Saturday, December 15, 2012

does mental illness erase blameworthiness?

Many people seem to assume that, if someone is mentally ill, they are no longer morally responsible for what they do. I disagree. I think that, even for those of us unafflicted by mental illness, the ship of our basic human freedom is blown in multiple directions by conflicting squalls of foibles, both chosen and unasked-for. But none of these forces can erase the fundamental power of choice. In arguing against the existence of human freedom, Sam Harris offers the case of the mass-murderer afflicted with a brain tumor. I'd say that even that mass-murderer has the power to choose: even a person with a brain tumor can be held morally responsible for his or her actions, just as even a suicidally depressed person can be talked back, through the simple use of voice and reason, from the roof's edge.

Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza, the shooter who this morning killed his mother, twenty children, and several adults, has been described by his brother Ryan as somewhat "autistic." Leaving aside the question of whether autism even qualifies as a form of mental illness, we can nevertheless ask whether Adam's mental state absolves him of his responsibility for murdering all those people. I'd say no, it doesn't: at the very least, Adam's finger was on the trigger when those deaths occurred; at that most basic level, he was responsible for what he did, just as Cho Seung-hui was responsible for killing almost three dozen people at Virginia Tech. And Adam must have understood the gravity of what he had done: it now turns out that he shot himself as the police converged on him.

In the world of consciousness, all of us travel through storm-tossed seas: temptations, waves of emotion, idées fixes, basic primate curiosity, ego, and stubbornness. But the ship of human freedom is captained by an ineffable something more basic than those forces-- something that makes us, like it or not, masters of our own fates.

Is Adam Lanza guilty of what he's done? Oh, yes. Most decidedly.



Anonymous said...

Ave, Kevin. Yes, one is a moral agent even when insane. Your clarity is refreshing in all the blather that will be created over the next few days until the news loses its legs.

John from Daejeon said...

I think you are vastly oversimplifying a subject that most doctors still struggle to understand in 2012. Many suicidal people cannot be talked back from the roof's edge as an NFL coach found out recently and many others of us have witnessed first-hand the loss of loved ones as we tried talking them back from the abyss. "Things will get better" just doesn't cut it for those whose suffering is beyond our (the living's) comprehension.

While everyone is guilty of what they do in their own life (even when a lawyer is able to twist the law and get them off), is a person with dementia or Alzheimer's truly "morally responsible" for the deaths they cause when they leave the stove on causing a deadly house fire or when they step on the accelerator instead of the brake and kill unsuspecting pedestrians? And, if the answer is no, why don't other severe mental illnesses warrant the same understanding?

I can't believe that I live in a world where so many believe in unseen, all-powerful , and pretty shitty deities on preposterous acts of faith, yet medical professionals still don't fully understand the human brain or the truly horrible diseases that afflict so many in our world. And the stigma of mental illness is an extremely hard one to overcome on all fronts , those who are ill and waging a war with their own mind and those who believe that those afflicted should just somehow snap out of it. This is an insidious disease that doesn't get the funding and public sympathy that cancer, AIDS, heart disease, or the other big ones get, yet there are estimates that 20% of the public suffers from some type of mental illness as heavy alcohol and marijuana consumption help to illustrate.

And, currently, there is no real cure. Oh, there are a few drugs out there, but most are more miss than hit. There also aren't many places for those suffering to turn to for real help without worrying about being ostracized by their friends and family, losing their jobs, and having to spend some really horrifying time in a mental ward seeking treatment that may last for an unknown period of time or having the funds to pay for such treatment.

In the end, there is no doubt that Adam Lanza is guilty of murder. But what about us? Are we guilty of not doing enough to help those with mental illnesses in the first place? A little human compassion, understanding, and a visit to a state mental hospital to see just how bad it is for those suffering would be good places to start.

Kevin Kim said...

Sigh... I can always count on you for a contrarian response, John.

If a bear lumbers into town and starts eating townies, I get my gun and put it down. Even if the bear isn't morally responsible for what it's doing (it's just a bear, after all), it's still the locus of destructive action and has to be stopped. The mentally ill, those who put other people in danger, are responsible for the hurt they cause at least at that basic level.

And if you're so convinced that we know almost nothing about how the mind works, how can you argue that the mentally ill don't have the power of choice? You seem to undercut your own argument by adopting a bizarrely mysterian position (I say "bizarrely" because you seem so insistent on your anti-theism; mysterianism in an anti-theist is a bit of a paradox!).

John from Daejeon said...

"how can you argue that the mentally ill don't have the power of choice"

When they don't know what they are actually doing--as many suffering from the mental illnesses dementia and Alzheimer's don't. How did they make the choice to become afflicted? They didn't. Since it most definitely wasn't their choice, it can only be that the holy "gods" have cursed them with it.

Kevin Kim said...

And how do you know they don't know what they're doing? You seem to argue that their subjectivity is closed off from us-- at least by implication, if your main contention is that we know precious little about the human mind.