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October 2007 — Revising the Frontiers of Responsibility and Blame: How Neuroscience Is Reshaping Philosophy and the Criminal Law

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Will science’s rapidly advancing discoveries about the brain soon make punishment and personal responsibility obsolete? How will 21st-century psychiatric explanation change our fundamental notions of guilt, innocence, good, and evil?

These were two of several questions to which psychiatrists, philosophers, and law professors responded at “Revising the Frontiers of Responsibility and Blame: How Neuroscience Is Reshaping Philosophy and the Criminal Law,” a symposium held October 11, 2007 at the University of Cincinnati College of Law.

More than 150 students, scholars, and practitioners of medicine, law, psychology, and philosophy attended the symposium, which was cosponsored by UC College of Law’s Glenn M. Weaver Institute of Law and Psychiatry, the Department of Philosophy, and the College of Medicine.

Traditionally, the law has viewed human action as the outgrowth of our beliefs and desires, and society has seen people as potentially blameworthy and punishable because they can control their own behavior. But psychiatrists and neuroscientists now explain behavior in ways that challenge the core beliefs upon which law and Western society ascribe responsibility and blame.

For example, judges and juries are now viewing brain scans and evidence from other neuroimaging techniques that explain behavior as biological processes, not conscious decisions. Such evidence can play an especially big role in death penalty sentencing. Capital punishment has become American society’s way of declaring a criminal especially evil. But confronted with evidence that a defendant’s brain functions abnormally, judges and juries may be less likely to impose the ultimate punishment. Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision that outlawed executions for crimes committed by juveniles, expressly mentioned such evidence.

Address these issues at the October symposium were six speakers whose research has received international attention from fellow psychiatrists, legal scholars, and philosophers.

LehrerThe program opened with a presentation by psychiatrist Douglas S. Lehrer, who helps lead neurobiological research at the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine. After describing psychiatry’s historical efforts to link brain abnormalities to mental pathology, Dr. Lehrer discussed how recent neuroscientific discoveries have led psychiatrists regard schizophrenia, depression, and other serious mental disorders as problems of signal processing and faulty brain circuitry.

MorseNext up was Stephen J. Morse, the Ferdinand Wakeman Hubbell Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology and Law in Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. Contemporary neuroscience is fascinating, said Professor Morse, but the field does not challenge the law’s view that people are responsible agents. Even if conscious will is an illusion (as some neuroscientists argue), and even though all conscious processes have their origins in brain processes, human actors still form conscious intentions that we can discern and that cause us to act. Moreover, we simply cannot conceive of ourselves as anything other than rational, intentional beings who act for reasons. As such, concluded Professor Morse, our choices and behavior remain proper subjects of the criminal law, which seeks to decide which actions are punishable.

BickleEchoing many of Professor Morse’s sentiments was John Bickle, Head of the Department of Philosophy and Professor in the Neuroscience Graduate Program at UC. Professor Bickle also argued that causal determinism simply does not yet meet science’s requirements of observation, change with manipulation, and integration with the abundance of other information about human action. Moreover, said Professor Bickle, existing legal principles can comfortably assimilate the new neuroscience with little conceptual change. The law thus remains well prepared to receive new scientific details and new sources of evidence.

hardcastleValerie Gray Hardcastle, who joined the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences this fall as its new dean drew on her academic background as a philosopher of cognitive science to discuss the relationship between personal responsibility and obesity. Our society regards smoking and overeating as personal choices, said Dean Hardcastle. Yet for many years, Americans have recognized the huge health costs of smoking and have used government regulation to reduce cigarette consumption and nicotine addiction. Some scientists believe obesity is a disease, and that because its health costs are significant, some form of social intervention is needed. Moreover, Dean Hardcastle noted, overeating shares many similarities with addiction, including the way that social networks reinforce the behavior.

weissenbergerRounding out the program were comments from Glen Weissenberger, Dean of the College of Law at DePaul University (and former law professor at UC) and Stephen Strakowski, Chair of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience at the UC College of Medicine. Dean Weissenberger emphasized the central role that free will plays in legal explanation and the ways that we think about our own activities and choices. Though Dr. Strakowski has spent his research career probing the links between brain function and psychopathology, he still regarded scientific behavioral explanation as grounded in the same kinds of concepts that the law uses to make decisions about personal responsibility.

At the conclusion of the symposium, attendees could feel comforted in the knowledge that modern neuroscience will not soon collapse the philosophical groundings of the law. Yet courts and lawyers must anticipate that fact-finders will increasingly hear evidence from experts whose psychiatric and neuroscientific expertise that relies on increasingly detailed, sophisticated conceptions of how brains create mental processes.