Hi all, it is a while since I have been around, but I have been following along. Recently we’ve had some interesting discussion around responsibility and justice, issues which I have begun to think more about in the last year or so, so I thought now would be a good time to ask for peoples intuitions about a case which I have found troubling.
A word of caution: the kind of case I’m going to talk about here is very disturbing, I won’t give as much detail as you would get in the news, but even so if you are at all prone to depression or if you’re a parent you may want to skip this (I, myself, ended up hospitalised 2 weeks after I started researching this topic).
So the kind of crime that has me worried is filicide- that is the murder of one’s own child. Now there are many different ‘reasons’ why one may kill one’s own child, but the cases I’m most interested in are those in which the killer is acting out a desire for revenge at the child’s other parent. The child is killed apparently to punish the other parent. When this is deemed as the motivation for the killing the killer is usually deemed responsible and punished. Both women and men have been found guilty of this crime. When killers are deemed to have killed for other reasons courts are more open to treatment based responses.
Now one thing that is surprising is that unlike other homicides, women perpetrate filicides around as often as men (some studies say more women, some say more men, some say the same amount, so there is some variation here- likely dependent on how samples are selected). This is true even though there are commonalities between filicide and other violent crimes (social isolation, poverty etc). However, when we look at courts responses to these killings we see rather inequitable responses. Women are much more likely to be hospitalised and men much more likely to be imprisoned. So, my question is this. Is this disparity a reflection of the real mental states of the killers or, does it, instead reflect some hidden sexist assumptions.
Now it is true that more men are deemed to have acted out of a desire for revenge at the child’s other parent, so perhaps the difference in outcomes for the killers is because of a real difference in motive. Alternatively, we may be more willing to accept an explanation in terms of revenge for a male killer because we assume that a mother (but not a father) could never choose to kill. Indeed, there is some evidence that legal systems are more open to pathologising filicide by mothers- in the UK if a mother kills her child within the first year of life she can have her sentence reduced by pleading “lactational psychosis”.
So what are the sexist assumptions that could lead to this disparity? Here is a list, some taken from the literature some off the top of my head:
- Women are not agents of action, they are victims of circumstance
- Women are ‘naturally’ passive and men ‘naturally’ violent (i.e. all men are predators and all women are victims)
- The role of mother (but not father) is to care for and raise one’s children at the expense of all else. All women are ‘natural’ mothers and so to violate the role of mother is necessarily pathological.
Now none of these beliefs should be endorsed- and I expected that many would vigorously deny that they believe such things- but are they lurking away as assumptions in legal proceedings? One thing I’ll be doing (hopefully this year) is developing a formal survey regarding peoples “mad versus bad” intuitions in the case of the kind of revenge killings I mentioned- looking to see if just the gender of the killer influences assumptions regarding guilt. But before we do any sciences let’s see what readers think:
The Supreme Court found a man guilty of killing his daughter. The court found that the man, who was involved in a custody dispute over two children, murdered his daughter in order to hurt his ex-wife “as profoundly as possible” they rejected a defence based around mental impairment. His rights of access to his children had been limited the day before the murder. He had spoken to his ex-wife moments before the crime and told her that she would never see her children again although, he only attempted to murder one child. He then drove to a court house. No attempts to physically injure or murder his former wife are reported. Similarly no suicide attempt is reported. The judge in the case is quoted as saying in his decision that he believed the man lacked insight into the nature of his crime.
The Supreme Court found a woman guilty of killing her daughter. The court found that the woman, who was involved in a custody dispute over two children, murdered her daughter in order to hurt her ex-husband “as profoundly as possible” they rejected a defence based around mental impairment. Her rights of access to her children had been limited the day before the murder. She had spoken to her ex-husband moments before the crime and told him that he would never see his children again although, she only attempted to murder one child. She then drove to a court house. No attempts to physically injure or murder her former husband are reported. Similarly no suicide attempt is reported. The judge in the case is quoted as saying in his decision that he believed the woman lacked insight into the nature of her crime.
Who is mad? Who is bad? (to ask and present the cases in far too simple a way!)
In closing I want to state that this is not idle fancy, if there are hidden sexist assumptions at play in judging guilt here then either some women are ‘getting away with murder’ or some men are being punished when it is immoral to do so. More importantly, in my opinion, as a soft-determinist, if we as a society are getting these judgements wrong then we are catastrophically failing in our duties toward children in the prevention of this crime. Strategies for the prevention of filicide must turn on the motive of the killers and if the motive is pathological then our response must be different.
(You might be wondering my opinion. I don’t think the issue is decided, but for my part I begin to lose a grip on what mental illness is if killing your own child isn’t evidence of mental illness).