Read another response by Allen Stairs
Read another response about Ethics, Mind
'Normal' people don't do very bad things (murder, rape, etc), so if someone does something bad, can't we assume that the person is sick rather than evil? Why is it that people with mental disabilities, people with addictions, etc. can use that as their excuse and usually get people to pity them while other "crazy" people don't get any pity whatsoever and instead get thrown into prison for the rest of their lives?

We need to be careful to avoid equivocating here. What we can safely say is that most people don't do very bad things; the people who do are in the tail of the statistical distribution. However, that isn't enough to count them as mentally ill or disabled. To come to that conclusion, we'd need to know whether the person was able to reason effectively, whether they have adequate impulse control, whether they're subject to delusion, and various other such things.

The mentally ill, the addicted and people with various other mental disabilities are - as the word suggests - disabled. In one way or another, they aren't able to function as we are. If a person with severe dyslexia misread a set of instructions and the result was some misfortune, it would make sense to take that into account when deciding how much to blame them. What's easy for most of us (reading instructions) might be much harder for them, through no fault of their own. But if a person's frontal lobes don't work properly and they don't have the ability to rein in their impulses that most of us do, then once again we might want to take that into account in deciding how much to blame them. The same goes for various other mental disabilities.

What we should do with this information is not simple, of course. If someone's mental illness makes them dangerous to others, we're still entitled to protect the public. And different disabilities might call for different responses. (Addiction might not lessen culpability in the way that severe schizophrenia does, for example.) It may also be that some of the people we treat as compos mentis but criminal shouldn't really be thought of that way. But if someone has a real disability that gets in the way of acting wisely or well, it doesn't seem strange that we'd take that into account when judging their accountability.

Related Terms