Rationality, Insanity, and the Insanity Defense: Reflections on the Limits of Reason

By Blumoff, Theodore Y. | Law and Psychology Review, Annual 2015 | Go to article overview

Rationality, Insanity, and the Insanity Defense: Reflections on the Limits of Reason


Blumoff, Theodore Y., Law and Psychology Review


   [One] tacit assumption is that powers of self-control are    strengthened by knowledge of sanctions; and that any injustices    [that] might result--to those who nevertheless are unable to    control their conduct--are less than exerting the maximum possible    pressure toward conformity with law. (1) 

I. Introductory Narrative: First Principles and Direction

Quantum superposition tells us that one particle can be in multiple states at the same time, but that one cannot measure the whole state of the system without collapsing the superposition into a single one of those states.2 Insanity in some forms can present itself like that. If you push the individual in her full-blown paranoid delusional state (usually, the only kind there is), you are apt to find her in a state of utter collapse. When the spectator views the world historically, by focusing on the interdependence of cognition and affect prior to the descent, as opposed to the scattered non-rational thinking thereafter, he witnesses a devastating incident. The instantiation of unbearable helplessness that the collapse produces--especially for those who witness it in a close and very personal way--is unimaginable and perhaps never fully explicable. Sometimes, there are moments of calmness--the occasional loving rush that follows a wonderful shared moment or two together, the sharing of a good movie or book: they remain immeasurable. But one can, in an instant, stand with one's jaws suddenly dropping and breathing significantly shallower than before: the joyful moment has passed. Her threats, pain, and demons are back; they can always come back. Firsthand observers of these phenomena are themselves dazed and disordered by the concomitant cognitive and affective disintegration. And then she commits a crime, and all the while the law seeks conformity, even from individuals so afflicted. It's an absurd demand foundering on an unjustifiable comprehensive moral basis.

Clearly, we cannot demand conformity from victims of this disease who have collapsed to this state of almost total normative disconnection; nor can we hope that our threats will produce any meaningful and lasting measure of conformity. That's utility run amok. No threats and few medications can affect the pain, the horror, and the potential deadliness of paranoid schizophrenia. (3) The illness refuses to follow the logical pattern we expect of fully functioning adults, because the major premise of their cognition and affect is nearly always meaninglessly twisted. (4) That said, the victims are often quite smart and never lose the ability to effectuate a simple syllogism that concludes with some hoped-for state closer to homeostasis. Treating these neuropsychologically wounded people and bringing some minimal level of quietude to them is as much as we can reasonably hope for, even for those who hurt others, and especially for those whom we love. Conformity of conduct, as a justificatory penal aim, is self- and other-defeating. It does not and cannot work; these individuals deserve genuine respect because, through no fault of their own, they suffer in, and because of, their inexplicable commitment to their own foreign realities. These are our deeply troubled sons and daughters and parents and spouses and lovers--members of our family. And, sometimes they do evil--terrible, terrible evil--and we must respond.

Our laws naively tend to demand conformity (or fuel retribution), (5) even when the capacity to conform is clearly fragile at best, and almost always broken just when their insight is called upon most urgently. "You must know you're sick," no matter how carefully articulated, is a complete loser. The demand for conformity thus too often trumps the better norms of our moral psychology--our way of viewing human states at their most respectful. It's as if we are willing to blame the blameless over and over and over again. We do not get that we cannot halt their demons. …

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