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July 31, 2006
Guilty By Reason of 'My Neurons Made Me Do It'
From Sunday's NYTimes Op-Ed section, "The Insanity Defense Goes Back on Trial" by Morris Hoffman a fellow at the Gruter Institute and Denver state trial judge and Stephen Morse a professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania:
"The rise of various materialistic and deterministic explanations of human behavior, including psychiatry, psychology, sociology and, more recently, neuroscience, has posed a particular challenge to the criminal law's relatively simple central assumption that with few exceptions we act intentionally and can be held responsible. These schools of thought attribute people's actions not to their own intentions, but rather to powerful and predictable forces over which they have no control. People aren't responsible for their crimes: It's their poverty, their addictions or, ultimately, their neurons...we should recognize that the criteria for responsibility -- intentionality and moral capacity -- are social and legal concepts, not scientific, medical or psychiatric ones. Neither behavioral science nor neuroscience has demonstrated that we are automatons who lack the capacity for rational moral evaluation, even though we sometimes don't use it...We should be skeptical about claims of non-responsibility."
I spent four days this summer with Morris and 60 others at the annual Gruter Institute meeting up at Squaw Valley in late May of this year discussing issues like this. The general consensus was that for all the progress we are making in neuroscience, Morris and the rest of the nation's judges should remain wary of prosecutors or defenders who rely on new fangled neuroscience techniques or hypothesis to prove their case. This argument will become even more important as attorneys start using colorful brain scans backed up by neuroscientific testimony that 'show' when different parts of the brain 'light up more than others' that some type of mental state can be factually attributed. Yes, brain imaging techniques are helping us understand where 'in general' within the brain certain cognitive, emotional and sensory activity partially reside/emerge from, but we are still a good ways away from reliably measuring individual variation to the point of enabling us to convict or acquit.
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