One of the “Bibles” of forensic psychology is Psychological Evaluations for the Courts, written by Gary Melton and others. It is a extremely informative book that provides extensive examinations of most areas related to the practice of forensic psychology, and would likely be the primary book most people would recommend if “you only had one forensic psychology book to work from...”
Most forensic practitioners will own this book as a reference, referring to specific sections as particular issues arise. I am in the process, however, or reading the book (or at least the vast majority of it) in its entirety. No, I’ve not gone crazy (I boarded that train a long time ago!); I’m actually taking the plunge in applying for ABPP certification.
That’s not what I want to post about right now, though (believe me, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of opportunities to write about that process!). Instead, I thought I’d comment on a particular issue the book addresses in the first chapter, which I thought was interesting. This chapter discusses the issues and difficulties inherent in the application of mental health knowledge to legal issues. Some of this I briefly discussed here, in the context of competency evaluations; this chapter examines the issue more generally.
What I found interesting was the author’s discussion of free will versus determinism in this specific area. The section opens: “Perhaps the most obvious philosophical difference between the law and the behavioral sciences is that the former is predicated on an assumption of free will whereas the sciences are generally solidly deterministic.” It goes on to note that models of abnormal behavior have not provided a basis to differentiate between “caused” or “overborne” behavior from behavior that is the result of rational free will. As major models of behavior, the book first identifies behaviorism and psychoanalytic theory. In these cases, there is no prevailing discussion for determining where influences of behavior end, and free will and choice begin.
The book does note that humanistic and existential schools of thought allow for free will, but perhaps too much in the other direction (i.e. no point of identifying when as person is irrational). The final model discussed is the medical model, which often results in the concept of predisposition. None of these models, generally speaking, provide a good fit for what the legal system is looking for, or how it views responsibility for actions.
A couple of quick observations at this point (this is a topic where 1,000 posts could be written, so I’ll stick to a few things that immediately came to mind). First, this is nothing new - philosophers, scientists, legal experts, etc., have been debating this stuff since the dawn of civilization. Over time, the pendulum has swung back and forth, both within the various disciplines, and with respect to various behaviors. As science progresses, we understand more and more about certain aspects of behavior, but in most cases, what is “choice” and what is “beyond one’s control” is still an incredibly complex consideration. This is particularly true when we consider that we haven’t even settled on the nature/nurture aspect of most behavioral issues, aside from understanding that most behaviors are the result of at least some of each.
I also find it interesting that the prevailing wisdom of the behavioral sciences is deterministic, since treatment providers are in the business of helping individuals facilitate change. Yes, I could probably come up with a nice, long theoretical argument about how the process of therapy, and the facilitation of change/growth/insight, is still under the broader parameter of determinism, but I won’t. First, because I don’t have time. Second, because I do believe that the interplay of deterministic elements in our lives (e.g. our genes, environmental background, etc.) place limits and constraints on our options, I also believe that in most cases, individuals continue to exert some degree of choice within those parameters. I have discussed this in posts regarding offender therapy, but I believe it applies more generally.
Lastly (for now), forensic evaluators are cut a significant break when it comes to this issue - we don’t have to deal with it (or at least, not very often). This entire discussion is about broad theoretical considerations; forensic evaluators have very specific conditions to consider. As the Melton chapter notes, our evaluations are often restricted to the impact upon free will and choice by such concepts as “severe mental disease or defect.” While not a perfectly defined criteria, it frees us of having to expound upon the broader discussion. For example, an individual’s background might have contributed to his current Antisocial personality Disorder, a somewhat deterministic conclusion. However, the diagnosis itself does not rise to the level generally considered to be a “severe mental disease or defect;” therefore, unless there is some additional mental health issue present, the specific conclusion would be that the person’s competency is not impacted by his mental health issue. The broader consideration is not applicable.
Interesting stuff, and not just from a forensic perspective. I think I’d like to address this issue again soon, but this time from the context of a therapist - what is my role as a therapist, and how does that fit, as I see it, within the larger debate between free will and determinism.