Mental Health Experts on Trial: Free Will and Determinism in the Courtroom

38 Pages Posted: 9 Jun 2013

See all articles by Ronald J. Rychlak

Ronald J. Rychlak

University of Mississippi, School of Law

Joseph Rychlak

Loyola University of Chicago

Date Written: Fall 1997


Legal doctrines such as insanity, diminished capacity, and chemical dependency raise issues related to the mental health professions. While there may be many practical applications for the knowledge that social scientists uncover, one of the most important uses is in the courtroom. In a criminal case, the jury may need to establish the mental state of an individual to determine his or her level of culpability. In a tort case, the court may need to determine how a reasonable person would respond to a given stimulus. In a contract case, the judge may need to determine whether one of the signatories was fully competent. Courts routinely turn to mental health experts to try to answer such questions.

When it comes to the issue of free will, however, experts in the social sciences, especially psychiatry and psychology, are not really expert. They tend either to dismiss the possibility of free will as a theory of behavior, or they are confused as to the proper definition of free will. To the modern psychologist, free will is an archaic remnant of a teleological view of human nature that has long since been disproved by modern science.

If the legal system is to deal responsibly with defenses and other claims based on the mental condition of defendants, then courts must develop a coherent approach that accords psychiatry and psychology their rightful status. The courts must also, however, demand that psychological and psychiatric expert witnesses function within the assumptions of the legal system.

Many, if not most, of the mental-health experts who appear before the court fail to serve the needs of justice. This can present serious difficulties to the judges and lawyers attempting to rely on mental health experts.

Keywords: teleology, free will, determinism, causes of behavior, Newtonian Basis of Modern Pschology

Suggested Citation

Rychlak, Ronald J. and Rychlak, Joseph, Mental Health Experts on Trial: Free Will and Determinism in the Courtroom (Fall 1997). West Virginia Law Review, Vol. 100, No. 193, 1997. Available at SSRN:

Ronald J. Rychlak (Contact Author)

University of Mississippi, School of Law ( email )

Lamar Law Center
P.O. Box 1848
University, MS 38677
United States
662 915 6841 (Phone)
662 915 6842 (Fax)


Joseph Rychlak

Loyola University of Chicago ( email )

25 East Pearson Street
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics