Friday, May 30, 2014

Morality Mental Disorders and Intelligence


 The 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on 27 May 2014 challenged the basis for Florida’s decision Hall v. Florida). Matters of life and death are matters of morality. And the moral judgments of the U.S. Supreme Court Justices make it clear that they do not know the right answer—5 ruled one way, 4 another. Moral judgments are not easy.

How do parents decide to punish?
Parents are pretty quick to decide when to let their children off the hook for dropping their Sippy cups, throwing a toy, or pulling another child’s hair. Some parents laugh, some yell, some swat, and some use time out. Some do it all in an unpredictable pattern. Parents seem to have some built in sense of when a child knows better.

Knowing better is the basis for holding people accountable.

Kids will still go to time out for breaking a rule so they’ll learn. But serious penalties are usually reserved for intentional rule breaking that leads to measurable harm.

There’s something about age that makes us think young children
are less responsible for what they do than are older children.

When older children kill, some people want to prosecute them as adults. Somehow we think age matters when it comes to all kinds of rules.

How do cultures decide to grant exemptions from a penalty?
The death penalty is constitutional in the U.S. But based on a 2002 ruling (Atkins v. Virginia), people identified as mentally retarded were exempt because of the U.S. constitutional language barring cruel and unusual punishment. Several countries and some U.S. States have decided the death penalty is immoral. [The older term mentally retarded has been replaced by persons with an intellectual disability.]

Several U.S. States (e.g., Florida) have relied on I.Q. scores. The so called bright line has often been an IQ score of 70. Score above you die now. Score below 70 you live in prison and die there.
“Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number.”
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy

What is the role of science and religion in matters of morality and law?
Courts often consider testimony from psychologists and psychiatrists when deciding moral culpability. Science offers facts and ideas about how well people can think about consequences and control their impulses. In the current case, Nathalie Gilfoyle of the American Psychological Association spokeswoman commented on the misunderstanding of interpretations of IQ scores and the importance of considering adaptive functioning. But Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. was not pleased in what he saw as a decision to rely on professional associations rather than public opinion.

When people base their moral reasoning on beliefs about human nature, scientists can sometimes offer information that supports or refutes those beliefs. Scientists make new discoveries and revise old theories. And even when scientists agree about the facts, they may disagree about how to interpret those facts.

Many people get their moral values from their religious beliefs. For some, these rules are absolutes—not subject to change by earthly judges. Rules are sacred commands that are most certainly not subject to human wisdom as may come from the likes of psychologists and psychiatrists. Murder and adultery are sins punishable by death. Here's an example from The Christian Post.


Age is important to morality. Age is a common sense guideline for permitting people to exercise judgment. For the most part it works well. There are exceptions. Intelligent people understand that being 16, 18, or 21 is not the best guide for certain judgment-based freedoms. Most of us know people in their 30s that are incredibly immature and probably should not be driving, drinking alcohol, or handling a lethal weapon. We also know mature young people who at age 15 or 17 demonstrate better judgment than people legally permitted to a variety of things. We also know that intellectual abilities and concomitant judgment declines with age. But we don't know enough yet.

Intelligence is important to morality

But intelligence is not enough. Of course, scientists and nonscientists disagree on how to define intelligence. But in general, when it is obvious that a person struggles to learn many basic things needed for independent living, few would argue that those who struggle is so many ways should have a guardian to help in matters of judgment. It’s at the margins of low intelligence that we disagree on levels of responsibility.

However we define intelligence, sometimes it is hard to decide on the right course of action. Some use reason to figure out some socially acceptable rationale to excuse wrongdoing. But others do think about discrimination, capital punishment, marriage and divorce, abortion, and surveillance. Thoughtful people are needed to help identify and weigh the factors involved in laws and policies that govern human behavior.

Rigid rules can lead to immorality. Justice Kennedy described Florida’s rule about intelligence as rigid. Rules are important and help people make quick decisions. Tough decisions require thinking and as I mentioned above, it is clear that the highly intelligent justices at the U.S. Supreme Court did not agree. Morality was decided by a 5-4 decision.

Mental age is a bad idea. But people use the concept of mental age on a routine basis to describe the functioning of people with low intelligence test scores. Years ago, intelligence was figured on the basis of how well children solved problems on intelligence tests compared to their age peers. The idea stuck and a number of 100 meant you solved intelligence test problems as well as the average person in your age group. Unfortunately, when you a person is 40 years old it really does not make sense to compare his or her ability to that of children aged 3, 7, or 12. There’s more to life than solving problems on an IQ test. If you read the opinion of the court, you will see people still compare adults with intellectual abilities to the abilities of children.

Test scores aren’t a suitable basis for rigid rules. Whether in matters of life and death, getting a job, or getting into a college or university, decisions ought to be based on more than a test score. Test scores vary for many reasons. Psychologists know this. And the opinion of the Supreme Court offers helpful information about errors in measurement. It is clear that the justices were informed by the evidence psychology students learn in courses on tests and measurement.

Over the years some people have wanted to throw out test scores. But that doesn’t make sense either. Test scores provide data. The intelligent use of test scores involves understanding the limitations of any test and assigning weights to different sources of relevant evidence whether deciding on admission to a college, employment position, or special consideration in sentencing.

“Intellectual disability is a condition not a number.” (Anthony Kennedy, p. 21). Really? Kennedy’s text makes it clear that he understands several factors should be weighed when concluding a person has an intellectual disability. The problem with the quote—already appearing in news stories—is the word, condition.

The court often refers to the DSM-5—the diagnostic handbook used by American clinicians to diagnose mental disorders. A medical framework for mental disorders like intellectual disability, schizophrenia, and so forth as found in the DSM-5 assumes that when certain features are present, a person has a condition. Diagnosable conditions can promote clarity of communication by referring to the same set of symptoms or criteria. And if certain treatments help reduce the troubling symptoms, then the labels for the conditions have practical value. We want to know how to treat depression and panic disorder.

Intellectual ability is neither a condition nor a number. There are many human abilities and people vary widely on the amount they have of each ability. Thinking of low or high intelligence as a unitary thing in a category does not make sense. People on the low end of several intellectual abilities have significant difficulties surviving. And people with high levels of several abilities are not just gifted. Some people with an IQ score near 70 can maintain full time employment and others cannot. Some people with an IQ of 130 are unemployed.

Mental disorders are not just conditions. The symptoms found in people with diagnoses of depression, schizophrenia, and other identified disorders vary from person to person. Diagnoses are a starting point not an end point. I am well aware that our system of care demands a diagnosis so insurance companies will pay for treatment or a person can claim a disability. But when it comes to life, it’s important to realize that how well we sleep, pay attention, solve problems, and get along with others is more important. Getting to normal is a good thing for those with severe symptoms. 

Too few clinicians forget about human strengths and talents.

Soaring above normal is the stuff of life goals.

Thinking is a necessary but insufficient process
for reaching a moral decision.

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