Thomas Szasz and the insanity defence

Neil Pickering1

1 Bioethics Centre, University of Otago, 71 Frederick Street, Dunedin 9016

In 1980, Thomas Szasz appeared in Oakland, California, in the case of People of the State of California vs Darlin June Cromer.  Cromer was charged with the racially motivated torture and murder of a young black child.  Szasz was called by the prosecution to rebut claims made by defence psychiatrists, that Cromer should be found not guilty by reason of insanity.  In answer to the question, what was Cromer suffering from on the day she committed the crime she was charged with, Szasz responded:  ‘[My] opinion is that she was suffering from the consequences of having lived a life very badly, very stupidly, very evilly’ (The Psychiatrist in Court, 1980, p.20).

Szasz gives a number of sorts of reasons for being opposed to the use of the insanity defence.  In this paper, I present and review some of them.  (1) He was morally opposed to it, as an offence to the dignity of human kind.  But I argue that Szasz should not appeal to morality to oppose the use of the defence, because it is inconsistent with his opposition to the use of morality to define a group of humans as mentally ill.  (2) He was opposed to it because he believed that all humans are responsible for their acts, and this is consistent with opposition to the defence, which reflects the intuition that not all people are responsible for their acts.  But I argue that an appeal to consistency does not support his position, unless he can give us some independent reason for thinking he is not only consistent but right.  (3) He was opposed to it because no scientific testimony can help decide the question whether someone is responsible for a crime they committed.  This is a much more convincing argument, premised on plausible ideas about the role of scientific explanation of behaviour, and I suggest that it is the strongest argument he has.


Neil is a senior lecturer in the Bioethics Centre at the University of Otago.  He specialises in the philosophy of psychiatry and medicine, and in particular on conceptualisations of disease.  He is author of The Metaphor of Mental Illness (Oxford University Press, 2006) and a number of articles on concepts of disease.  The work of Thomas Szasz has been a particular interest.