Morally excused but socially excluded: Denying agency through the defense of mental impairment

Melissa de Vel-Palumbo, Chelsea Schein, Rose Ferguson, Melissa Xue-Ling Chang, Brock Bastian

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
18 Downloads (Pure)


Defendants can deny they have agency, and thus responsibility, for a crime by using a defense of mental impairment. We argue that although this strategy may help defendants evade blame, it may carry longer-term social costs, as lay people’s perceptions of a person’s agency might determine some of the moral rights they grant them. In this registered report protocol, we seek to expand upon preliminary findings from two pilot studies to examine how and why those using the defense of mental impairment are seen as less deserving of certain rights. The proposed study uses a hypothetical vignette design, varying the type of mental impairment, type of crime, and type of sentence. Our design for the registered study improves on various aspects of our pilot studies and aims to rigorously test the reliability and credibility of our model. The findings have implications for defendants claiming reduced agency through legal defenses, as well as for the broader study of moral rights and mind perception.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0252586
Number of pages22
JournalPLoS One
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2021


  • Crime
  • Sense of agency
  • Criminal punishment
  • Behavior
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Learningjavascript:void(0);
  • Prisons
  • Psychological attitudes

Cite this