July 16, 2007

Delusion, Crime, and Personal Responsibility

The American legal system is based on the assumption that someone who commits a crime acted out of free will and should be held responsible for his or her crime. However, there are exceptions designed to absolve (e.g., insanity) or reduce (e.g., diminished capacity) one's responsibility. The purpose of this post is not to discuss these scenarios but to use them to ask some probing questions about the nature of religious belief.

A man with a gun was killed today by a security officer outside the office of Colorado governor Bill Ritter. The gunman claimed, "I am the emperor and I'm here to take over state government" and refused orders to drop his gun before he was shot.

For the sake of discussion, let's assume that facts emerge showing that this man had a long history of mental illness, was off his medication, and had become psychotic. Let's further assume that we learn that he was delusional at the time of the incident and that he genuinely believed that he was the emperor of Colorado and that he had a duty to retake his rightful office by any means necessary.

Is he morally responsible for his criminal act? That is, do we hold him responsible and punish him regardless of his mental illness, or do we relieve him of responsibility because he was operating under a mental disorder sufficient to render him unable to know what he was doing or to know that what he was doing was wrong?

If you are even mildly familiar with psychology and the law, you'll recognize this as a question about the insanity defense. Even people who don't like the insanity defense tend to agree that someone suffering from a serious mental disorder is less responsible for his or her actions even if we might not be comfortable removing responsibility completely. So far so good. Time for the central question...

What about Osama bin Laden? Should he be considered less responsible for his terrorist acts because of his religious delusion? I'm guessing that you wouldn't go for this, and I wouldn't either. He may be suffering from what laypeople would consider a delusional form of religious belief, but it is unlikely that he would meet diagnostic criteria for a psychotic disorder (i.e., it is unlikely that mental health professionals would consider him delusional in the psychiatric sense). What about a Christian terrorist who kills an abortion doctor because he believes that this doctor is sending souls to hell. Should he be considered less responsible for his actions? Again, I'm guessing you would say no and I'd agree. Again, most of the Christian terrorists who bomb abortion clinics would not be found to be delusional in the psychiatric sense.

In mental health law, mental disorder is not sufficient to mitigate responsibility for crime. Even those who are delusional in the psychiatric sense and who are diagnosed with psychotic disorders are usually not found insane in the legal sense. They are usually tried and convicted for their crimes.


Even if religious belief were universally accepted as a mental disorder (and it is not), the overwhelming majority of religious fanatics would still not come close to meeting contemporary legal standards for insanity. This is because the legal standard in most states goes far beyond mental disorder, requiring serious impairment to the point where the defendant's capacity to form criminal intent is limited or absent. Only the most seriously delusional would come close, and in fact, this is exactly what happens now.

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