Mental Illness and Moral Depravity
The Conundrum of Lee Malvo.
November 19, 2003
In fact, the vast majority of people with a mental illness would be judged "sane" if current legal tests for insanity were applied to them. A mental illness may explain a person's behavior. It seldom excuses it.For several years now I have been in fairly regular contact with mental health professionals, but it’s been forty years since I heard one of them use the word “insane” to describe a patient. The word has degenerated into a lighthearted put-down, as in “You’re insane!” in response to an outlandish proposal or comment. About the only place where the word is still used seriously is in a courtroom, and there it’s been redesigned to suit legal purposes.
Lee Malvo wants to be treated as a mentally ill person, protected from the harsh demands of justice, as though mental illness were a refuge from moral responsibility. It’s better to be protected and patronized, as are many of the mentally ill, than to be respected and punished.
Perhaps he was mentally ill, perhaps he still is. If he is, it will affect how the court treats him. But mental illness does not mitigate the evil. Whoever killed those people, one after another, was without conscience. To be without conscience is more that sociopathy or psychopathy; it is depravity.
But what is that? I just learned from the Internet of an earnest attempt to develop a “depravity scale” that will offer objective guidance to the legal profession and forensic psychiatry. I understand the felt need for such a scale, but I doubt that its results will be very useful. I suppose from a legal point of view, depravity must be defined by behavior; but from a moral point of view, it is defined as hardness of heart. Three of the most depraved persons in my literary memory were guilty of no crime, unless killing a pet bird is a crime, as in Susan Glaspell’s Trifles; unless living entirely for one’s own comfort is a crime, as in Elizabeth Goudge’s The Rosemary Tree: unless being consumed by envy is a crime, as in Charles Williams’s Descent into Hell. These are all very minor classics, but their authors demonstrate an understanding of depravity that no mere crime will ever comprehend.
Mental illness and moral depravity are neither synonyms nor opposites. Any of us could be both mentally ill and morally depraved.
About the Author:
Barnabas acknowledges that he is posting this column at 11:07 p.m. on November 18. We'll see how good the editor's turn-around time is.
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