the Distinction between Acceptable and Unacceptable Forms of Violence


Mental hospitals and prisons claim to “prevent harm,” but they along with courts, cops, prosecutors, juries, and judges are very selective about which potentially dangerous people they incarcerate. As mentioned in section 5.12, many people are trained to be threats and it’s usually not these people getting locked up for it. It is irrational to harm people, including yourself, without reason. But a select few who are monetarily vested in war and prisons define what it is good reason for force, violence, and incarceration and everyday people bear the brunt of the violence. There are plenty of violent people who harm for irrational reasons who go unpunished as a result and some of them are even considered heroic like soldiers who kill innocent children in wars and cops who kill unarmed, innocent people. The distinction between acceptable and unacceptable forms of violence is made primarily by those who control us and the popular beliefs they maintain. It is not a distinction made by critical thinking about morality, human rights, or environmental sustainability. Institutions like governments and corporations with the money to convince people they are right in killing are considered moral by most. Murder committed outside of these institutions and without analogous propaganda is seen as abhorrent.

Most people who commit violent acts are not psychotic. They know what they are doing. They are in control of their motor functions and they have the intent to harm. Most act out of intense anger, hate, or sadness..When violence is committed in defense of a loved one, it is fueled by love. The desire to be violent and even kill is not a desire exclusive to “crazy” people. Most people have considered killing another person or at least being violent. The only factor that separates those who just think about it and those who actually do it is generally a difference in the severity of the experiences that led to those thoughts. Pain collects and we respond accordingly.

Millions are slaughtered by wars waged by governments and thousands are killed by corrupt police every year. Some people join the military just because they want to kill or control people. But this is not seen as a mental disorder or psychotic although it should be seen as the former. The statism, nationalism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, jingoism, and racism that fuel most institutional violence strangely are not considered mental disorders, whereas anxiety or doubting yourself is considered a disorder. Soldiers are not put in mental hospitals or prisons like serial killers are, even though what they do is often no different. It is merely perceived differently because some soldiers have good intentions and they buy into the “big lie” of the “necessity of war” that is sold to the rest of us. Soldiers are often considered heroes, whereas those who kill without government approval, no matter what the rationale for their actions, are often looked down upon as our villains.

As an example, Timothy McVeigh was a decorated Gulf war veteran. He received the Bronze star, a National Defense Service Medal, Southwest Asia Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, and the Kuwaiti Liberation Medal. But this history is conveniently left out whenever he is mentioned as the Oklahoma City Bomber because it makes for awfully bad press for the military. It was socially acceptable in America for McVeigh to terrorize innocent people in the Gulf and the Middle East and he is exactly the type of person who joins the army and who the army churns out. But American lives are valued more highly and as soon as he began to terrorize Americans he was labeled a terrorist. Not insignificantly, McVeigh said in an interview for American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh & the Tragedy at Oklahoma City that he was shocked (and keep in mind this is a person who killed 168 innocent people and injured over 680 in his bombing in Oklahoma) to be ordered by his commanders in the military to execute prisoners who had surrendered in Kuwait and to see devastation leaving Kuwait City. McVeigh’s crimes clearly pale in comparison to what the US military does everyday.

Even a soldier who kills hundreds in a war fought for oil, land, geopolitical influence, revenge, or petty ideological differences is often still considered a hero as long as it is “over there” and not here. As the famous filmmaker Charlie Chaplin said borrowing from Beilby Porteus, “Wars, conflict, it’s all business. One murder makes a villain. Millions a hero. Numbers sanctify.”Governments commit mass murder because of their own hate and lust for money and control, and they enjoy complete immunity. But we cannot allow this. Governments cannot be given the right to decide who lives and dies or to decide which murders are moral or to even use force of any kind. It is hypocritical for governments to reward soldiers while punishing victims of domestic violence who kill their abusers and others who had more sound and pressing reasons to take aggressive actions. For example, after Cherelle Baldwin’s abusive ex-boyfriend, Jeffrey Brown broke into her home and strangled her with his belt following days of stalking and death threats, Cherelle defended herself, killing Brown, and she spent three years in prison on a one million dollar bill until she was finally acquitted. In an even more absurd case, Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot that injured no one after her estranged and abusive husband Rico Gray attacked her made threats to kill her. Compare to this to the punishments metted out to the perpetrators of the Mỹ Lai Massacre, in which 504 unarmed civilians, mostly women, infants, and elderly people in Mỹ Lai (a town in Vietnam) were raped, mutilated and killed by US Army platoon, “Charlie Company” during the Vietnam War. Only one soldier Second Lenient, William Calley, was convicted. He was convicted of 22 counts of murder and originally sentenced to life in prison, but he only served three and half years under house arrest, less time than Cherelle spent in prison for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband.

This black-and-white moral distinction that exists between government-approved violence and violence without government approval is not logical, because most wars are unjustified and police often use force as they please to satisfy their own aims and desires, as opposed to using it to prevent violent crime. (They could also use other means than force to prevent crime like words, a novel concept.)

Most individuals are not put in prison or mental institutions to prevent crimes or societal harm, and these institutions most often have the opposite effect on these individuals. The United States government calls it the retributive or punitive justice system because retribution through punishment is its primary goal.

While self-harm should be prevented, this issue is also about personal liberty. Every human being has the right to do whatever he or she chooses with their own body, even if he or she choose to be self-destructive or die. We should do all we can to deter individuals from being self-destructive through our words, actions, and compassion, but not by force and law. Punishment for self-inflicted damage often drives individuals to be even more self-destructive.


5.17 Abolishing the Insanity Defense and Creating Alternative Criminal Defenses


As mentioned insanity is not a medical diagnosis and there is no psychological criteria to determine “insanity.” It is simply a legal term, which shows courts don’t care about medicine or science. There are psychological tests for insanity that have been developed slightly, but ultimately judges, juries, and forensic psychologists decide who is sane and who is not, and they can produce any verdict they would like to so long as there is no oversight. Judges, juries, and prosecutors are not vetted for their knowledge of mental disorders, “insanity,” or psychosis. In fact, in some states, it is illegal to inform a jury what insanity means. Doing so can be ruled as “jury tampering” and result in a mistrial. If the forensic psychologists involved in a trial are not neutral parties (with no financial ties to the defense or the prosecution) then their definition of insanity will be highly malleable in every case due to their interest to win the case. Insanity also often has very negative connotations, so it insults people deemed insane in court rooms. In my opinion, it should carry as much legal weight as similar, inane terms like “bonkers” or “bananas.”

This book advocates anarchy and the abolition of government in all its forms but because this concept is so foreign and unthinkable to most people this section will discuss relatively useful reforms that could be made to the insanity defense. So long as governments exist, replacing the insanity defense with a very clearly defined psychosis defense and two broader, more flexible defenses for those with mental disorders and those with mental deficits could be a good solution to prevent the problems created by the “insanity defense” and the lack of alternative legal remedies for mentally unwell people. The psychosis defense could be used by anyone, regardless of mental health because anyone can become psychotic, but sufficient evidence would have to be present for this defense to succeed. The mental disorder defense could be used by defendants who were not technically psychotic at the time of their crime, but who feel their crime was caused or at least influenced by their disorder. The mental disorder defense exists in Australia and Canada, but it is essentially the more politically correct term for their “insanity defense,” and it does not cover the vast array of disorders that can affect culpability.

When an insanity defense succeeds, (which is rare) the accused will usually receive a verdict of “not guilty by reason of insanity,” (or NGRI). A successful psychosis defense could result in a verdict of not guilty by reason of psychosis. However, factual guilt is important and NGRI verdicts tend to confuse people since they do not always reflect what the accused actually did. Therefore, two verdicts that might make more sense would be “factually guilty but psychotic” and “factually guilty but mentally unwell.” These verdicts would recognize the influence mental disorders can have on crimes and the need for treatment while acknowledging the fact that the defendants did physically commit the crime.

These alternative defenses (or even more progressive ones) are necessary so long as there is a judicial system (and again it would be far better to demolish the state altogether and live in anarchy) because the insanity defense is so flawed. It can be used to malinger (pretend or exaggerate illnesses or other deficits) and to unfairly prosecute mentally unwell and mentally well people alike. A person can be found to be psychotic but sane at the time of their crime, and a person also does not have to be psychotic in order to be deemed insane.3 This does not make any sense. There is no consistency in the relationship between psychosis and “insanity” in courts. The relationship is not agreed upon outside of courts either. Psychosis and insanity are often used synonymously in court, and in many cases, psychotic episodes are identified by courts as episodes of “insanity,” but this just confuses matters more. Courts simply have no understanding of medical science and they’re not concerned with it. After all, witnesses in court are still made to swear to “God” to tell the truth on Christian bibles.

Psychosis should not always remove culpability. A sane individual could conceivably make the conscious decision to become psychotic and do everything possible to achieve that mental state just for the sake of becoming immune to prosecution. Such a person ought not necessarily be held less accountable for their actions, but the nature of the person’s psychosis should remain relevant. Again, blanket laws or distinctions can’t be made because every case is so different.

The alternative defenses I have discussed might be more popular than the singular insanity defense in place if we were all aware of these terms and their legal consequences. It is not always hard to prove a person was psychotic at the time of their crime. This can be determined if the person is evaluated by a knowledgeable physician immediately after their crime. If a person claims they became psychotic from drug use, a blood test can at least validate or challenge this claim. Brain scans can also be used to determine if a person has recently experienced a psychotic episode.

Psychosis is not a crime, but if it contributes to a crime, its influence ought to be examined carefully. Determining culpability is a complex process that is distinct in every case and it is truly impossible to make a completely correct determination about. But mental disorders can significantly impair our ability to function and thus our culpability for our actions. Schizophrenia or long-term hard drug abuse can result in what is sometimes called “settled insanity.” Settled insanity is actually settled psychosis or lasting unscientific beliefs or delusions formed by the persistence of psychosis and its effects on belief systems, cognition, and memory. Verdicts involving it should be largely determined by doctors, not judges or juries to prevent unjust rulings. In cases in which a person commits a crime because of persistent delusional beliefs or significant impairment in his or her thinking and reasoning caused by a disorder, that person should be considered less culpable.

Even very common mental disorders like depression ought to qualify for the mental disorder defense. Severe depression can seriously affect a person’s decisions and result in very self-destructive and destructive behaviors. If someone with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is repeating a ritual and commits a crime accidentally in the process, that person could also feasibly use the mental disorder defense. A successful defense may not eliminate culpability, but just reduce it.

Four states (Kansas, Montana, Idaho, and Utah) have abolished the use of the insanity defense altogether. However, their courts usually fail to even recognize psychosis or severe mental disorders as mitigating factors. In these states, even if all of the evidence shows defendants were psychotic, they can still be incarcerated. This has likely resulted in the incarceration of thousands of people with mental disorders who need treatment they are not getting. Idaho, Montana, and Arizona allow for a “guilty but insane” verdict, which is self-contradictory because “insanity” by its own legal definition eliminates culpability.

A verdict of guilty but mentally unwell could be acceptable in certain cases because mentally unwell people are capable of knowingly doing wrong, but they still have special needs because of their condition that will not be addressed in prison. Mental disorders can become debilitating in prisons and sadly lead to suicide.

There is a common misconception that a verdict of NGRI results in total freedom, which is why these verdicts tend to upset people. But this is never the case. Those who receive NGRI verdicts are forced into mental hospitals, which can be more punishing than prisons, and they decide when patients leave.

The relationship between premeditation and mental disorders is also a complex one. Individuals can methodically plan a crime due to severe delusions developed by persistent psychosis or other symptoms of mental disorders. In fact, some disorders can improve their ability to plan. The idea of committing a crime can build in the minds of mentally unwell people for long periods, but a psychotic episode can be what it takes to push them over the edge.

Before the trial of Daniel McNaughton, a Scottish woodturner, in 1843, any defendant who had conscious criminal intent was considered guilty in the United States. That year McNaughton attempted to shoot Robert Peele, then British Prime Minister, but instead he shot and killed his secretary Edward Drummond. McNaughton’s very well-paid defense team argued he was acting out of paranoid ideation. When he was acquitted due to reason of insanity, there was significant backlash from the public, which eventually led to the establishment of the McNaughton rules (or “M’Naghten” rules). These rules state that anyone pleading the insanity defense has to prove they had a disease of the mind that made them unable to know right from wrong.4 Daniel did not meet these criteria. (If tried today his lawyers would probably claim he was “under duress.”) Because of his acquittal, the distinction was made to prevent acquittals of similar defendants in the future. The M’Naghten rules still make up the Federal Insanity Defense Test.

Twenty-five states still use the M’Naghten Rules today (or a modified version of them), which have been the standard criteria for insanity since McNaughton’s trial. It is a testament to the state of our legal system that such an old conception of insanity is still be in use. 21 states use the Model Penal Code Rule (MPC) or a modified version, and 35 states leave the burden of proof of insanity on the defendant while only 11 place the burden of proof on the state.5 The burden of proof ought to be on the state in all cases, regardless of the circumstances because a person is always innocent until proven guilty. Presumption of innocence is a crucial facet of many legal systems and it was included in the Magna Carta in 1215. It is also virtually impossible to prove your own insanity because insanity is not a medical term.

The American Law Institute devised the MPC rule in 1983. The MPC is somewhat more progressive than the basic and broad M’Naghten rules. It establishes five tiers of culpability. Individuals can be convicted of purposely, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently breaking the law. They can also be found strictly liable, which means they are guilty, regardless of their mental state. The progressive part of the MPC is that it considers any action not explicitly outlawed as legal, which means people cannot be punished just for odd or unusual behavior. However, they often are anyway.

The M’Naghten rules and many other tests for insanity ask two primary questions: Was the accused in control of his or herself and was the accused aware the act was morally or legally wrong. However, these are distinct concepts. Arguing a crime was the result of a spontaneous, involuntary verbal or motor behavior is called the automatism defense, which in some cases is caused by psychosis. (It can also be caused by sleep walking, REM sleep, epileptic seizures, Tourette syndrome, and many other conditions. Homicide while sleep walking has occurred and been used as a defense.) However, knowing right from wrong can have little to do with psychosis. Our conceptions of right and wrong are formed over our lifetimes, and they should not always necessarily affect culpability. In some cases, it does not matter if defendants believe they were right or wrong because our belief systems are highly varied and subjective, and individuals may believe they are very much right in committing acts that others would consider unconscionable and atrocious. As is often said, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

When individuals lose control over their verbal or motor behaviors or become psychotic and accidentally harm others, it does not matter if they believe what they are doing is right or wrong since they have no control. However, automatism, is rarely used a defense, even though it does occur. In some states, arguing a crime was involuntary is not even considered a legitimate defense.

The two separate questions the M’Naugten rules ask need to be treated distinctly. The defense of “not knowing the act was wrong” should only be applied to children (who cannot be considered insane, just undeveloped) and people with serious mental deficits like Down syndrome or significant brain damage. But a healthy adult’s conception of right from wrong is determined by his or her surroundings and biology. Everyone has their reasons for committing crimes. Whatever motivation individuals have could be conceivably used as a defense. Most of the people who do the most horrific things believe they are morally right. But should two people who commit the same heinous crime be tried differently because one thought he was right and the other knew he was wrong? To the victims, it shouldn’t make much of a difference because the same damage has been done.

The insanity defense or any criminal defense cannot succeed or fail according to a person’s knowledge of right and wrong. People don’t all agree about what is morally right and wrong. The court’s purpose is to prosecute based on the law, not define morality, and most laws themselves are not moral. If justice were to be fully served, every sociological influence would have to be taken into account in every court case, which would be impossible and why the whole ideas of a judicial system and courts are absurd, especially when the ultimate decision is made by just one person, (the judge).

Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford said in an interview in 2007, “You can have a horrendously damaged brain where someone knows the difference between right and wrong but nonetheless can’t control their behavior. At that point, you’re dealing with a broken machine, and concepts like punishment and evil and sin become utterly irrelevant. Does that mean the person should be dumped back on the street? Absolutely not. You have a car with the brakes not working, and it shouldn’t be allowed to be near anyone it can hurt.”6 This is the essence of what is wrong with the M’Naghten rules. The existence of mens rea (latin for criminal intent) does not matter in cases involving automatism or psychosis. Of course, in every court case, regardless of the nature of the crime, the mental state of the defendant needs to be taken into account.

Any individuals rendered guilty but mentally unwell should receive adequate, voluntary treatment based on their case, and no mentally unwell person should serve the remainder of their sentence in prison after therapy. Cases that do not involve psychosis, but do involve mental disorders should be examined carefully. The mental state, thoughts, severity of the deficit, and specific history of the accused should all be factors taken into consideration. Put simply we are our brains, so if a person is born with severe deficits or they acquire deficits from an abusive or neglectful environment, this should affect culpability.

Our brains are where all stimuli is processed and translated, and our brains respond to these stimuli by sending signals back to different parts of the body to produce an action. Our brains receive an unfathomable number of uncontrollable stimuli in our lifetimes, and they help make us. Unfortunately, uncontrollable environmental factors are rarely discussed in most court cases, whether or not an insanity defense or a mental disorder defense is employed. But we can gain greater control over who we become by choosing to interpret information differently, moving to new locations (when possible), receiving different stimuli, and responding to these stimuli in a multitude of novel ways.

The philosophy of causal determinism can work in our legal system. Determinism simply states that events occur because of preceding events governed by scientific laws, but this does not mean that free-will does not exist or that we cannot shape our own realities. It just means there is one thread of time. It does not remove responsibility from people, but creates degrees of culpability. Although all behaviors and events are reactions and not actions in a sense, we can still reflect on our reactions before we make them when there is time to do so. Determinism does not take away human choice. (It actually has little to do with it, even though the two concepts are often linked.) The degree to which different sociological factors lead people to crime should affect their burden of legal responsibility in all cases, especially in cases that involve the psychosis defense or the current “insanity” defense.

When a mentally unwell person at their wits end commits a very violent crime, it is tragic for everyone involved, but visceral, reactionary outcries for punishment do not serve much purpose. Preventing the violence from recurring is crucial but torturing the perpetrator doesn’t meet this end. People affected by the tragedy ought to focus on rebuilding their own lives, instead of achieving petty vengeance through the court system. Punishing people does not address the root causes of crime nor does it forever mend emotional or physical wounds. When mass murderers kill themselves after their spree, the media tends to still vilify them and celebrate their deaths. But this is just wasted energy that could be put to more positive endeavors. The hysterical media coverage only makes killers and mentally unwell people infamous, spurring vulnerable individuals to copy them in some cases for their own fifteen minutes of infamy. It also keeps frightened people watching, generating revenue for large media conglomerates. It’s important to note that most mentally unwell people do not commit violent crimes, yet this type of media hysteria generally leads the public to believe that mental problems and violence go hand in hand, reducing empathy for those with mental issues.

The court system (if it continues to exist, which ideally it shouldn’t) needs compassionate and knowledgeable forensic psychologists, psychiatrists, and judges who are completely neutral and committed to the health and well-being of all parties. They have to be moral people who cannot be bought by the prosecution or the defense. This should be the case in all court cases, regardless of the mental state of the accused. In order to achieve this, law would have to be a non-profit enterprise. Lawyers, judges, police, and everyone else involved in the court system would have to be volunteers or subsidized by voluntarily formed, directly democratic governments and /or non-profit organizations to earn a living wage. There would have to be absolutely no financial incentives to declare innocent people guilty or “fill quotas.” This may seem like “radical” idea, but it is the only way any decent measure of justice could ever widely be served with a government in place. Of course, anarchy would be still superior because laws, courts, and judicial systems will always be unjust. Power always corrupts and hierarchies are inherently unfair.



2 Spencer Ackerman: US torture doctors could face charges after report alleges post-9/11 ‘collusion. The Guardian. July 11, 2015. <<

3 Ellsworth Fersch: Thinking About the Insanity Defense, 2010. Pg. 12. Print.

4 Canter, David: A Very Short Introduction to Forensic Psychology 2010. Pg. 7. Print.

5 “The Insanity Defense Among the States.” 2013. Thompson Reuters. Online.

6 Jeffrey Rosen: “The Brain on the Stand.” New York Times. March 11, 2007. Pg 13. Print.

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