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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Neuroscience: Beware the moron neuron defense!

Stephanie West Allen over at Idealawg has a great post on "Brain Overclaim Syndrome - expecting too much from neuroscience.
She quotes from a journal article, by University of Pennsylvania law prof Stephen Morse:

[I]nfected and inflamed by stunning advances in our understanding of the brain, advocates all too often make moral and legal claims that the new neuroscience does not entail and cannot sustain. Particular brain findings are thought to lead inevitably to moral or legal conclusions. Brains are blamed for offenses; agency and responsibility disappear from the legal landscape. For example, in Roper v. Simmons, advocates for abolition of the death penalty for adolescents who committed murder when they were sixteen or seventeen years old argued that the demonstrated lack of complete myelination of the cortical neurons of the adolescent brain was reason to believe that sixteen and seventeen year old murderers were insufficiently responsible to deserve capital punishment. ...

For the record, I oppose capital punishment and I am glad we do not use it in Canada.

But the worst reason for opposing capital punishment would be a belief that people are not responsible for their actions!

After all, dogs are not responsible for their actions, and we put down vicious dogs simply on the owner's consent.

Here in Toronto, if I recall correctly, the rule is that if a dog has injured someone, the city can get a court order to put down the dog. Then the owner will be convicted of keeping a vicious dog and fined. But if the owner just agrees to have the dog put down without forcing a trial, he can avoid charges and fines. (Of course, there may be civil liability for the damage, but that is a separate issue - often fought out between the lawyers for rival insurance companies, I suppose.)

For these reasons, I am worried about this "neurolaw" trend to find that people are not responsible for their actions.

First, it isn't true. Mario Beauregard's research and Jeff Schwartz's research, among others, as itemized in The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul, clearly shows that people can and do control their brain states when asked by an investigator to do so.

Second, it is a poisoned apple. People may be tempted by it because they see it as accomplishing some practical good - like getting someone into therapy instead of jail - but overall the price is too steep. The practical good can be, and should be, achieved by more normal means.

For example, there are perfectly good reasons for abolishing capital punishment, as many Western nations have done, that do NOT require us to believe that no one is really responsible for his or her actions.

Here in Canada, a number of people who served decades in prison were cleared by new techniques such as DNA evidence. Had they been hanged, they would not now enjoy a free middle age, with their name cleared.

To me, the problem of wrongful conviction is a far better argument against capital punishment than claiming that, if these people had indeed committed the murders, they weren't really responsible for their actions.

The point that the wrongfully convicted make is that they didn't do it at all, not that they did it but are not responsible for their actions.

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