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Dansedescygnes's avatar

At what point do you consider mental illness as a blame for murder/rape?

Asked by Dansedescygnes (2881points) May 26th, 2009

To me, mental illness is never a choice. Mental illness as the cause for being a serial killer, child molester, rapist, whatever it may be, is not a choice. I’ve been hearing some people claim that someone can choose to be a pedophile (not child molester——there is a difference: one is an attraction, one is an action) and a serial killer. You can choose to molest children and you can choose to kill a bunch of people, but how can you choose to have urges to do those things? Things can go wrong in the brain without choices being made; the brain is extremely powerful and if something is wired the wrong way, it may cause you to become a serial killer or a rapist or something like that. You might as well say that people choose to be depressed.

I believe that someone who is wired “normally” will not kill a person. They may have an urge to, but they won’t do it. This is where I draw the line at mental illness being blameworthy. That doesn’t mean that I think all murderers should get the insanity plea—that depends on the degree of mental illness and how self-aware someone is. But I do think that a bit of mental illness plays a factor in all murders.

This question is kind of asking a second thing in the first paragraph. Feel free to address both things it’s asking. I could only fit one in the “Question” spot.

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42 Answers

DrasticDreamer's avatar

By saying that no one can choose to be bad, you’re also saying that no one can choose to be good. One can not exist without the other, and I know multiple people, myself included, who make an effort to be a good person. This is not “just how I am”, because I chose to be this way simply because I do not like to hurt other people.

Some people will argue that there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” based on what I stated above, but I do not believe that to be the case. And I won’t have anyone tell me that I’m not a good person, especially when I’ve made such an effort to be one.

Blaming everything that is wrong in the world on a mental illness is a way for a lot of people to get out of the bad things that they have done and chosen to do.

That said, I do also believe that mental illness can drive people to do things that they wouldn’t in regular circumstances, but I do not believe mental illness is the “be all, end all” in every bad situation or action that someone does.

Dansedescygnes's avatar


Keep in mind that I am separating action and urge. They are two totally different things. The urge may be caused by the mental illness or it may not, but the action is their own choice and they have done something wrong.

A perfectly good, normal, person can have an urge to kill. That doesn’t make them a bad person. They become bad when they act on that urge. In order to act on that urge, I think you have to have some degree of mental illness; that’s what I’m hypothesizing, that a “normal” person wouldn’t act on an urge like that because they can control it. It doesn’t mean that you get out of it, you’ve still done it.

rooeytoo's avatar

I don’t think you have to be mentally ill to murder one person, it can be a momentary rage and if a weapon is handy the deed is done before reason can prevail. And I think that after the fact a person would feel genuine grief and remorse.

A serial killer is another story, any repeat offender is different. There has to be a certain amount of choice involved to do the same thing over and over. After the first time, if remorse occurs I would think one would seek help. The same with child molesting, serial rape etc. So some sort of mental illness or lack of sanity must be involved or help would be sought to be able to deny and control the urge before it becomes an action.

cak's avatar

I dunno. The “man” that raped me (a serial rapist), wasn’t mentally ill. He had no true diagnosis. Just a sick son of a bitch. That’s all. It was a power trip, ego and control. Maybe his mom loved him too much, they did have a weird bond. Don’t care.

All I know, he was not insane. He was evil, but not insane.

Dansedescygnes's avatar


Yeah, I thought about that too in the case of one murder and a fit of rage. I just don’t know…even when I am most angry I don’t think I would ever kill someone, but maybe I would…who knows? I don’t want to be put to that test.

Dansedescygnes's avatar


Well, that’s what I’m saying. I kind of think evil like that is insane. How can a person do something like that without being insane? Not insane as in they heard voices or didn’t know what they’re doing, but all actions come from the brain and in order for someone to do something like that, someone has to be wrong with their brain.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

That is where I disagree. I do not think, just because someone might do something that is unfathomable for myself, that mental illness must be involved somehow if their action was seriously negative.

There is no kind of scientific proof or evidence that exists, which states, “one who commits heinous crimes must have some kind of mental illness”. There is no kind of proof at all that “bad actions” equate to “mental illness”. Sometimes, there are just bad people.

Dansedescygnes's avatar


But that’s what I’m saying. That these “bad people” have something wrong with their brains. All actions come from the brain.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@Dansedescygnes I think you believe that though, simply because you can’t fathom an every day person doing something so horrible and disgusting. I can see why you think that way, a lot of people do. There is no way in which you can find any kind of relation to these people and that makes sense. Bad people do not necessarily have anything wrong with their brain, though. Nothing suggests, in many cases, that they do.

cak's avatar

@Dansedescygnes – For a long time, I tried to think that way. I tried to think that there must be something wrong. No. I think there are just bad people. They can just do bad things, not mental issue involved.

I tried and tried to find some reason why someone could do something so awful, thing is – there was nothing. Really, sometimes, there isn’t a reason other than horrible choices.

Dansedescygnes's avatar


But then what causes them do those bad things if it isn’t their brain doing it? Some religious believe that the soul transcends the brain, but I’m not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with that since I was not talking from a religious point of view. That’s what I’m saying. All actions come from the brain, thus in order for someone to do that, something in their brain is making them do it, thus something is not normal in their brain because other people’s “normal” brains don’t make them do those things.

Dansedescygnes's avatar

Believe me, someone of the things that I am saying are confusing me a bit. But I think I have the basic idea down. It’s like on cartoons when people talk to their brains. That doesn’t make any sense. They are their brain. So if you do something not normal, your brain is in turn doing something wrong because you are your brain; it is everything you are and everything you do.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

Someone’s brain does cause them to do something bad, since that is where all thought stems from. What you’re failing to do is equate “normal behavior”, with “good” and “bad” behavior. Nothing states that simply because someone does something bad that their brain isn’t perfectly normal. This is why it’s such a difficult, complex issue.

Because think of it this way: If all people who did bad things – acted on them, not simply thought about them – had some kind of mental illness or abnormality in their brain, prison would not be an option for these people because no mentally ill person is generally admitted entrance to a prison system. They are instead sent to some kind of psychiatric facility, where they can be properly looked after and taken care of, according to their illness. No one with a mental illness that goes undiagnosed or properly treated, should be sent to prison – or condemned to the death penalty, for that matter – if there is truly something wrong with the way their brain functions.

(And it’s okay. I say “my brain” all the time and it drives a lot of people crazy.)

Dansedescygnes's avatar


Well, I mentioned that there are varying degrees of mental illness. Whether or not you are sent to psychiatric facility depends on how mentally ill you are and how self-aware you are. Not being aware of your actions is strong form of mental illness. Someone who is completely aware of their actions but still chooses bizarre, “twisted”, or “wrong” actions may still have something wrong with them, but not to the extent where it can be treated in a psychiatric facility or where they should not be sent to prison.

And the reason why I’m not equating normal with “good” or “bad” is because I’m implying that “bad” is not normal. I can’t prove that, but that’s what I’m claiming. That some people can control urges and some cannot. The disability to control urges is due to something in the brain. Whether or not that thing in the brain is an “illness” is a different story.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@Dansedescygnes I know that’s what you’re implying, but it’s where we disagree. ;) I believe that bad, in a lot of circumstances is perfectly normal. The only thing wrong with a lot of people who perform bad actions, is that they are bad. Nothing is wrong with their brains, necessarily.

Blondesjon's avatar

Kill it or cure it.

Right now, only the killing part works.

if there were a cow in a herd or a wolf in a pack that attacked it’s own, for no reason other than a chemically personal one, that animal would be permanently removed from the group.

Dansedescygnes's avatar


But being bad is in the brain. That you cannot deny. Someone who “is” bad has a brain that is wired differently from someone who “is” good. Whether or not someone chooses to label that as an abnormality or an illness is different, but there is something different in their brain that causes them to be bad, otherwise it wouldn’t happen. We all may have the potential, but in order for it to happen, different neurons need to be connected, different synapses need to be fired across. And that is a difference, no matter how small. The brains of a “bad person” and a “good person” work differently.

crisw's avatar


I think you have to define what you mean by “murder.” Does it include killing in self defense? In defense of family? In defense of country? People can kill in all of these circumstances; they are not usually deemed insane for doing so. What, exactly, makes something a murder?

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@ Dansendecygnes Can you prove that they work differently? Because personally, I have never once heard that their brains are wired any differently than a good person’s brain. Unless, as is the case in some situations, they are actually diagnosed with a mental illness.

And again, we’re back to the beginning. If you’re saying that all bad people have something wrong with them, then you’re saying that “good” does not truly exist. And I disagree, completely.

Dansedescygnes's avatar


I’m talking about premeditated murder, in defense of money, love, or another reason like that. Not in defense of another person.

The_Compassionate_Heretic's avatar

Mental illness may be a cause hut it is not an excuse.
That said most violence is not committed by mental illness in people. It is usually committed out of anger and rage.

Dansedescygnes's avatar


I don’t understand how they cannot work differently. They are doing different things so they are different in some way.

And good and bad both exist. I’m just saying that they are both due to the brain.

Also, I just realized something and if you respond I will explain it because it kind of defeats a lot of what I’ve been saying.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@Dansedescygnes Hmm. Let me try to think of something, anything, that can better illustrate my point of view…

What is your favorite color? Chances are, it may very well be different than my own favorite color, or you may not have a favorite color at all. We have different opinions, we come to different conclusions, but is one of our brains any less functional than the other one? I highly doubt it. Every brain, in every person, is different in some way. You will find no two people on the planet, who function in entirely the same way.

But I’m telling you: Try to do some research. You will find no scientific data which suggests that people who choose to do something bad ultimately have some kind of mental illness or abnormality in their brain. Just as people choose to do good or be good, people can choose to do bad or be bad. Not in all cases, no. But in many.

Dansedescygnes's avatar


Here’s the thing I was thinking about:

Two women. They have not been diagnosed with anything; you’d say they have no abnormalities. They both have abusive husbands. Woman A has an urge to kill her husband, but she holds back. Instead, she chooses to report him and then leave him. Woman B has the same urge, but her urge becomes too strong; she seizes a knife in the kitchen and stabs him to death. You’re saying that these women’s brains were exactly the same in the beginning (not exactly in terms of preference or personality or whatever, but in terms of the main functions). You’re saying that both of them had the potential to kill. One of them chose to kill her husband and while she was doing that neurons were firing differently from the one who reported her husband. But my question is: what caused Woman A to not do it and what caused Woman B to do it if they both had the same potential? It almost seems like a combination with their other personalities influenced their behavior. Woman A may have been someone who constantly said “I could never ever kill someone” whereas Woman B might have killed if it was in her defense or if she was angry enough. Aren’t those personalities differences in the brain? Not a big difference or abnormality or a mental illness, but differences nonetheless? Differences that caused them to take different actions?

I can’t separate a choice from part of the brain. A choice is part of the brain and I think choices are influenced just as much as a preference for a certain color or certain sexuality is influenced. And I think it is differences in the brain that contributes to how choices are made, what choices are made, and what actions are carried out. Everyone may have urges, but the ability to control urges and act on others is something that is different from person to person and depends on how their brain is wired.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@Dansedescygnes I have to write an essay, for the time being. Once I’m finished, I’ll be back to contribute more. And this is, despite our differences in opinion, a great question. I’ll be back in a little bit. :)

Dansedescygnes's avatar

Fair enough. I just have a lot of time because I have no homework this week. :)

Dansedescygnes's avatar

I also have another question: what about sexuality? Does something like sexuality come from a wiring difference in the brain? Because I did not choose to be gay; it is something that just happened.

What is your answer to this question: ?

wundayatta's avatar

Good and bad are relative things. It’s complicated, because the same rules don’t apply in all situations. What is bad in one situation can be good in another, but it’s all relative to what the cultural or social norms are.

Mental illness is the same thing. It’s a kind of statistical calculation, except it is done with intuition as well as with counting things. If behavior of an individual deviates far enough from the norm, it is, by definition, mental illness. So murder definitely would put someone in this category.

The question is to what degree people can control their behavior. How much is it chemicals in their brains, and how much of it is the product of a “normal” brain function? We can’t know, can we? So we all measure it against our own experience, and if we can’t imagine it, it must be their choice.

What is responsibility? What is accountability? I think it is about what we expect people to do given their capability for doing the right thing. We understand that if their perception of the world is warped, their behavior will be warped.

I can imagine reasons why people would do the most heinous things. I do this not to excuse the behavior, but to figure out how to stop other people from behaving this way. I believe in education, not punishment. I believe that forgiveness has a role, but that our job, as a society, is to protect ourselves from randomly violent behavior.

The problem with mental illness is that it can come and go. If you don’t take your meds, it can come back (and even if you do take them, it can). So can you trust someone who has behaved badly, if they are mentally ill?

I think you can, under stringent conditions. The person has to be committed to avoiding the illness. They have to be trained to recognize the signs of illness within them, and they have to be willing to talk to people when they see the illness coming back. This, I think, is how mentally ill people can take responsibility for their behavior.

If a mentally ill person who has murdered or whatever they have done does not recognize their illness and does not commit to staying healthy, and does not demonstrate they are willing to work on it, then we should not trust them, and we should do whatever is appropriate to protect ourselves from them.

If they are willing to do the things I described above, then they should be given a chance to “go straight,” but they shouldn’t be out on their own recognizance. They need support, and they need backup, and they need someone else watching out for the signs of the illness coming back. Without that, it’s kind of pointless to even try to mainstream them again.

As I say, that is how mentally ill people can take responsibility. As always, it’s trust, but verify.

Blondesjon's avatar

@daloon…“I believe that forgiveness has a role, but that our job, as a society, is to protect ourselves from randomly violent behavior.”

For once we are in total agreement.

Macaulay's avatar

Honestly, when the incident involves someone I do not know.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

For that, you would need to ask a Psychologist. I do not know the exact boundaries for each disorder, but there are clinically proven patterns that indicate certain mental illnesses. For example, some people are completely incapable of feeling empathy or remorse. They are that way from birth. They start out killing small animals, then the family pet, then move on to people.

Ignoring mental illness will not make it go away, it will just deny those suffering from it the help they deserve.

purpose's avatar

They are still fully aware of what they are doing is wrong.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@purpose How do you know? Those who are qualified in the field, who work on the basis of research evidence, say that some people cannot control their actions in the same way we do. I work in disability care, and one of my clients is bipolar, and scared of steps. When we take him somewhere, it takes a lot of coercion and persuasion to get him in and out of the bus. He knows there is nothing to be scared of, and he knows nothing has ever gone wrong before, but he is still scared. In the same way, someone can know they are doing the wrong thing, be fully aware of the consequences, but still feel an urge to commit crime that they simply cannot resist. Do you not think that if they were able, they would resist? Are they evil simply because they have a mental condition?

purpose's avatar

There are exceptions to everything. Some are probably so sick that they really believe they act in self defense, or that someone has killed a child they never had and avenges that. That may be.

People who satisfies their pleasures from killing, hurting or raping people, mostly know it’s wrong. Bundy did. Richard Speck did. They might not regret it, but they know it’s wrong. It’s part of the pleasure.

Acquaintance rape, stranger rape, gang rape. Acquaintance rapists are spouses, boyfriends, family, friends, dates or a co-worker. Caught up in the heat of the moment, considers it their right, snap or making true of their dark fantasies. Stranger rapists have an urge to degrade and humiliate and is a repeat offender, gang rapists are part of peer pressure who justifies what they did to themselves. Possibly repeat offenders. They all know it’s wrong.

They need treatment, but the responsibility are theirs. They can’t be treated until they take responsibility for their actions.

Have you ever felt that you wanted to hit someone? Did you do it? The urge is in all of us in some form at some point in time. In some it’s very strong. It doesn’t take away the responsibility of the choice they make.
True psychopaths don’t feel the same feelings. They don’t have moral, but they know the rules of society. They all, more or less, know it’s wrong.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@purpose I take your point, and I believe the majority of offenders are mentally stable. Many also plead guilty due to insanity when they are perfectly sound of mind. Although it is not entirely accurate, I think the TV program Criminal Minds is a brilliant representation of the difference between sane criminals and mentally ill criminals. Despite the huge over-prescription of insanity to criminals, we cannot ignore the fact that some are mentally ill, and need help rather than punishment.

purpose's avatar

Very true, and they all need help in some form to rectify their behavior. There is not much point in letting out the same criminal you put in.

Myndecho's avatar

Their subconscious has been subtly changed due to outer stimulus.

If you’ve ever heard of Pavlov’s dogs you will understand. The brain is a powerful machine that can be reprogrammed to respond in almost any way possible as a result of stimuli’s. (I did make a large thread about this very topic on Airow)

Personally I don’t like the phrase mentally ill, just because we don’t understand what’s going through these people’s heads means it acceptable to label them insane. It’s the equivalent to diagnosing someone as evil, when evil is subjective.

The urges we get are a result of our innate feelings and what Ivan Pavlov demonstrated to us .

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@Myndecho Illness is a term used when one suffers from something that hinders their function. If a person is suffering from liver failure, they are ill, because it impedes the natural function of their body. Mentally ill people aren’t called such because we don’t understand them, but because it has observed effects on their ability to operate in society. If a mental abberration produces positive effects, it is not classed as a mental illness. Polymaths are not mentally ill, but those who suffer from bipolar disorder are.

You have also forgotten heritable disorders. Reprogramming and stimuli are not the only causes of mental illness. A Down’s Syndrome person cannot rationally blame their circumstances for their condition, it was there at the moment of conception. It is the same for some other more subtle disorders, which can lead to crime.

Pavlov’s experiments measure the effect of certain stimuli and stimulus patterns. They do not give us a complete set of causes for mental illness.

Myndecho's avatar

Good reply.
It’s late so I will get back to you soon.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@Myndecho Thank you. I should add that the mentally ill do still make choices based around their illness. One client at my work who is severely autistic is often just plain mischeivious. One of the senior nurses once told me of certain behaviours that are just looking for trouble. When this client does certain things, we sternly tell her to do stop, and then offer a distraction. If other clients undertake the same behaviour, we may well sit back and watch. Mental illness largely offers a predisposition to certain behavioural patterns, and if left untreated this predisposition can become overwhelming. Being human though, they are still capable of choice within the confines set by their illness.

saraaaaaa's avatar

It all comes from what your sense of right and wrong is, and mental illness often causes that sense to go askew.
I have a friend who got arrested and then got away with the charges because she was taking large amounts of drugs at the time and therefore ‘not in her right mind’ but this i don’t agree with. Don’t get me wrong I don’t want to see my friend in trouble but as her friend I know that she knew what she was doing and getting away with it like that just made her believe that she could screw over the system.
On the other hand I have a parent who is severely mentally ill and got put in prison for two months for damage to the next door neighbours property (she is schizophrenic and has a tendancy to act out at people like that), at the time I was outraged that this had happened to her given her mental history. Her sense of right and wrong was so off that she didn’t acknowledge her imprisonment in the way it is meant to be. The best we can do is try to educate people with mental illness as much as possible so that when it comes to right and wrong they might be able to make these choices better educated.
This being said with more extreme crimes mentioned in the question, there are more direct victims involved and of course they will want someone to be punished for a crime that has been committed against them.

tiffyandthewall's avatar

i don’t think that mental illness is an excuse. i think it’s an explanation.

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