Bioethics News

Criminal Law and Neuroscience: Hope or Hype?

August 1, 2017

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Most commonly, many thought that traditional notions of criminal responsibility would be undermined for various reasons, such as demonstrating that people really cannot control themselves as well as we believe, or as indicating that more action was automatic, thoughtless and non-rational than we think. Most radically, the neuroexuberants argued that neuroscience shows that no one is really responsible because we are not agents; rather, we are victims of neuronal circumstances that mechanistically produce our epiphenomenal thoughts and our bodily movements. Similar claims were made when the genome was cracked. The age of cognitive, affective, and social neuroscience (behavioral neuroscience)—the neurosciences most relevant to law—is almost two decades old. What have we learned that is legally relevant and how has it transformed criminal law doctrine and practice?

Despite the astonishing advances in neuroscience, most of what we know is not legally relevant, has not transformed doctrine in the slightest and has had scant influence on practice except in death penalty proceedings. The reasons are conceptual, scientific, and practical. The first and most basic conceptual problem is that we have no idea how the brain enables the mind and action, although we know that it does. If your brain is dead, you have no mental states and do not act. The brain/mind/action connection is one of the hardest problems in science and neuroscience is not about to crack it anytime soon, if ever.

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Source: Bioethics Bulletin by the Berman Institute of Bioethics.

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.