Evil and moral insanity

The philosopher AC Grayling is never one to shy away from difficult issues. But I’m not sure what to make of his use of the term “moral insanity” to describe the actions of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian who imprisoned and sexually enslaved his daughter for 24 years.

Moral insanity is defined by Grayling as the refusal to act according to important moral dictates that the agent fully understands.

Grayling writes that he is not referring to insanity in the sense of “psychosis or mania”. Fritzl is no madman who can escape the consequences of his actions with a defence based on insanity.

So what does it mean to be “mad”? Grayling refers to psychosis and mania. When we look at people who commit acts of violence in a calculated manner, we tend to describe them as “psychopathic”. It is a broad definition, and one that indicates a high degree of self-control and choice in a psychopathic individual’s actions.

To me it seems that abstract labels such as “moral insanity” are little more than a convenient means of avoiding the culturally-loaded term “evil”. They are a way of side-stepping what we regard as an intractable issue, and do not advance our understanding of people such as Fritzl. Detailed psychiatric reports will hopefully tell us more about this man and what motivated him.

Grayling regards the word evil as insufficient to give us a grip on where a person like Fritzl belongs on the moral scale. It is, he says, a distraction that all too often ends the debate instead of opening it up for further exploration. Indeed it does, but has Grayling done any better with his definition of moral insanity? I’m not convinced that it presents a significant advance.