Are any murderers NOT insane?

Excluding accidental/unintentional/forced murderers, are there really any people who kill (be it for money, out of rage, etc) who aren’t mentally ill? I mean, even if the guy/gal isn’t hearing voices, if he/she decides to kill their spouse for infidelity, he/she has to be insane to do something like that.

Am I right, or is my idea of “insane” too broad.

Depends on what you mean by “insane”. If you mean are they all so out if it they shouldn’t be held responsible, then no, they all aren’t insane. If you mean they’re all different in some way from normal people, that they are, but better words for some of them would be “evil” or “amoral”. They don’t have hallucinations or delusions, and their judgement isn’t impaired. They’re just the center of their own world.

Well… at first thought, I would say yes there are sane murderers. For example, there’s likely nothing looney about someone who kills a relative s/he doesn’t like in order to speed up an inheritance. From an amoral (self-centered?) standpoint, it’s a very rational thing to do. Just doesn’t conform to acceptable social standards.

However, thinking about it more, I can’t imagine any normal person being able to do the deed. It’s one thing for someone to have such thoughts – however, going ahead and doing it? I’ve got to think that even if you were sane to begin with, the knowledge that you had someone killed solely for your own benefit would drive you nuts.

Assuming that you believe that other people’s lives have value.

This is a pretty amazing lack of imagination for someone who lives on this planet. How do you square this with Hiroshima, the death penalty or most of human history?

I am pretty sure I could be put in a situation where I would take someone’s life for a reason not related to self-defense, and I don’t think it would require much of a shift from my fairly sane mindset. A few might be classified as temporary sanity - if someone murdered someone I love in front of me, handed me a gun and surrendered, I have no doubt that I would kill them. I’m pretty sure I would kill them if I ran into them some time later, but I’m not sure. My sister was murdered over 15 years ago, and for a time I was sure that I would kill her murderer if I had a chance, but I think if he came to me today and confessed, I probably wouldn’t. I might not turn him in though, I might just call some relatives that I’m pretty sure would kill him (probably in a fairly imaginative and painful way). So I guess revenge killing might be a form of insanity that can wear off with time.

Part of it has to do with consequences too. One of the main reasons why I wouldn’t kill my sisters murderer would be that it would destroy my life, I would probably go to prison for some time. In the past I might sacrifice myself in that way for revenge, but I’m more mature now - is immaturity the same as insanity? Is the willingness to sacrifice their status in society (or risk losing it) and/or endure great suffering for reasons other than self-preservation (or preservation of others) a form of insanity? Though I’m not so hungry for revenge now that I would risk imprisonment for it, if I had an opportunity to kill the murderer (or cause his death) with 0% chance of getting caught, I probably would. If the government promised me full immunity, anonymity, and a million dollars to kill a total stranger, I might even.

This is an interesting question as both of the categories, Murder and Insanity have no clear meaning in the public mind.

People assume that these are simple and real concepts, but both are heavily socially constructed.

The act of killing someone may be classified as heroic, necessary, unfortunate, despicable, illegal etc. depending on circumstances. Certain decisions made by society as a whole at a certain time and place decides what ‘Murder’ is.

The social finding that someone is insane similarly depends on societal decisions dependent on time and place. A person exhibiting a particular different form of behaviour may be seen as laudable, interestingly different, OK, distressingly different, treatably insane etc. dependent on the societal whims of the time.

So the question is: ‘Is someone whose behaviour has been categorized as murderous necessarily insane’. Because both classes are so broadly and badly defined in universal terms, this cannot possibly be the case: there will be many contrary examples. Even within a single society at a particular time there will be major problems with deciding what is murderous and what is insane behaviour.

Gross distortions will occur when passions are high. An example is that of Mental Illness and Mental Retardation defences to crimes that have been
1/ So overused and misused by defense attornies
2/ Seen as such by death penalty advocates
that even patently incapable people are executed even though they do not understand the nature of the crime or the effect of capital punishment. Because of the social necessity of ensuring that the death penalty continues, people who would be seen as incapable of responding to a charge of petty theft are met with the death penalty if they kill. This only happens because the classes of ‘Murderer’ and ‘Insane’ are poorly constructed.

I had a client who was very intelligent, well spoken, well behaved, socially integrated, knew the difference between right and wrong, but just didn’t care. He killed people who got in his way. Aside from killing people the way you or I would kill a bug, he was absolutlely sane. If being a multiple murder by definition means that one is insane, then he was as insane as they get. If, however, one can overlook multiple murders, then he was absolutely sane. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he knew that he should not do it and knew why he should not do it, but he simply did not care.

Was he insane? Legally, no. He was aware of what he was doing, and was aware of the ramifications. Medically, however, there was obviously something not working in his mind or he would not have been that way.

I think that to some degree, worrying about whether people are insane or not is a bit like chasing one’s tail, for the definition keeps shifting according to society’s perceptions (e.g. up until recently, gay people were thought to be mentally ill). I prefer to look at less abstract aspects, such as whether or not a person knows what society deems to be right or to be wrong (regardless of what the person believes), and whether or not the person is capable of controlling his or her own actions (regardless of what the person feels). Thus in my books, if a person knows that society prohibits murder, and there is nothing inside the person’s head driving him or her to murder, then even if the person does not believe that murder is a bad thing and feels justified in murdering, I would still consider the person to be sane to the point of having to take responsibility.

Plenty of murderers are not insane - by the legal definition of insanity.

I can’t answer the OP, because I’m unsure what the OP wishes to use as a definition of the word insane.

If a person, because of mental disease or defect, is unable to distinguish right from wrong, or unable to appreciate the nature and quality of his acts, or is driven by an irresistible impulse at the moment of the act, then (depending on the jurisdiction) then he’s legally insane.

  • Rick

I think its implicit that qwerty wasn’t refering to the legal definition of insanity which is ridiculously narrow and has almost nothing to do with any psychiatric definition.

Consider the following factual scenario. The perpetrator is delusional and believes his victim to be the human incarnation of satan. He knows that killing satan will be illegal because he is the only one who knows the truth. Unfortunately if he doesn’t kill him the world will face armagedon. Under the legal test he is sane.

There are decent, law abiding people on this board who think its just fine to kill someone to stop him from stealing their car. In my jurisdiction that would be murder. Is all of Texas insane? Oh yeah, never mind.

I interpreted the question to cover forms of murder for personal gain/whim that weren’t officially or societally sanctioned. (Please correct me if I’m wrong there!)

I should clarify my position above that though I don’t believe an average person would be able to kill for personal gain/whim without suffering a lot of psychological feedback, being “abnormal” in this sense does not mean being defective or “insane”. Rather it indicates many possibilities such as having been raised in a different moral system where that type of killing was not wrong, having a strong resistance to indoctrination and thus having acquired no habit of obeying society’s laws unsupervised, etc.

Of course, this is my opinion based on the average person in today’s American society. I don’t have a great way of judging societal pressures in other countries or situations (post-apocalypse, survivalist, space-faring, etc.)

In any case, to answer the OP, I would say “No, many murderers are not ‘insane’ by my understanding of the word. However, most of them are probably significantly different in psychological/moral makeup than the average person, which may be your definition of insanity.”

I could be wrong, but I think this comes under “unable to appreciate the nature and quality of his acts”. He didn’t know he was killing a normal person, he thought he was killing Satan.

Ned -
I don’t think insane has a psychiatric definition (I know it’s not used in psychology), only a legal definition and an “everyday” definition.The everyday definition is much too broad to have been what the OP is referring to ( “My boss is insane” could mean anything from he’s a nitpicker to he thinks little green men are following him in little white cars), so either the OP was referring to the legal definition, or s/he is using some in-between definition. I couldn’t tell which.

Doreen, you are of course correct regarding the existence a psychiatric definition. It would be more acurate to say that the legal definition has no basis in psychiatric understanding of mental processes or psychiatric disorders. It is a purely legal definition that sought to limit and precision the more general wild beast test.

The facts I cited did result in a guilty verdict in Canada which uses the same test. If recollection is correct this was at the Supreme Court of Canada. The part about understanding the nature and quality of an act is pretty meaningless as it has been interpreted to mean knowing whether an act is illegal. It may have more meaning in American jurisdictions.

I’m guessing that hired hit men, and the killers in organized crime, are quite sane by most any measure. Unless, disregard for the sanctity human life, while a moral issue, also falls under the psychiatric definition of insanity.

And I think that if someone stands in the way of a potential murderer from obtaining a desired goal, that if the potential murderer calculates that the only real way to get to his goal is to remove the obstruction, and that cold, calculated, premeditated muder is the only way to achieve that removal, and if he were an athiest with no fear of retribution, and planned a murder so carefully that even Columbo couldn’t crack the case (much less the L.A. D.A’s office), then I would say that the muderer would be quite sane. Just horribly immoral and misguided.

Unless he tried to commit murder with a crayon. Now THAT’s insane.

Ok, I didn’t mean by the legal definition of insanity. All I ask is whether anyone who knowingly, deliberatly take another human being’s life is necessarily insane. Insane, for the purpose of this thread, does not mean exclusivly “unable to reason.” While that’s one part of insanity, there are certainly other things entailed.

In my opinion, hitmen would defeinitly have to be insane. First, they don’t seem to have the fears that most normal people have. Second, they put MONEY over human life. Third, although they usually know what their doing is wrong (I
admit they’re not usually sociopathic) they still do it, without remorse. If thats not insane, then I clearly don’t know what is.

Don’t most of the older criminal organizations attach a lot of importance to tradition, and to a lesser extent religion? I think that if someone can surround the act of killing with it’s own set of rules that make it OK it can be easier for them to kill without being insane. Religon also helps if you believe that you can still be judged worthy in the afterlife if you truly hate your sins, pay some kind of penance, or do it for a ‘good cause’.

I actually don’t think the ability to kill is abnormal, though. Most people who think that there is something wrong with someone if they killed someone for their own personal gain would perhaps not be so judgemental of a stone age hunter-gatherer from before civilization who did so, and rightfully so. It’s not so much the act of killing that is a form of mental instability, but the ability to break from social mores that are in some cases thousands of years old.

Personally, I believe we place too much importance on human life in general these days, but that increase was necessary for us to build our civilization. Going back to our non-domesticated values would probably destroy our civilization.