The neuronal defense

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about structural and hormonal changes in the brain being to blame for misbehavior, whether it’s a philandering husband (or senator) or a psychopath. To some extent these are valid arguments; higher testosterone levels have been linked to sensation seeking and greater sexual desire, and abnormalities in the limbic system–particularly the amygdala, which processes fear and emotion, and the frontal cortex, which is in charge of inhibition and rational thought–are often seen in persons who commit crimes. However, to use these structural phenomena as excuses or arguments, as in, “My brain made me do it,” is akin to proclaiming, “Yes, I did this.” Obviously, there are rare and extenuating circumstances when an individual’s actions are truly no longer under their own control, such as in the case of a tumor in the frontal lobe changing the temperament and personality of an individual. However, for the vast majority of individuals, we are our brains, and saying you are “pre-wired” to cheat or fight or steal is not an excuse. If anything, it is a greater indication of the potential for recidivism and an added incentive for either punishment or preventative measures.

Excess testosterone is not a pathology like schizophrenia or mental retardation, which can be used as a defense in court for criminal actions. Additionally, if you blame chemicals like testosterone or a lack of oxytocin for misbehavior, then what is to stop us from exonerating people who commit crimes because they are on a synthetic drug like crack cocaine or PCP? And, seeing as how presumably not all men with increased testosterone cheat and not all individuals with abnormal amygdalas commit crimes or become sociopaths, it is difficult to argue that your brain and neurotransmitters make you do something when these same conditions do not compel others down a similar path.

David Eagleman’s article in The Atlantic is a particularly insightful and eloquent investigation into both sides of this issue that I highly recommend. Instead of focusing on the question of guilt and the implications that recent advances in neuroscience and neuroimaging have on culpability, Eagleman wisely shifts his focus to sentencing and the constructive ways we can incorporate our new crude knowledge of the brain into the justice system. For example, he suggests concentrating on the potential for recidivism and reform instead of retribution when determining sentencing. Drug courts have already started shifting towards this perspective, supported by the recent initiative by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, marking the 40 year anniversary of the War on Drugs. Not only is it important to provide drug users with treatment instead of punishment, our economy simply can not accommodate the deluge of drug-related crimes into the penal system, most strikingly demonstrated by the decision in California this month to release 3,000 prisoners before their sentences were up due to a lack of resources.

Child criminal courts have also dealt with the issue of neuroanatomical defenses for quite some time, as it is widely established that the frontal cortex is the last area of the brain to finish developing, not reaching full maturation until the mid-20s. Countless juvenile defenders have used this argument to insist that their client was not a rational individual at the time of their crime, and, therefore, should not be held accountable for their impulsive and illegal actions. While this is certainly a valid point–and one that is typically taken into consideration when distributing sentencing–it is important to bear in mind that not all 15 year-olds commit crimes. Therefore, this universal neural stage of adolescence that we all pass through is not necessarily a credible criminal defense; otherwise, all teenagers would be running rampant and wreaking even more havoc than they already do. Also, there are innumerable studies citing the increased risk of offense in impoverished or violent areas, yet this is not used as an excuse for a crime in these communities. This evidence is absolutely a reason to reform the social system that creates these pockets of poverty and risk, but it does not compel juries to acquit defenders of their crimes simply because of the neighborhood they were raised in.

At some point, people must take responsibility for their actions and face up to the consequences and not blame an integral part of themselves of going rogue and acting out of character. When you make a decision, it is your brain acting and your neurons firing; you can not excuse an action because of the claim that you could not control these impulses. There is no outside force urging you to act or not; it is your own will being administered and carried out. Eagleman’s idea of a spectrum of culpability is a sensible one that I support, and I fully agree that in the vast majority of offenses, reform and rehabilitation should be the goal, rather than retribution. However, this still leaves the topic rife with ambiguity, for where do you draw the line? At what point will we stand up and take responsibility for our own actions?

(Thanks to Tristan Smith for The Atlantic article.)


2 thoughts on “The neuronal defense

  1. There are at least two problems here, which makes it all so complicated: 1) that “moral responsibility” is an incredibly tricky concept, but also an incredibly thin one which when subjected to pressure appears often to be a foil for the infliction of punishment/suffering on others, whilst 2) the entire criminal justice system is a chaotic mish-mash of thoughts about retribution and aspects of social control fitted into the straightjacket of a legal system which must lay down definite rules and which is not flexible on case-by-case bases.

    In other words, there are deep unresolved philosophical problems about responsibiity and punishment, and when they interact with the imperfections of the real world, shit gets nasty.

    You might be interested in this late Bernard Williams article. Like all his stuff, it’s very dense and hard to follow. But it gets to the difficult issues very quickly and shows you how tricky it all is.

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