The Boundary Between Mental Illness and Evil


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Was Jared Lee Loughner, who allegedly murdered six people in Tuscon and wounded 13 others, including Congressman Gabrielle Giffords, insane or evil or both? Leonard Pitts and other columnists and bloggers have openly wondered whether “evil” is a more appropriate description of Mr. Loughner than “insane.” Psychiatry and psychology tend to medicalize deviances in human behavior, sometimes to the point that they tone down the role of human responsibility. For example, classifying alcoholism as a disease alleviates the moral responsibility a person may have for engaging in the heavy drinking that made him dependent on alcohol.  Classifying mass murderers as “psychopaths” may be accurate as a descriptive label for their condition (no empathy, no conscience), but such classification does not address the issue of whether psychopaths are evil. There are several bad arguments that someone who medicalizes terrible human actions may use. For example:

1. If person x has a mental illness, and that mental illness contributes to x’s destructive behavior, then x is not morally responsible for x’s actions.

2. Person x has a mental illness.

3. That mental illness contributes to x’s destructive behavior.

4. Therefore, x is not morally responsible for x’s actions.

The weakness of this argument is premise 1. Just because a person is mentally ill, and that mental illness causally contributes to his behavior, does not imply that the person is not morally responsible for his actions. The reason is that the mental illness may be a necessary but not sufficient condition for x’s destructive behavior. X’s evil moral character may still play a causal role as well. Or x’s evil moral character may have causally contributed to his mental illness.

Another bad argument goes as follows:

1. Deviations from normal brain structure are correlated with psychopathy and other personality disorders.

2. If deviations from normal brain structure are correlated with psychopathy and other personality disorders, then the individual with such deviations is not morally responsible for his actions.

3. Psychopathic [mass murderer, swindler–take you pick of crime) individual x has deviations from normal brain structure.

4. Therefore psychopathic individual x is not responsible for actions that are due to his psychopathy.

One problem with this argument is that correlation is not causation. Even if a causal relation could be established, this does not answer the question of which direction the causation goes (the “chicken-egg problem”). Do the deviations from normal brain structure cause psychopathy or does psychopathic behavior cause deviations from normal brain structure? Unless one accepts reductive or eliminative materialism, then one cannot automatically claim that a twisted mind and behavior are caused by an abnormal brain. To make such a claim would be to beg the question on the complex metaphysical issues surrounding the mind-body problem.

I do not know where the exact boundary between evil and mental illness. A rough answer that seems reasonable to me is that if a person’s mind is utterly divorced from reality, then he is not as responsible for his actions as someone who has a firm or even partial grip on reality. Where should that line be drawn? This is the difficulty. It seems to me that psychopaths are evil people. Borderline personality disorder is (and I’m not trying to be “facile”) is a borderline case–but if a person suffering from borderline personality disorder destroys another person’s life, emotional health, and/or reputation due to manipulation and lies, then the person seems as much evil as having a medical disorder. The refusal of many borderlines to get help or take responsibility for their actions are basic elements of an evil character. Munchausen’s Syndrome and Munchausen’s by Proxy fall in the same category–the drive for attention is twisted to the point of doing evil and manipulative actions. I know that many professional psychologists and psychiatrists would disagree. But they do not know everything any more than I as a philosopher know everything. I know there is a level of mental illness that totally removes a person’s moral responsibility for heinous actions.  But since evil is by nature a distortion of the personality, there may be some individuals who are considered to be mentally ill but who are actually evil, or some individuals who suffer from mental illness and have an evil character.  Human beings are a mixture of good and evil, and that battle, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, is fought in every human heart.

Is Anyone Beyond Redemption?

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Reality 3: The world to the sociopath

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Yes. There are some people so twisted, so evil, that they are beyond redemption. Many of my fellow Christians will sharply disagree. And I am not saying that any being is totally evil, since I accept the old Neoplatonic and Augustinian view that evil is both an absence of good and an absence of being. Thus, a totally evil being could not exist. Even Satan, insofar as he is a creation of God, is good in a bare metaphysical sense, even though his will has turned to evil.

That said, there are human beings who are sociopaths or psychopaths. Scholars argue about the differences in meaning between the two terms, but in either case, an individual either has no conscience or does not even comprehend the concept of conscience. Some, though not all, serial killers are psychopaths. But psychopaths work in all walks of life. The psychopath may be the operator of a Ponzi scheme. Or two psychopaths may be married, go to a church, split the church, and go on to the next church (or other organization). Many psychopaths are charming; they are excellent actors. But they are different from other actors, such as people with narcissistic, histrionic, or borderline personality disorders. Even a person with borderline disorder, the most serious personality disorder short of psychopathy, has a conscience. A borderline person is extremely manipulative, lies constantly, and is difficult to treat, but some have been helped. But a psychopath, with no conscience, lacks a necessary condition for being a part of any stable human community. In a way, part of that individual’s humanity has been stripped away–whether by genetics, poor environment, or habituation in bad choices–or a combination of these factors–is unknown. Although cognitive therapy has been tried on psychopaths, that will only work insofar as a psychopaths perceives going along with societal norms as being in his best interest.

There are some people whom even omnipotence cannot reach. The mercy of God has its limits on those incapable of receiving it. And a psychopath would see no need of redemption for he has no sense of sin.

Psychopaths who commit murder are beyond help. Execution is the only rational option–the psychopath will never feel guilty or ashamed of his actions no matter how much time he spends in prison. And psychopaths are dangerously manipulative–toward both other prisoners and toward guards. For those psychopaths who are in business, if they commit crimes that harm others, I do not know what the best option is other than keeping them out of society, preferably forever. As for the petty psychopaths who split churches and other organizations, other people who might encounter them should be warned.

Does a psychopath have free will? He does within limits. A psychopath can make good or evil choices; he simply would not recognize them as good or evil. Other motivations are involved in a psychopath’s choices, usually perceived self-interest.

Can God save a psychopath? I don’t think so. The problem is not on the part of God, it’s on the part of the psychopath. I do not understand why God allows such twisted people to exist, and I suppose, like the problem of evil and suffering in general, the answer will be a mystery this side of Heaven.