(redirected from Moral insanity)
Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Medical, Legal, Wikipedia.


mental disorder of such severity as to render its victim incapable of managing his affairs or of conforming to social standards. Today, the term insanity is used chiefly in criminal law, to denote mental aberrations or defects that may relieve a person from the legal consequences of his or her acts. The case of Daniel McNaughtan, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity after making an assassination attempt on British prime minister Robert Peel (1834), gave rise to the modern insanity defense used in many Western nations today. In the United States, the 1954 case of Durham v. the United States led to the establishment of new rules for testing defendants. Today, psychologists may perform tests to determine whether or not the defendant is mentally stable. Such tests try to ascertain whether or not a defendant can distinguish right from wrong, and whether or not he acted on an "irresistible impulse." John Hinckley's assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan (1981) became another landmark in the history of the insanity defense. The court's initial verdict of "not guilty by reason of insanity" generated public outcry and renewed interest in the verdict of "guilty but mentally ill," which is permissible in some states. This verdict allows defendants deemed mentally ill to be hospitalized but requires them to carry out a reasonable prison sentence as well. In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled it permissable to keep a mentally ill defendant hospitalized for a term longer than the maximum sentence for the crime with which the defendant was charged. Many have contended that the insanity defense is nothing more than a legal loophole, allowing serious criminals to escape imprisonment. In fact, the plea is rarely employed in the United States, and it is estimated that less than 1% of defendants have used it successfully. Recent years have seen the restrictions surrounding insanity defense considerably narrowed, with the sole criteria for a successful plea being the determination of whether or not the defendant knew he was breaking the law.


See R. Simon and D. Aaronson, The Insanity Defense (1988); R. Porter, A Social History of Madness: The World Through the Eyes of the Insane (1989); S. N. Vinocour, Nobody's Child: A Tragedy, a Trial and a History of the Insanity Defense (2020).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


Any mental disorder.
In forensic psychiatry, a mental disorder which prevents one from managing one's affairs, impairs one's ability to distinguish right from wrong, or renders one harmful to oneself or others.
Term previously used to indicate mental disorder; no longer used in medical contexts.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. relatively permanent disorder of the mind; state or condition of being insane
2. Law a defect of reason as a result of mental illness, such that a defendant does not know what he or she is doing or that it is wrong
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
"A Note on Moral Insanity and Psychopathic Disorders." The Psychiatrist 6 (1982): 57-59.
used to describe psychopathy, the modern heir of moral insanity. A
In "Insanity and the Unwritten Law," Robert Ireland downplays lawyers' arguments that unwritten law defendants were justified, focusing on the medical concepts consistently employed by the lawyers, including temporary insanity, irresistible impulse, moral insanity, and monomania.
By contrast Kurtz is characterized through the language of "moral insanity," a concept for which a detailed genealogy is provided.
What distinguished Marple's analysis of Peter's crime most from other, more general discussions of slave/master relations, however, is the very last reason he gave to explain Peter's moral insanity, the sudden turn to crime.
Small does make a plausible case for considering Bertha Mason as 'morally insane', but then moral insanity was the least precise (and potentially the most 'literary') category in the alienist's nosology - a diagnostic catch-all which interpreted ideological disruption as pathological aberration.
knowing both of them it becomes perfectly shocking." Sutherland spends some thirty pages in search of "maniac wives" in fiction and fact, connecting many of these women to John Conolly, a physician whose administration of asylums and advocacy of "moral insanity" lead Sutherland to stigmatize him as a "trader in lunacy" (p.