Sunday, December 6, 2009

The sleepwalking defence

I state in my profile that we need to turn our ideas on their heads to gain understanding.

So what did I make of this report of a man who strangled his wife in her sleep? His charge of murder was dropped, but I would be surprised if he is not now charged with manslaughter.

But behind the headlines there is an interesting tale about responsibility. We humans are extremely susceptible to external influence. Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment showed many years ago how our rational decision making capabilities can be heavily influenced by our interactions with others. We seem to obey authority figures, and we are known to also conform to group behaviours.

Economists generally assume people behave in a perfectly rational way, and that decisions are made independently. Legal practice certainly seems to take decisions as personal and independent. But we only can make these decisions based on our past education and experiences – past external factors.

But just as we still believe that people are responsible for the decisions and behaviour, even though these arise from past external factors, we should believe that a sleepwalker is responsible for their actions.


  1. Hello all,

    You have framed the argument by saying that we should be responsible for our thoughts as well as our actions?

    Let's ignore the unsavory legal 'loop-hole' implications of this case - that I may be able to kill my wife and get away with it by saying that I was sleepwalking.

    I believe it is a very dangerous argument. Should we have an Orwellian 'Though Police' to arrest us for fantasising about killing our wife? Should we be able to arrest terrorists for thinking about blowing up the world-trade center? What is the difference to planing a terrorist attack in my head and planning it on paper? Not much - but there is a difference between fantasising about it and planning it in my head. The difference of course is my conscience mind. I take responsibility for my actions - I filter my chaotic thoughts through a sieve that I have built out of my experiences, my society (my environment) and also my temperament. When this sieve is removed, then I am not responsible for my actions - but you put forward that I should be responsible for these fantasies?

  2. No, I don't claim we are not responsible for our thoughts, but we are responsible for our decisions (when we act out our filtered thoughts).

    Whether these decisions are conscious or not, they are still our responsibility. For example, when I'm angry, the sieve of reasonableness is removed, but I am still responsible for my actions when in that state of mind.

    My point is that the sieve is a construct of past experience, which is partly out of our control, but that doesn't necessarily imply we are not responsible.

    This idea relates back to this previous post.