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The Role of Mental Health Professionals in Capital Punishment: An Exercise in Moral Disengagement
Houston Law Review (2004)
  • Donald P. Judges

The psychological costs associated with America’s capital punishment system may outweigh the system’s perceived benefits. Mental health professionals participating in the capital punishment process face ethical dilemmas, where the medical profession’s commitment to beneficence and harm-avoidance conflict with a system that ends human life. A current conflict involves the involuntary administration of antipsychotic medications designed to restore a defendant's competency. By administering the drug, a mental health professional is essentially making a defendant eligible for execution. This is in direct conflict with the medical ethic to preserve life. When individuals must violate internal moral standards, there is a tendency to avoid self-censure though mechanisms of moral disengagement. This often results in the deactivation of the norm of humanitas, a norm essential to the health profession. Common mechanisms of moral disengagement include cognitive reconstrual, obscuring the causal relationship, and degradation. These mechanisms contribute to further dehumanize aspects of capital punishment. When these steep psychological costs are weighed against the benefits of retribution, deterrence, and incapacitation, it is hard to perceive the American capital punishment system as affordable.

  • Capital Punishment,
  • psychological cost,
  • Mental health,
  • involuntary administration of antipsychotic medication,
  • dehumanization,
  • humanitas,
  • medical ethics,
  • mechanisms of moral disengagement,
  • Washington v. Harper,
  • 494 U.S. 210 (1990),
  • Perry v. Louisiana,
  • 498 U.S. 38 (1990),
  • Singleton v. Norris,
  • 319 F
Publication Date
Citation Information
Donald P. Judges. "The Role of Mental Health Professionals in Capital Punishment: An Exercise in Moral Disengagement" Houston Law Review Vol. 41 Iss. 2 (2004)
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