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Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity?

Lara Calus

26th January 2024

One very important way we differ from nonhuman animals is our ability to use abstract reasoning. This is the pillar of the distinction between the human experience and non-human animals. Here we explore the history of the “M'Naghten rule”.

It can seem like an unfair system when we question the legitimacy of a ‘Not guilty by reason of insanity’ defense, as we want to see people reprimanded for their crimes. However, the logic behind such a plea has its roots back in the 1400’s, specifically when animals were put on trial for damaging property to murder. However, in the present day, we have come a long way from focusing on why something occurred instead of what happened.

It wasn’t until 1843 when British Law brought in the M'Naghten Rule, which stated that a person is guilty of their crime unless the defence could prove that ‘at the time of committing the act, the accused was labouring under such a defect reason…that he did not know what he was doing was wrong.’ This law was accepted by countries where animal trials had been ongoing.

The reasoning type that makes us different from nonhuman animals is that of moral reasoning, right and wrong in other words, which are abstract concepts and require verbal language that is understood by all of humankind. We know now that historically it was agreed nonhuman animals do not have this capacity to understand moral reasoning, and that we need this to function in our world whereas nonhuman animals do not. We need to be clear, however, that knowing something is wrong and choosing to do it anyway, does not reflect moral reasoning. We can apply this to psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, where an individual may lose the ability to make decisions based on what is morally right and wrong.

For more information, check out the references

Lee, Alendar (2020). "Pigs Might Try". History, November 2020 edition

Lara Calus

Lara is an experienced Psychology lecturer and part of the tutor2u Psychology team.

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