The Politics of Sanity

Whether or not sanity is statistical (as the interrogator O’Brien in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four would have it), it is deeply political, even geo-political. What exactly constitutes sanity and whether or not certain critical individuals possess it are questions of great importance. Two examples of the loom large in my mind at the moment.

The first is the trial of Anders Behring Breivik, in which a verdict is expected within a week. The question is not one of the accused’s guilt, but of his sanity. Breivik seems happy to claim factual responsibility for the killings in Oslo and at Utøya Island; he claims moral culpability, but the court will award him that and sentence him accordingly if and only if it is satisfied that he is sane. The magnitude of Breivik’s crimes calls forth competing popular demands that he be regarded as insane (for what sane human could do something so vicious?) and sane (if nothing else, to deny him the “soft option” of psychiatric as opposed to penal incarceration). Breivik has articulated a rather lengthy and detailed philosophical and political position in justification of his acts. Is sanity the same as rationality? If so, then the question for those in the “he is insane” camp is this: is it his premises or his reasoning that are at fault? For me personally, the worrisome aspect is the “premises” side. But on to the second case…

The second case is a decades-old one, that of US Air Force Major Harold Hering, which I read about only recently. In a nutshell, Hering was discharged from the US Air Force for asking the following question — not about the authentication process of transmitting a nuclear launch order from the President through various intermediate stages to the officers tasked with actual missile launch, but instead about the zeroth link in that chain:

“How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?”

Note the double analogy at work here: first, the question of sanity — what is it? and how to establish the fact of it? But secondly, the formal similarity: the question of information passage/processing versus validity of inputs. The USA has invested considerable effort in preserving the integrity of the communication of the President’s orders to the field, and preventing unauthorized launches — although those systems are believed to be imperfect. Next to no effort has been expended in checking the integrity of the President’s mind itself. To my knowledge, the only safeguard lies in Amendment XXV, Section 4, which would allow the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet to collectively deprive the President of power by declaring him “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”. Well… that’s pretty weak. A raving madman could still be perfectly able to sign and stamp papers, deliver annual speeches to Congress, and generally discharge the powers and duties of the office.

Insistence on having the same premises seems to be necessary for a common standard of rationality (and hence sanity). Yet, that same insistence is necessarily totalitarian, an evil if only because it leads to a monoculture of ideas — and monocultures are evolutionarily very fragile, only one stroke of bad luck away from utter annihilation. It’s not unknown for political regimes to silence opponents using mental health laws. In the supposedly free West, how much “insanity” (i.e. reasoning correctly from fundamentally different yet self-consistent premises) is a society willing to tolerate?


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