Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Which Counts More: Motivation or Intent?

There is a longstanding strain in law and public morality which tells us that bad acts may be excused if it can be shown that no malicious or wicked intent accompanied them. In law, killers are judged 'not guilty' because the killer suffered from a mental defect. In public morality, we often view a drug addicts crime in a different light when we find out that her actions were "caused by" drug addiction, rather than malice.

Well, here is the latest example of (what I see as) this egregious tendency. A man in Canada has recently been arrested for "beheading and cannibalizing a passenger on a Greyhound bus." According to the article:

Li's lawyers are not disputing that he killed McLean, but they will argue Li was mentally ill and not criminally responsible. A psychiatrist told the court Li is schizophrenic and believed God told him to do it.

I understand the dilemma of putting a man away in prison for an act which may have been "caused by" a mental defect. But prison isn't just about punishment either. One of the reasons I have never warmed to the "insanity defense," is because it misses the point that one key reason to put someone in prison is to keep others safe from that person. It makes absolutely no sense to argue that a person whose psychiatric disorder (an unpredictable one at that) caused him to behead and cannibalize someone is the type of person who should avoid imprisonment. That person is, to me, the very definition of a person who SHOULD be in prison - if only to guard against future beheadings that God might tell him to comit.

Why do we have such a hard time with this idea that a man afflicted with a mental disorder should be allowed to argue that he is not guilty of a crime he is in fact guilty of? Because current thought puts more weight on intent and motivation than action. We are less likely today than we were thirty years ago to feel contempt for the man who gambles his family's savings away because he is a victim of a disease. We are less likely to morally judge the action than we are the intent.

I think this is wrong-headed for several reasons. Flrst, judging intent is a very subjective business, while judging actions is not. It is a fact that this man beheaded and canibalized a person. No one, not even the lawyers, dispute that. Is it a fact that God told him to do it? Only if we take the killer's word. If a man gambles his family's savings away, this is factually verifiable. What is not is the idea that he was powerless to choose not to.

Secondly, from a legal and political sense, judging intent rather than action is a dangerous precedent. In order to protect society against certain acts (cannibalism, murder), it is best to make a rule against murder (without exception) than it is to make a rule against murder which allows for murder within certain psychological parameters. If we want to make sure that no one else feels free to behead or cannibalize, the precedent should be that ANY instance of these things are wrong, not just that it is wrong only if there is bad intent behind it.

And I reiterate my concern that, as part of imprisonment is for public safety rather than punishment, it simply does no one any good for a self-confirmed schizophrenic who has beheaded in the name of the god issuing him orders to walk the street solely becuase he has a disorder. If he walks, maybe he can kill the judge and blame it on god.

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