Thursday, 14 April 2016

Against Andres Chang

"Justice for victims, their families and society is changing our system so that those of us who commit crimes are reformed and reintegrated back into society as safe members."
This is the first sentence in a letter by Andres Chang published in the Taipei Times today.

As much as I am disgusted by the sentiment of forgiveness for unforgivable crimes, I am equally baffled as to how anyone can arrive at a belief like that regarding the monster who hacked that little girl's head off.

For crimes that are beyond our understanding, I don't see how "reform and reintegration" for the perpetrator is even possible to begin with. There is some evidence that psychopathy is related to abnormal neurological development or trauma in the brain. Yet there is no branch of neuroscience or clinical psychology that can plausibly lay claim to be able to "rewire" an abnormal or damaged human brain so as to transform a monster into a normal human being. Perhaps the most that can be done short of killing them is to permanently load them up on incapacitating drugs.

Andres Chang and others like him are putting blind faith before reason. Behind the eyes of human monsters there is a vast and possibly intractable knowledge problem which the likes of Chang fail to even acknowledge. Perhaps one day neuroscience may be sufficiently advanced that it becomes possible to develop experimental treatments, but that day is probably a long way off. Alternatively it may never arrive. Unless and until that day comes then "reform and reintegration" of monsters will remain an irresponsible stupidity.


  1. Based on the news reports say, there's is rather convincing evidence that the guy who killed that four-year old has some persistent form of psychosis. I won't be surprised if they later diagnose him with schizophrenia (It's reported that when police made initial contact they were asked to bow before their "Emperor". After his arrest he continued to maintain that he was, in fact, Emperor Yao. The police later found pages and pages of nonsense scribblings at his house of residence.)

    If it is true that he was psychotic, then "reform and reintegration" may in fact be possible. It's not without precedent ...

  2. I didn't know that "Emperor Yao" stuff.

    On the question of reform and reintegration being possible, I am more skeptical. As far as I'm aware there is no predictive understanding of how psychosis or sustained psychotic episodes develop. What are the necessary and what are the sufficient conditions? How likely is relapse?

    I remember reading about the Tim McClean case when it happened.

    My suspicion is that, in two of the three cases you cite, their gradual release into the public is more a reflection of hope and the motivation to be members of a society that supports people with mental illness rather than punishes them. You can see that same politicized motivation at work in the commentary on the Wang case (e.g. J.M. Cole calling proponents of the death penalty "lazy"). I don't think the scientific knowledge of mental health is strong enough to really understand the range of conditions under which psychosis can develop (or perhaps re-develop following treatment). So possibly it is fair to say the proponents of treatment and reintegration may be "lazy" in apparently assuming that we really do understand mental illness and can make it go away.

    We just don't know what's really going on there (apart from odd brain wiring).

  3. As far as I'm aware there is no predictive understanding of how psychosis or sustained psychotic episodes develop. What are the necessary and what are the sufficient conditions? How likely is relapse?

    Well recognition of diseases like schizophrenia has been around for quite awhile, and treatment is often successfulish. Anecdotal, anti-psychotics are often quite effectively at treating psychotic episodes. (The cynic in me notes that they basically blunt the person's entire mindstate, leaving them sluggish and lacking in creative thought, i.e. all forms of extra thought), and that the reason some people never relapse may be because the drugs did long term damage to the brain ... but hey if it works it works.) Other treatment gives the patient grounding so that they can recognize the signs and symptoms of a worsening condition and seek help.

    We just don't know what's really going on there (apart from odd brain wiring).
    Yes but they are people and they can talk to us! (Article about a the development of acute schizophrenia from a first-person perspective
    Man's video log of an episode.)

  4. Agree with you about the anti psychotic drugs. Not convinced about the effectiveness of treatment.

    But part of the problem is the development of mental illness "in the wild" so to speak, to people who are unknown to the institutions. We know what some of the aggregate predictors are (poverty etc) but not much more useful than that.

  5. "Yes but they are people and they can talk to us!"

    Yes, but that doesn't tell us what causes their mental illness and how to cure it. About the most we seem to know is that (a) there's usually a slight genetic susceptibility, (b) there is something odd in brain wiring or structure either from abnormal development or trauma and (c) environmental stresses have probably got something to do with the abnormal brain wiring.

    I'm sorry, but that's just not enough on which to claim an "understanding" of mental illness. It's far too vague and there are too many unanswered questions.

    I said in another thread that I think we have to be careful with people suffering from mental illnesses and to remember that they also have rights, but I think that in cases where someone has already committed a terrible crime, the wise thing to do is to err on the side of caution and have them live under supervision (assuming we reject the death penalty). I don't think granting these people freedom to rejoin society after "successfulish" treatment is justifiable given the weakness of the underlying science.


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