Throwing ethics out of the courts

I have been reading In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, which is pretty interesting, if considerably less intellectually dense than my preceding readings in Rousseau and Burke. Basically, the book seems like an attempt to describe journalistically yet psychologically a sort of mental derangement that manifests itself in two men that commit a multiple murder. When Capote puts all his cards on the table by actually quoting at length from a psychiatric report on murderers who kill “without cause,” he seems to lose his journalistic distance and be less describing the situation than mounting a legal defense of the criminals.

Ultimately, I find it somewhat unconvincing, and it seems to get down to a basic disconnect I have with the underpinnings of our legal system. By listing all the emotional traumas, paranoias, lack of contact with reality, etc. of the murderers, the psychiatrists, and Capote, seem to assume that this somehow exonerates the culprits, or at least makes them not punishable by death. But aren’t the people that are most screwed-up and unable to have any sort of normal relationship with society the ones that are most dangerous to it? I am not defending capital punishment, and one could argue that at the least its deterrant value would probably be largely inoperative for those who are genuinely insane, but on the other hand it would certainly serve the function of removing them from society if they simply cannot co-exist safely with others (a debateable point, of course). Anyway, the point is that it baffles me how so many people (and it is certainly not limited to psychiatrists or Truman Capote) can view judicial punishment as some sort of verdict on moral culpability rather than as a matter of making the world safer for the future. I would imagine, at the least, that someone who is sane is more capable of controlling violent behavior than someone suffering from delusions or uncontrollable impulses. I am not sure what the relative merits of capital punishment, pyschiatric care, imprisonment or whatever else are for the overal welfare of society are, but I am sure that that is what is important in these matters, rather than whether criminals are good or bad people, mentally ill or operating with free will.

p.s. It also sort of annoys me how the psychiatrists in the book seems to assume that, for example, a man who kills someone for money is sane and rational, while someone who kills while suffering under a delusional persecution complex is not. I’d say that someone who is willing to shoot a whole family for their money is pretty much pathological, regardless of whether he is objectively lucid about the situation. But it is the old Enlightenment view that morality is tantamount to knowledge or awareness, and that not behaving rightly is tantamount to ignorance. So if someone is aware of their surroundings and what they are doing they are rational. I’d say people are more heterogenous than that: rationality and sanity by my lights is just as much a question of prioritizing values; those who do not see a life as being more valuable than a few dollars are no more sane than those who think that everyone is out to get them.

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