Disordered Personalities and Crime: An analysis of the history of moral insanity

Jones, David (2016). Disordered Personalities and Crime: An analysis of the history of moral insanity. Abingdon: Routledge.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203493748


This book takes a broadly historical and transdisciplinary approach to understanding the problem of what has been known at various times as ‘moral insanity’, ‘psychopathy’ or ‘antisocial personality disorder’. The older term of ‘moral insanity’ has been used in the subtitle of the book as not only does this underscore the historical nature of the approach taken here, but the phrase perhaps does some justice to the complexity of the problem. This is not only both a legal and medical problem, but is also a profoundly social and philosophical one; that has every bit as much to do with reflection on the nature of virtue as with ‘medical science’.

A key argument of this book is that moral insanity can only be understood as a series of phenomena that have been constructed within and between social, cultural, medical and psychological domains. It does not exist in any separate realm but lives within a psychosocial space inextricably linked to the development of the ‘public sphere’ and processes of industrialisation, urbanisation and state formation. It reflects our concerns not only about violence and mechanisms of control but also debates about how we understand ourselves.

It is inevitable that the book must be partly about the history of the medical specialism of psychiatry, indeed it is argued here that the story of moral insanity is far more important to the history and purpose of psychiatry than is often acknowledged. The book also strays well beyond the medical texts that have defined the diagnoses and further afield than the trial testimonies that have tested those definitions for it is in our wider culture that notions of moral insanity have been forged and shaped. This book is premised on the idea that debate about the nature of the relationship between sanity, partial insanity, offending and criminal culpability has been highly problematic because it not only crosses conceptual boundaries, but is also embedded in unresolved questions about the nature of virtue and how order and relationships can be managed between individuals in modern, industrialized, urbanized societies. It involves difficult questions about how we understand ourselves as beings who are defined or guided by emotion or rationality and whether we are best regarded simply as individuals or as creatures who can only be understood fully in terms of our relationships with others.

The rapid social changes over this period have meant that the various diagnoses have meant very different things at different times and places. At times the story is a heartening one that involves genuine curiosity about ourselves and human weakness, at others it is a dismal tale of what happens when frailty and the capacity for harm are seen as existing in ‘other’ kinds of people. This book is written in the hope of encouraging broader cross-disciplinary dialogue rather than in the belief of providing any surer answers.

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