As I explained in an earlier blog (The Law’s View of Human Nature), the entire structure of criminal jurisprudence boils down to a few simple folk psychological questions: What were the defendant’s motivations, desires, and intentions at the time of the crime? If he were motivated to commit the crime, what was the measure of his intent? Did he act with reasonable purposefulness? It’s this straightforward and common sense view of behavior and personal responsibility that forms the basis of our criminal justice system.
Defendants are judged by their peers. We trust that the ordinary citizen understands that behavior is prompted by motivations, desires and reasons for which an individual is held accountable. In fact, as an expert, I’m not allowed to answer the ultimate questions such as, did the defendant have intent at the time of the crime? I am only allowed to present evidence that will be probative in value that will help the jury decide on the defendant’s guilt or innocence. The jury is assumed to understand the common sense view of human behavior and to apply it in accordance with the law.
This rather straightforward paradigm of justice has become controversial in neuroscientific circles. Many scientists now argue that free will is an illusion, and that our decisions and behavior are more determined by our biology than we’d like to believe. Genetic tendencies, brain abnormalities and temperament have been found to drive the psychological state underlying behavior to a substantial degree. In many cases, in big and small ways, these scientists argue that biology is destiny. It’s been known for years, for instance, that our brain makes up its mind before we actually decide to act. In one experiment, subjects were asked to press a button when they felt the urge to do so. Simultaneously, they were presented with a stream of letters on a screen and asked to recall which letter was viewed when they decided to press the button. By viewing the brain activity of the subjects via MRIs during the experiment, the researchers picked up activity in the brain ten seconds before the subjects reported having made their decision to press the button. The brain signals came from the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain immediately behind the forehead that specializes in high-level activities such as self-control, decision- making and learning. The subjects were preparing to act before they had any awareness of their intentions to do so.
In another study, it was found that individuals with an underactive orbitofrontal cortex, the area of the brain immediately behind the eye sockets, were prone to impulsiveness and violence. Their constitutional lack of inhibition created serious social and legal problems for them.
These kinds of research results have led many, but not all, neuroscientists to conclude that, to a large extent, biology is destiny. John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, commented, “We think our decisions are conscious, but these data show that consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg,”
Consider the case of Peter, a stone cold psychopath and drug dealer charged with murder. He argued that he should be judged insane because his personality was “hard wired” to commit violence. Peter argued that he evidenced a genetic predisposition to crime, and he’s got a brain condition, attentional deficit hyperactivity disorder. His father was incarcerated for murder and all his brothers have served time in prison. His family history revealed his deprivations and abuse. He forcefully claimed that, from a “nature” and “nurture” point of view, he was destined to become a criminal and had a limited ability to control himself.
Peter’s position is not too far from that of many neuroscientists social scientists. Current neuroscience research reveals that psychopathic individuals have a defective and underactive limbic system within the brain that leads to emotional and neurological deficits. They can’t be properly socialized. They are very biologically limited in their ability to empathize with other people, and are naturally prone to a cold, cost benefit analysis of their interests. These scientists argue that individuals like Peter are wired in such a way that they cannot control themselves and are pre-determined to behave in a predatory fashion.
Is this cutting-edge science or is it just another excuse for bad behavior?
The ideas surrounding the nature of our nature will be examined throughout my blogs.
As for Peter, he was found sane and guilty of first degree murder.