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Insanity Pleas & Capital Punishment

Relativist Defense of the Insanity Plea


The relativist defense of the insanity plea, naturally enough, does not posit an absolute moral code from which to judge the actions of the accused killer. Instead, a non-absolute moral code must be employed — but which one? This is a critical decision which should receive some attention and debate, but does not. Rather, the general moral code of society is adopted as the standard, without discussion as to how or why, much less the manner in which it is to be used.

The premises of the general relativist argument can be summarized thus:

1. Society regards X as wrong and Y as right.
2. This person may or may not be aware of #1.
3. This person honestly regards Y as wrong and/or X as right.
4. Anyone who does not know that X is wrong and Y is right is legally insane.

So, the final conclusion reached is:

5. This person, who honestly believes that X is right when society says that X is wrong, must be legally insane.

The argument itself is logical enough because the conclusion follows readily from the premises. The implications, however, are staggering — and I don’t think that anyone is really willing to accept them. For example, such an argument could easily allow Martin Luther King and other supporters or leaders of Civil Rights to use a “legally insane” defense at their trials, committing them to mental institutions for “re-education.” After all, they believed that mixing the races and equal rights for minorities was “right” when society had always regarded it as “wrong.”

Indeed, under a standard such as the above, every major social, political, religious and moral reformer could be deemed insane simply because they reject the beliefs held by the majority and insist upon some other, “higher” set of standards. What sort of society do we become if we label as “insane” anyone who is too different from the norm to accept?

We have, then, a problem — neither of the two arguments for insanity work out. This is not a straw man, because the argument of “not knowing right from wrong” is the basic argument used to make the case that someone is legally insane — this is contained in all of the legal standards which have generally been used. A good example of how this is used in reality would be the testimony of Dr. Phillip Resnick in the trial of Andrea Yates, charged with killing her five children.

According to Resnick, Yates knew that what she was doing was illegal, but that did not deter her from the killings because she beleived she was following a “higher good.” Resnick testified that “there is no rational explanation for killing five children unless you think it’s in their best interests” and that she chose the “lesser of negative consequences.”

In order to make such arguments, Resnick must assume the validity of some form of the two positions: absolutist or relativist. The absolutist position is unlikely and key premises would be difficult to defend. The relativist position is more likely, but the consequence of actually believing it would be horrendous. What can be done — is there any way to salvage the insanity defense from the arguments used to defend it?

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