The Marshall Project
We humans are a morally messy species, constantly jostling one another at the marketplace of desires. But we also have built-in restraints. We know we are moral agents who will be held responsible when the pursuit of our own desires causes others harm. You break it, you buy it.
It is worth remembering these enduring truths as the glare of public attention once again spotlights the latest trials of the century. That glare can obscure some pretty clear lines the law has drawn over the last 5,000 years, including the differences between motive and excuse, and responsibility and punishment.
Just because a criminal has a perfectly good explanation for his harmful actions — I’m poor and angry, I am a heroin addict, I was doing it to please my friends or family — doesn’t mean we excuse those actions. That wouldn’t be a very sensible way to regulate the crowded marketplace of desires. The law excuses crimes only in a few very narrow kinds of circumstances, generally when those circumstances are so extreme that any reasonable person faced with them would also act criminally. The father forced by kidnappers to rob a bank under the threat they will kill his kidnapped son.
Insanity is another kind of extreme excuse. Many of us may doubt psychiatry’s ability to ferret out the truly delusional from the fakers. But we should broadly be able to agree that if we could reliably diagnose the fellow who shoots a man he really thinks is a space alien bent on killing all humans, he should not be held as responsible as the fellow who shoots a man he knows is just a man having an affair with his wife.