One interesting question to raise in regards to psychopaths is whether they can actually be labelled as mentally ill or legally insane individuals. There has been some discussion of this in academic circles, but we want to provide more a layman’s breakdown of the issue regarding psychopaths and legal and mental sanity.
A psychopath’s relationship to crime, insanity and responsibility can be summed up in three simple steps:
- Psychopaths are fully aware of what they are doing. Their behavior is a result of conscious choice, freely exercised.
- Psychopaths do not commit crimes when law enforcement is there. They are aware of the rules and take steps to avoid detection. They are aware of the difference between right and wrong.
- However, the psychopathic mindset is characterised by an arrogance and entitlement, where the psychopath feels free to break the rules of morality and society whenever it suits for their own ends, even if it causes harm to others.
In this sense, psychopaths are seriously mentally deranged and lacking in emotional qualities like empathy and conscience that normal people possess, but at the same time their self awareness and wilful behavior means they cannot be considered legally or clinically insane.
Similarly, psychopaths cannot be considered mentally ill by clinical standards, since they don’t suffer from the same subjective internal distress that others do, nor do they have breaks with reality or hallucinations like psychotics and other mentally ill people do.
They are largely immune to things like anxiety, stress and depression, and cannot experience human emotions like empathy, guilt and remorse in the way other people do.
In other words, they are sick and twisted, but sane. They know exactly what they are doing, but they don’t care for the consequences it has on others. Let’s look at each of these steps in turn in more detail.
1. Psychopaths Act in Full, Conscious Awareness of What They Are Doing
” Psychopaths are not disorientated or out of touch with reality, nor do they experience the delusions, hallucinations, or intense subjective distress that characterize most other mental disorders. Unlike psychotic individuals, psychopaths are rational and aware of what they are doing and why. Their behavior is the result of choice, freely exercised”
Dr Robert Hare, Without Conscience, p.22
We have already covered this issue in our article on whether psychopaths are aware of what they are doing. In short, psychopaths act in full conscious awareness of their actions, as the quote above from lifelong psychopathy expert Dr Robert Hare demonstrates.
Put differently, psychopaths know exactly that they are hurting others, that certain acts of violence are considered illegal, but they choose to go on with these acts anyway.
They are not guided by some uncontrollable, unconscious impulse, urge, or genetic default, or through some kind of outside mysterious “entity” or “spirit”, as some psychopaths have tried to claim. They exercise free will and choice when carrying out illegal and destructive behavior.
Some psychopaths will also try to blame society or another person for their action. “They made me do it”, or “society made me do it” is a common excuse. This is symptomatic of the psychopath’s tendency to project responsibility away from themselves and onto others and the world to an extreme degree.
2. Psychopaths Take Steps to Avoid Detection & Conceal Wrongdoing
Another crucial indicator in the awareness of the difference between right and wrong of the psychopath is the fact that they often take steps to cover up crimes and wrongdoing, aware that there will be consequences if they are caught.
They know what the rules are, but choose not to follow them whenever it serves their own ends and they think they can get away with it. If they get caught, then they are not sorry they did it; they are only sorry they got caught.
A classic example of this which is often given is that the psychopath will not brutally murder or assault someone or run a red traffic light when they see a cop there. They know this behavior is considered illegal by society, so they don’t openly flaunt the rules in front of those who could capture and punish them. They are more clever and covert in how they commit crimes and wrongdoing.
The legal term consciousness of guilt is relevant here, in that the psychopath is demonstrating through their actions in attempting to cover up wrongdoing that they know these things are considered illegal or morally wrong.
Any attempts to flee from or alter crimes scenes, lie and give false statements or conceal evidence demonstrates they know the difference between right and wrong.
It is however true that most of us have at some point technically broken laws and done things which we know were wrong or not allowed, for our own benefit. Many of us have drank at bars underage or run a red traffic light when a cop wasn’t there to get home quicker.
The difference however between a psychopath and a normal person is that the psychopath commits crimes 1) on a much larger, grander and more regular scale than this; and 2) in a way which often harms and kills others for their own benefits, without showing any guilt or remorse for this behavior.
3. The Psychopath Feels Entitled to Break The Law & Harm Others Whenever it Suits Them
So how are we to reconcile these first two points then? On the one hand, psychopaths commit acts which harm others in full awareness, whilst also knowing these things are considered immoral and/or illegal. They do wrong despite cognitively knowing the difference between right and wrong just as anyone else does.
We can understand this by understanding in more detail some of the key traits of the psychopathic personality – arrogance, entitlement, superiority, remorselessness, callousness and lack of empathy.
Firstly, the arrogance and entitlement of the psychopath means they feel free to break the rules of society and morality whenever it suits them. If it helps them get from A to B, then they don’t care about what they have to do to get there, even if it involves killing people.
We have also covered this aspect of the psychopathic mindset in our article on how psychopaths view the world. To them, they look down on the world with a detached coldness and superiority, considering themselves “above” the human traits of empathy, conscience, kindness and so on.
They see these things as a weakness and consider themselves fortunate (and superior) not to be shackled by these things. They just do whatever they like as far as they are concerned. They are happy to use rules and laws to control others, but they think they themselves are “above” these rules.
This added to the natural callousness and lack of empathy of the psychopath, means they can do horrific things to others without flinching, because they cannot feel the emotional impact of their actions on others, even if they cognitively know the difference between right and wrong.
Hence, the psychopath knows they are doing wrong, but they simply do not care, considering themselves above the normal rules of morality and decency, and entitled to do whatever they want if it benefits them.
Some Psychopaths Try To Plead Insanity For Their Own Ends
Being inherently deceptive and manipulative people, it is also true that many psychopaths have tried to plead insanity as a way of avoiding conviction or lightening their sentence. They realize that if they can find a way to convincingly disown responsibility for their actions, they may get away with it.
Despite this clearly laid out argument that psychopaths are fully legally sane, some of the more intelligent ones have tried to plead insanity to either avoid being executed or have their sentence lightened. In some cases it has worked; here are some examples:
Anthony Sowell – killed 11 women and tried to plead insanity. Ultimately couldn’t prove he didn’t know the difference between right and wrong and was convicted.
Ed Gein – Killed multiple people and used their body parts as objects in his home. Pled not guilty by insanity and it actually worked – he spent the rest of his life in a mental institution. Knowledge of psychopathy was far less advanced in his time than it is now.
David Berkowitz – the “Son of Sam” killer, tried to argue that a demon dog told him to commit the murders. Spent some time in a psychiatric hospital but eventually stood trial.
Jeffrey Dahmer – Murdered multiple men between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. Pled not guilty due to insanity but was still convicted.
Kenneth Bianchi, one of the so called “Hillside Stranglers, captured, raped and tortured multiple women in Los Angeles in the 1970s. Managed to fool some experts that had multiple personality disorder and the crimes had actually been committed by one of his alter egos, “Steve”. Was eventually found out and convicted.
Ted Bundy, the famous serial killer of the 1970s, who brutally murdered several dozen women, later claimed that a “malignant entity” had entered his consciousness and was responsible for him committing the crimes.
See this article for some more interesting cases of this. Some psychopathic killers have managed to get away with pleading insanity; most of them are eventually convicted and imprisoned or executed.
In order to bring some clarity back to the argument though, we have to simply bring it back to a few basic principles of the psychopathic mindset – the use of psychological projection to deflect blame and responsibility, the inherent deceptiveness and manipulativeness of psychopaths, and the consciousness of guilt as evidenced by their attempts to cover up crimes.
Psychopaths are always trying to make excuses and justifications for their behavior. It is never their fault for anything; it is always someone or something else’s fault for annoying them, getting in their way, or something else. The psychopath habitually refuses to accept responsibility for any wrongdoing ever in life, large or small. They project responsibility out to an extreme degree.
Secondly, psychopaths are constantly attempting to manipulate others for their own ends. This includes trying to manipulate judges, juries and prosecutors by pleading insanity. There are no agenda free interactions with a psychopaths. Manipulativeness and deceptiveness are built into their personality and come naturally to them.
There is always an angle here; always an attempt to manipulate others for their own ends. Pleading insanity to avoid execution or lighten their sentence is no different. It is self serving on the part of the psychopath, as is every interaction they have with others. They are looking to see only what they can get for themselves.
The consciousness of guilt standard is again a good measure to use to evaluate a psychopath’s sanity, since the very attempt to cover up crimes and avoid detection demonstrates they do know that what they are doing is wrong.
However, we come back again to the psychopathic mindset or arrogance, entitlement, and lack of guilt and remorse. They know full well what the rules are, but they don’t care. As far as the psychopath is concerned, they can break the rules and harm others whenever they feel like it; it’s just a means to an end for them and the normal rules don’t apply to them.
A psychopath’s mindset is to get from A to B, or get what they want, in the simplest, easiest way possible. If other people get hurt or killed on the way, they don’t care. it’s just collateral damage to them. There is no empathy or connection with the suffering this may have caused along the way. They are detached from the emotional consequences of their actions on others.