Thursday, February 17, 2005

Quine's "Quiddities" and the Insanity Defence

Sometimes one finds rare confirmation in unexpected places. W. V. Quine, in "Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary" (1987), writes (under the entry on "Free Will"):

"The rightly but insufficiently maligned insanity plea, as a defense in criminal courts, is predicated on ill health of the offender's decison-making faculties. The theory would seem to be that healthy faculties make decisions spontaneously and hence with full responsibility, while diseased ones are the pawns of outside forces. It is a hard line to draw, and the more so when one appreciates that all our actions subtend causal chains from far away and long ago. The plea has no evident place in the rationale of punishment as we have been picturing it, and a persuasive justification of it is not easy to conceive."


At 6:59 PM, Blogger Sheldon Richman said...

I am glad to encounter this quotation, but his phrase "causal chains" gives me concern. Actions are more accurately said to have chains of reasons rather than causes. The distinction is worth fighting for. I once argued free will with a couple of professors of biology who insisted that all actions are "determined." For example, they said, if you go to Wal-Mart to buy toothpaste, that action is determined by your having run out of toothpaste and by your having been taught the value of clean teeth. That struck me as silly. Running out of toothpaste and believing clean teeth are desirable are reasons for, not causes of, the action.

At 11:43 PM, Blogger Anthony Stadlen said...

Yes, indeed. I did not mean to imply unqualified approval. But I find it interesting that, even to someone with a different starting-point, the insanity defence appears "rightly but insufficiently maligned".


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