Thursday, March 22, 2007

My brain made me do it!

Fascinating recent articles on the brain and morality. Although not technically "related" to each other, this one, The Brain on the Stand, could be considered the umbrella article. It deals with issues facing the judicial system resulting from information gathered from recent neuroscience. One important question brought up is the relationship between the brain, responsibility, and criminal behavior.

“Some sort of organic brain defense has become de rigueur in any sort of capital defense,” (forensic psychologist Daniel Martell) said. Lawyers routinely order scans of convicted defendants’ brains and argue that a neurological impairment prevented them from controlling themselves.

If someone's brain made them do it, is it appropriate to punish them? This question, as it relates to free will, is addressed by Joshua D. Greene, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard:

“To a neuroscientist, you are your brain; nothing causes your behavior other than the operations of your brain...If that’s right, it radically changes the way we think about the law. The official line in the law is all that matters is whether you’re rational, but you can have someone who is totally rational but whose strings are being pulled by something beyond his control.”

That "something beyond (your) control" is your brain. If it causes your behavior, free will does not. Of course, if there's no free will, there's no responsibility. I like responsibility. Thus, here's my hero from the article, Stephen J. Morse, professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania:

“There’s nothing new about the neuroscience ideas of responsibility; it’s just another material, causal explanation of human behavior...I’m a thoroughgoing materialist, who believes that all mental and behavioral activity is the causal product of physical events in the brain...(but)...So what if there’s biological causation? Causation can’t be an excuse for someone who believes that responsibility is possible (emphasis mine). Since all behavior is caused, this would mean all behavior has to be excused...Even if (someone's) amygdala made him more angry and volatile, since when are anger and volatility excusing conditions? Some people are angry because they had bad mommies and daddies and others because their amygdalas are mucked up. The question is: When should anger be an excusing condition?”

This all leads to the next article, Study Finds Brain Injury Changes Moral Judgment. Which leads to this article highlighting the debate between thinking of morality as a result of biological factors (the brain and evolution) and thinking of morality as a result of the distinctly human characteristic of reasoning: Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior. I'll try to get to those issues later.

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