The Insanity Defense

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

What is it

Ken and John debate (use?) the insanity defense. What difference does it make if the person who commits a crime is, in one way or another, mentally ill? Does this make punishment illegitimate? Why is punishment, rather than therapy, ever legitimate? Which sorts of mental illness should exempt a criminal from punishment? Inability to know right from wrong? Inability to resist compulsion? Irrational depravity? John and Ken defend themselves with Susan Wolf from UNC Chapel Hill.

Listening Notes

Is the insanity defense a big deal nowadays? The insanity defense is based on the McNaughton Rule which says that if you are mentally ill and because of that you don't know what you are doing or don't know that it is wrong you are not morally or legally culpable. How does insanity remove culpability? Does the insanity defense make sense? Ken introduces Susan Wolf, professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Wolf thinks the insanity defense makes sense for two reasons: punishing the insane won't do the kind of good it should and the insane don't deserve punishment. Ken points out that this includes the notion of desert. Does punishing the insane provide a deterring effect?


Ken thinks the issue of punishment is not whether it does some good but whether the person deserves it. Wolf thinks that blaming someone for something they cannot understand is unjust. Should we give insane criminals therapy or punishment? What about someone like Hitler who did not think he was doing anything wrong? John distinguishes between deterrence, punishment designed to dissuade others, and retribution, punishment designed to redress some past wrong. If mental illness is physical, does that undermine the insanity defense? Wolf thinks that it being physical would strengthen the case for the insanity defense. Wolf clarifies that not every kind of mental delusion exempts you from legal responsibility.


How do issues of free will and determinism relate to the insanity defense? Wolf thinks you need the ability to control your actions in accord with your desires and values to be morally culpable. Children have imaginary friends, but we don't consider them insane. Is severe depression an example of insanity? Can we temporarily become insane, by taking certain medications for example?

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 04:55): Amy Standen interviews Peter Arenella, professor at UCLA Law School, about the merits and the function of the insanity defense.
  • Sixty Second Philosopher (Seek to 34:55): Ian Shoales surveys the roots of the insanity defense in St. Augstine's works.
  • Conundrum (Seek to 48:15): Neil calls in to ask whether he should take an oath of citizenship that ends with the phrase “so help me God” when he is an atheist. Should he take the end of it not to be serious? Should he take the rest of the oath seriously? Does this phrase require a belief in God?

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Susan Wolf, Edna J. Koury Professor of Philosophy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


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