Bioethics Blogs

Bioethics Commission Discusses Law and Neuroscience

This afternoon, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) turned its attention to law and neuroscience as part of its deliberations on potential recommendations related to neuroscience that it may offer to the President.

Bioethics Commission Chair Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., began by focusing discussion questions around whether and how to use neuroscience technologies in the courtroom.

“What can neuroscience in its current capacity tell us about whether any individual is legally blameworthy for his or her actions?” Gutmann asked. “What is the potential for neuroscience to answer this question? What can it tell us about moral responsibility and blameworthiness, as distinct from legal responsibility and blameworthiness?”

Commission Member Nita A. Farahany, J.D., Ph.D., framed the discussion by noting the different legal contexts in which neuroscience research is being cited. For example, lawyers are bringing neuroscience research into the courtroom to substantiate claims about defendants’ competency to stand trial, as well as to challenge traditional notions about what a mental state is and how it should be measured. Neuroscience has also come up in sentencing as a way of determining the degree to which a person is morally responsible because of diminished capacity, and whether sentencing for such an individual should be weighted more toward retribution or toward rehabilitation. Finally, criminal courts have also looked to neuroscience as a predictor of a defendant’s future dangerousness.

Farahany said she has also seen neuroscience research cited in in certain civil cases. In the past, it has been difficult to prove whether a person is suffering pain from exposure to a toxic substance.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.