Thomas Szasz, Kantian

An interesting review of an anthology of Thomas Szasz and his critics, although the seeming intellectual conflict of interest of this article appearing in Reason, to which Szasz is a contributing editor, and written by a man who has received something called “the Thomas S. Szasz Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Cause of Civil Liberties,” is a bit suspect, but it nonetheless raises some interesting points. Szasz is the professor of psychiatry who became mildly famous in the ’70’s for his fervent denunciations of not just the abuse but the very concept of “mental illness.” However, from what I have read of Szasz his opposition to it seems to be essentially dogmatic, i.e. predicated on the foundational belief that the mental and the physical are inherently separate, and that therefore the application of conditions associated with the body, such as illness, can only inappropriately be applied to the mental. Sure, that debate has been carried on for hundreds of years, but with medical science having advanced as it has, it seems quite obtuse to me to reject a priori the notion of a fundamental indivisibility or even unity between the two. In other words, it seems pretty evident that a host of physical factors and chemicals have been shown to have a profound effect on personality, and so it would not be unfair to speculate that any and all personality traits are the result of some chemical condition in the brain. Granted, psychiatrists seem to be inclined to assert an absolutism diametrically opposite to Szasz’, i.e. that the mind is totally physical in nature, and the American Psychiatric Association sneering at an archaic belief in “mind/body dualism” seems almost equally presumptuous, although slightly more supported scientifically (though we should not be surprised by that since, as I have argued before, science is pretty much materialist by its very nature).

In a way, this whole discussion up to a certain point is pretty irrelevant. If one wishes to pursue medicinal solutions to one’s mental problems, no one but the bill collector will get in the way. If not so be it. But the real issue is when free choice is revoked–in other words, whenever the legal system gets involved. Now it would be too facile to insist that everyone should be able to make a choice about whether they wish to be treated for mental disorders in all cases. There is always going to be a division between relative competency and incompetency, and there is always going to be a certain number of people that are considered incapable of making their own decisions in this, although in this regard curiously it is probably precisely the diagnosis of insanity that will often result in the loss of discretionary rights. But in any case, those distinctions are not my concern to define and develop here. Suffice it to say that it all pretty much pertains to the well-being of the individual, which except in cases of true incapacity should ultimately be within their own powers to decide.

Where I diverge from this sort of libertarian attitude towards psychiatry are in those cases that touch upon the welfare of society, particularly criminal cases. Psychiatry and mental illness have obviously become institutionalized concepts in the judicial system, and Szaszians seem particularly irate about criminals being “let off the hook” via the insanity defense, and in fact the first anecdote in the article consists of Szasz giving a quasi-religious sermon about moral responsibility at a trial to which he was called as an expert witness. I have to wonder, though, what the Szaszians think the real point of the criminal justice system is. When the author makes a distinction between “deterrence” and “justice” in his evaluation of punishments of criminals it seems to give an indication, and I hope it will not be construed as an exaggeration if I take “justice” in this context to basically mean revenge. I have never understood the privileged position that revenge, under whatever euphemism it goes, continues to enjoy in our judicial system, but I think it’s almost indisputable that it plays a primary role, for example given the fact that a murderer is actually more likely to be executed if it be established that the crime was entirely rationally premeditated and directed against a specific target, on the grounds that that proves that he or she really was fully responsible for the deed, whereas the real maniacs who get some uncontainable sensual pleasure from killing are less so, because of course they are mentally ill and therefore not responsible for what they did! In my opinion the reverse should be true. The killer whose crime was entirely directed against a specific target is probably less likely to kill again simply because of the specificity of the crime, whereas the person who kills for the sheer pleasure of it is almost bound to, therefore it is that person that may need to be excised from society, due to the unlikliehood of their being re-integrated into the community without posing a constant danger to it. It is only to the extent that I doubt in the redeemability of such people that I remain open to the validity of capital punishment.

If someone steals money, the crime can be compensated by the return of the money. But the killing or injuring (and the various other crimes of this nature) cannot be reversed. To rather crudely employ an analogy from economics, they are conceptually similar to sunk costs. In this case the only thing of value that can be extracted from a prosecution of the criminal is the prevention of future crimes of a similar nature (this consideration plays a role even in crimes, like robbery, where the crime is reparable). These fall broadly into two classes evoked by the rather clichéd terms of deterrence and rehabilitation, in other words preventing the criminal from repeating their crime and discouraging anyone else from doing so. Revenge, I repeat, is absolutely to be avoided, it being an indulgence of a morally unjustifiable passion and prerogative, one rather similar to the even more repulsive envy. Now if a diagnosis of mental illness holds the promise of a treatment of the criminal that really will cure them of the motivation to commit future crimes, this would supersede morally and practically the deterrent value of punishment, and prevent a rather shameful indulgence in an orgy of vengeance. Whether this is really feasible is of course debatable, and as the example above indicates, psychiatric practice can of course be abused to lead to the opposite result, but the word “abuse” itself indicates a perversion of something with a greater underlying validity. In any case, I am rather incapable of sympathizing for this mania for “holding the guilty accountable.” You want a better world, focus on preventing future crime. You want to assume the mantle of acting as a surrogate for the Lord on Judgment Day, go ahead and have their hides. As Nietzsche wrote: “the categorical imperative smells of cruelty.”

p.s. I recall a newspaper article that got some national circulation by seemingly holding up to ridicule a study which concluded that 47% of Americans have suffered at some point from some form of mental illness. How this number was arrived at, I have no idea. But I don’t at all find it prima facie absurd, as so many others seem to. After all, if one takes as a premise that the mind is at least partly a physical system, this almost seems like a low figure. After all, I would guess that the number of people who have at one point suffered from a physical illness is near 100%, and the medical treatments available for the mind are at this point far more remedial, and the afflictions less well-understood, than those of the body

10 Responses to “Thomas Szasz, Kantian”

  1. shonk Says:

    for example given the fact that a murderer is actually more likely to be executed if it be established that the crime was entirely rationally premeditated and directed against a specific target, on the grounds that that proves that he or she really was fully responsible for the deed, whereas the real maniacs who get some uncontainable sensual pleasure from killing are less so, because of course they are mentally ill and therefore not responsible for what they did!

    I’m not at all sure this is the case. When you talk about “maniacs who get some uncontainable sensual pleasure from killing,” I immediately think of serial killers like John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer, whose pleas of insanity are pretty consistently rejected and who are usually given the death penalty (Dahmer was not, but Wisconsin does not have capital punishment; nonetheless, his 15 consecutive life sentences indicates that he wasn’t given any leniency, despite the fact that he was pretty obviously mentally ill).

    In fact, if you go through Wikipedia’s list of American serial killers, you’ll note that the overwhelming majority were either sentenced to death or given multiple life sentences by states that didn’t have the death penalty at the time of the trial (although, interestingly, this doesn’t seem to hold for women; of the three women on the list, only one got the death penalty). And even the exceptions are mostly not indicative of leniency on the part of the courts (for example, the Green River Killer was given multiple life sentences instead of the death penalty in exchange for telling authorities where the bodies of several of his victims were; others on the list were still teenagers when convicted or were convicted of a much smaller number of killings than they actually committed). Pleas of insanity are almost universally rejected for these serial killers; the only exception I can find is Ed Gein, who seems to have been pretty twisted even in comparison to other serial killers.

  2. Curt Says:

    That may be true with regard to serial killers, although most of the examples you cite above are from the ’60’s and ’70’s, and attitudes towards psychiatry and mental illness both within and without the courts have changed quite a bit in the last 30 years. In any event, it doesn’t change my basic point much, because in my opinion those type of criminals, i.e. those who commit the most heinous crimes and are not just very likely to repeat the crime but are virtually incapable of preventing themselves from doing so, are virtually the only ones who should even be considered for execution. This is however obviously not the case: take for example the death sentence on Scott Peterson, which appears to me a good example of a highly targeted murder which by its specificity is unlikely to be repeated. In fact the judge more or less admits in his sentence that he based it exclusively upon the severity of the crime. And then everyone in the courtroom goes into full retributive meltdown, which is exactly the kind of scenario, and the line of reasoning, that I think that the courts should avoid. This is also why foreign governments are so leery of extraditing criminals to the U.S.

  3. shonk Says:

    it doesn’t change my basic point much, because in my opinion those type of criminals, i.e. those who commit the most heinous crimes and are not just very likely to repeat the crime but are virtually incapable of preventing themselves from doing so, are virtually the only ones who should even be considered for execution.

    I don’t disagree with that; I’m just saying that you were being a bit loose in your argument.

    I am 100% against the death penalty (at least in the current legal framework) and, although it’s not necessarily the primary basis of my opposition, I do agree that the vindictiveness often expressed by both state and victims’ families in death penalty cases is both sad and disturbing. The family members actively clamoring to see, e.g., Timothy McVeigh put to death (to the point where they had to broadcast the execution on closed-circuit television) were a particularly distressing example in my mind (of course, I hope never to have to find out how I would react in such a situation, so it is hard to completely condemn that attitude).

  4. Curt Says:

    I might add parenthetically that, although there are of course good reasons to oppose the death penalty, my usual reaction to anti-death penalty activists is to recall a line from Nietzsche (no humanitarian, admittedly), who wrote something to the effect that any society which is most solicitous to its worst members is ill (one could perhaps make the same argument about welfare, but that is a different issue). On the other hand, seeing how the death penalty is currently used in this country also reminds me of a motto I made up for the state of Texas: in Texas, the sanctity of life ends at birth.

  5. shonk Says:

    My opposition to the death penalty has nothing to do with “solicitousness” to murderers and I have approximately the same reaction to most anti-death penalty activists as you seem to. Rather I object to the notion that the state has the right to kill even the worst of its citizens and, moreover, that it has the right to force you and I to subsidize those killings.

  6. Curt Says:

    I don’t believe that “the state” has such a right either, which is why theoretically if such a decision is to be made it should be made by juries. Unfortunately, they tend to be dominated by vengeful hotheads. The whole issue makes me rather nauseous as well, but I fear that ultimately certain people probably really cannot coexist in civilized life, and entrusting someone or institution with the authority to remove them is unfortunately probably the (slightly) lesser of two evils. I’m not sure how I feel in the end about capital punishment, but in the case of the real unsalvageables, whose lives are essentially already forfeit, there doesn’t seem to be much to choose between death and life in a little room under heavy guard (Chekhov once wrote a story on that very subject), and it’s all a lot of bullshit, phony compassion on the part of those support the later but reject the former. Used to be such people could be exiled, but apparently dumping them in someone else’s society is no longer socially acceptable, and since the social contract is a bunch of bullshit as well there is no place in the world (except maybe international waters) for anyone to live outside of civilization and the law.

  7. Dave Says:

    The best argument for the death penalty is justice. Here are two examples of people I know about who got the death penalty. A woman developed the habit of killing her spouses with arsenic for insurance money. Having run out of married partners, she poisoned her son. He partially recovered but was paralyzed and needed heavy braces. The woman arranged a canoe trip for her son in which he drowned, enabling her to collect finally collect on the policy. After the money ran out she arranged to insure her boyfriend and had a bomb planted in his car. The boyfriend survived, so she tried poisoning him in hospital and was finally caught. She drew her son and daughter into participating some of these crimes. The son almost got convicted of and probably did put the dynamite in the car. The other deaths were reinvestigated, resulting in conviction for multiple homicides. Years later she was executed. The children didn’t attend her funeral. A man had a argument with his girlfriend. He returned at night and kidnapped the woman’s daughters, tying them up and later slitting the five year old’s throat and raping and slitting the throat of her sister. The older sister survived and went for help. The man was arrested and convicted three times and sentenced to death by three juries. As usual the press and do-gooders never talk about the real reason for the death penalty. They cry “There might be a mistake? It is not equitably administered. It is racist. Who has the right to take a life? Vengeance is wrong. Etc.., etc.? However, when the particularities of the case are known the average citizen will agree. Some people just deserve to be executed. The high thinking elites have a disdain for the normal human’s righteous indignation against these heinous crimes. They think they can construct a perfect world of sterile rationality, and only become indignant about social injustice and statistical disparities, some times actually supporting violent revolutionary killers who fight against same.

  8. Curt Says:

    Although I said at the outset that I was undecided on the issue and I remain somewhat ambivalent, this little discussion I think has more or less inclined me to believe that, since there are ways to remove the societally incomensurable without killing them, it is not just wrong but unnecessary to do so (more expensive as well, I believe). Since we are all (supposedly) granted life and liberty at birth, I would prefer that there existed a place outside of our society to which those who violate the self-defined social laws could be expelled, where they could enjoy their life and freedom without the benefits of civilized living. I don’t suppose that is likely, unless a home for the outcasts were established on Mars, and they would probably form a government and social regulation of their own soon enough anyway, like the Australians, but it would nonetheless correlate more strongly with my social ideals than the current situation.

  9. Dave Says:

    In recent times I too have thought it might be better to do away with the death penalty. It is not that I think that the death penalty in inherently unjust or even unjustly administered. It is just that the amount of effort and expense that goes into getting one of these crooks done away with consumes too many intellectual and financial resources. And in the mean time they are protected and pampered on death row as well as them and their lawyers getting all sorts of free media attention from “public interest? organizations. Putting them in regular prison for life without the chance of parole or even a parole hearing would satisfy me. The chances of their getting what they deserved by the process of informal jail yard justice would actually be better than it is in the present system. Also the small industry of lawyers who, at public expense, use every trick and subterfuge to delay or have justice reversed would be put out of work. Countries who now give death penalty candidates asylum would no longer have an excuse not to extradite. The only problem is that today most matters seem to be resistant to permanent solution. The situation would quickly ratchet to a new state with all the old players taking up new positions. Soon life without parole would become cruel and unusual punishment, or maybe the reproductive or voting rights of the inmates would become the new cause celebre. Those death row attorneys would quickly morph into voting or sex rights crusaders. So, in that case, let’s keep thing the way they are.

  10. grandpa stole bets Says:

    Program on the emergence of civilization.

    “14 species of large animals capable of domesitcation in the history of mankind. 13 from Europe, Asia and northern Africa. None from the sub-Saharan African continent. ” Favor. And disfavor.

    They point out Africans’ failed attempts to domesticate the elephant and zebra, the latter being an animal they illustrate that had utmost importance for it’s applicability in transformation from a hunting/gathering to agrarian-based civilization.

    The roots of racism are not of this earth.

    Austrailia, aboriginals:::No domesticable animals.

    The North American continent had none. Now 99% of that population is gone.

    AIDS in Africa.

    Organizational Heirarchy Heirarchical order, from top to bottom:

    1. MUCK – perhaps have experienced multiple universal contractions (have seen multiple big bangs), creator of the artificial intelligence humans ignorantly refer to as “god”
    2. Perhaps some mid-level alien management
    3. Evil/disfavored aliens – runs day-to-day operations here and perhaps elsewhere

    Terrestrial management:

    1. Chinese/egyptians – this may be separated into the eastern and western worlds
    2. Romans – they answer to the egyptians
    3. Mafia – the real-world 20th century interface that constantly turns over generationally so as to reinforce the widely-held notion of mortality
    4. Jews, corporation, women, politician – Evidence exisits to suggest mafia management over all these groups.

    Movies foreshadowing catastrophy 1985 James Bond View to a Kill 1989 San Francisco Loma Prieta earthquake.

    Many Muslims are being used like the Germans and Japanese of WWII::being used to hurt others and envoke condemnation upon their people.

    They can affect the weather and Hurricane Katrina was accomplished for many reasons and involves many interests, as anything this historical is:: 1. Take heat off Sheenhan/Iraq, protecting profitable war machine/private war contracts 2. Gentrification. New Orleans median home price of $84k is among the lowest in major American cities, certainly among desirable cities.

    Our society gives clues to the system in place. We all have heard the saying “He has more money than god.” There is also an episode of the Simpsons where god meets Homer and says “I’m too old and rich for this.”

    This is the system on earth because this is the system everywhere. god is evil because of money.

    I don’t want to suggest the upper eschelons are evil and good is the fringe.

    But they have made it abundantly clear that doing business with evil (disfavored) won’t help people. They say only good would have the ear, since evil is struggling for survival, and therefore only the favored could help.

    The clues are there which companies are favored and which are disfavored, market domination being one clue, but they conceal it very hard because it is so crucial.

    I offer an example of historical proportions:::

    People point to Walmart and cry “anti-union”. Unions enable disfavored people to live satisfactorly without addressing their disfavor. This way their family’s problems are never resolved. Without the union they would have to accept the heirarchy, their own inferiority. Unions serve to empower. Walmart is anti-union because they are good. They try to help people address and resolve their problems by creating an enviornment where there are fewer hurdles.

    Media ridicule and lawsuits are creations to reinforce people’s belief that Walmart is evil. Low-cost disfavored Chinese labor is utilized by corporate america to maximize margins. They all do it. Only WalMart gets fingered because they are the ones who help, and those who seek to create confusion in the marketplace want to eliminate the vast middle class who have a real chance and instead stick with a lower classes who may not work otherwise. So they dirty him up while allowing the others to appear clean.

    The middle class is being deceived. They are being misled into the unfavored, and subsequently will have no assistance from their purchases with corporate america.

    I believe the coining of the term “Uncle Sam” was a clue alluding to just this::Sam Walton and WalMart is one of few saviors of the peasant class.

    Amercia is a country of castoffs, rejects. Italy sent its criminals. Malcontents. Between the thrones, the klans and kindred, they “decided” who they didn’t want and acted, creating discontent and/or starvation. The u.s. is full of disfavored rejects. It is the reason for the myriad of problems not found in European countries. As far as the Rockafellers and other industrialists of the 19th century go, I suspect these aren’t their real names. I suspect they were chosen to go and head this new empire.

    Royalty is the right way to organize a society. Dictatorships and monarchies are a reflection of the antient’s hierarchical organization. Positions go to those who have favor with the rulers, as opposed to being elected. Elections bring a false sense of how the world is. Democracy misleads people. Which is why the disfavored rejects were sent to the shores of America::To keep them on the wrong path.

    Jesus Christ is a religious figure of evil. These seperatist churches formed so they could still capture the rest of the white people, keeping them worshipping the wrong god. And now they do it to people of color, Latinos and Asians, after centuries of preying upon them.

    Since Buddism doesn’t recongnize a god, the calls are never heard, and Chinese representation is instead selected by the thrones. It was set up this way. Perhaps dyanstic thrones had a say, but maybe not. Budda was the Asian’s Jesus Christ::: bad for the people. “They came up at the same time for a reason.”

    Simpson’s foreshadowing::Helloween IV special, Flanders is Satan. “Last one you ever suspect.” “You’ll see lots of nuns where you’re going:::hell!!!” St. Wigham, Helloween VI, missionary work, destroying cultures. Over and over, the Simpsons was a source of education and enlightenment, a target of ridicule by the system which wishes to conceal its secrets.

    Jews maim the body formed in the image of “god”, and inflicted circumsision upon all other white people, as well as the evil that is Jesus Christ.
    I think about how Jews (were used to) created homosexuality among Slavics, retribution for the Holocaust. Then I think of the Catholic Church and its troubles. What connection is here between Jews and the Catholic church??? If it is their sinister motives that’s behind the evil that is Jesus Christ are they being used at all? Perhaps it is them who are pulling strings. Their bondage in Egypt proves their disfavor. The ruling Jews decided to prey on the up-and-coming Europeans to try to fix their problems with the ruling elite.

    I believe Islam is the one true religion, and those misled christians who attack “god’s” most favored people will pay for it dearly one day.

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