Agency and Insanity

70 Pages Posted: 26 Feb 2018 Last revised: 24 Apr 2018

Date Written: February 15, 2018


This Article offers an unorthodox theory of insanity. According to the traditional theory, insanity is a cognitive or volitional incapacity arising from a mental disease or defect. As an alternative to the traditional theory, some commentators have proposed that insanity is an especially debilitating form of irrationality. Each of these theories faces fair-minded objections. In contrast to these theories, this Article proposes that a person is insane if and because he lacks a sense of agency. The theory of insanity it defends might therefore be called the lost-agency theory.

According to the lost-agency theory, a person lacks a sense of agency when he experiences his mind and body moving but doesn’t experience himself as the author or agent of those movements. The title character in the movie Dr. Strangelove suffered from what’s known as alien hand syndrome. People suffering from this syndrome experience the moving hand as their hand but don’t experience themselves as the author or agent of its movements. The lost-agency theory portrays insanity as alien hand syndrome writ large. The insane actor is like someone possessed by an alien self. He’s not in charge of his mind or body when he commits the crime.

Keywords: Insanity

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Garvey, Stephen P., Agency and Insanity (February 15, 2018). Buffalo Law Review Vol. 66, 2018; Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 18-28. Available at SSRN:

Stephen P. Garvey (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States
607-255-8589 (Phone)
607-255-7193 (Fax)

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