Insanity and Human Action

Dr. Thomas SzaszI just finished reading Insanity: the Idea and Its Consequences by Thomas Szasz, the renowned libertarian psychiatrist. In it, he stresses the importance of human action, praxiology, and even takes Ludwig von Mises to task for falling into the trap of absolving some adults of responsibility for their actions, denying that they are moral agents or even fully human, because their actions are inexplicable to us, and because we disapprove of them.

Insanity, Szasz argues, is not a medical condition, but simply the name we give to certain categories of behavior. There is no objective diagnosis for insanity, but instead experts known as psychiatrists claim to be able to deduce it from words and deeds. If a man claims that the KGB is trying to read his thoughts, he is generally classified as insane, whereas if a man claims to consume the body and blood of the son of God every Sunday, no such diagnosis is made. In other words, the designation is an arbitrary one. It is also worth noting that, while acts of exceptional badness are frequently categorized as insane (what sane man could do such a thing?) acts of exceptional goodness never are, a further testament to the non-scientific nature of the term. Mother Teresa’s actions were far from normal, yet because we approve of them she is called a saint, not a madwoman.

Szasz is particularly vehement in his rejection of the insanity defense in legal matters, which he views as an abdication of personal responsibility. A murderer, who violates the non-aggression principle in the most direct of ways, may not be held accountable for his actions if an expert determines, through purely subjective criteria based not on a physical examination, but on an interview, that he is insane. But what does insanity mean? Surely no one who finds himself able to willingly take a life can, strictly speaking, be said to be “sane” as we commonly use the word. But it is unclear why a callous regard for human life, abnormal as it may be, should render a defendant less culpable for his actions.

One argument goes that the insane murderer does not know the difference between right and wrong, but this is not actually the case. Murderers who plead insanity are generally under every impression that their actions were in fact “right,” that is, justifiable by something, whether it be the voice of God which they believe they hear, or the mistaken belief that the victim was persecuting them in some way. This does not indicate an inability to tell right from wrong. It indicates just the opposite. It is only our disagreement on which course of action is wrong, or else our disagreement on the facts of the case (as in delusions of persecution) that differ.

A delusion, popularly called, is in fact nothing more than a mistaken belief. There is no reason why the holding of such beliefs should absolve a person of responsibility for acting on them. The belief that someone is trying to kill me does not justify my responding in kind if it turns out that my belief was wholly in error. Delusions should be treated no differently. To do otherwise is to draw an arbitrary distinction between one person and another, based on wholly subjective criteria.

Lest the reader think I come down too harshly on the accused criminal here, it should be pointed out that the rejection of the insanity defense is not merely about punishing the guilty, but about protecting their human rights and dignity as moral agents as well. When a man is determined by law to be incapable of acting purposefully and of his own free will, he ceases properly to be a man, but becomes rather a child or an animal in the eyes of society. The killer may be a bad person, but he is still a person. To treat him as less than that is not only unfair to him, but it is unfair to his victims as well.

Ludwig von Mises properly recognized that deliberate human action is the basis of all society; a complete analysis must allow for such action to include even the most depraved acts, as well as the most noble.

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One Response to “Insanity and Human Action”

  1. radiofreemarket says:

    Very interesting indeed! Perhaps we wish to deem people insane, because we actually are fearful that they are not; i.e., that their actions, although heinous, are rational. Thusly, we call Hitler and his henchmen insane. Yet we dare not admit that the entire German nation willingly followed him and actively participated in his crimes.

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