Culpability in Criminal Law and the Emerging Field of Neuroscience

Daniel Mensching, MJLST Staffer

Criminal law has long held that people are accountable for their behavior and that most behavior is intentional and conscious. This is necessary for the legal system to determine culpability and therefore warrant punishment. In his article Blaming the Brain, Seven K. Erickson explores how the still young field of cognitive neuroscience is beginning to challenge traditional notions of free will independent action and potential legal consequences of this shift in understanding. While the implications for emerging understandings of neuroscience are far-reaching and delve into areas such as psychology and philosophy, viewing human actions as mechanical and absent of free will raises serious questions in the field of law as well, especially criminal law.

Cognitive neuroscience, though still in its infancy, holds the potential to explain all human behavior as a result of involuntary processes occurring within the brain. According to Erickson, cognitive neuroscience leads us to the view that “we are a passive audience to the electrical cadence of neuronal firings buried deep within our heads” and that “what we perceive as the mind is nothing more than a cognitive adaptation established by our brains to allow higher-ordered behavior.” This view is entirely incompatible with the notion of human agency that holds that people evaluate their environments and make choices.

Many exceptions are already made, both in the legal system and in general, for people with certain mental defects. While some defects are obvious, the list of recognizable mental disorders is growing rapidly. The number of official diagnosable mental disorders has increased by almost 300% in the past 50. Behaviors that were once considered indicative of poor character are now considered medical disorders. What could have been considered laziness or immaturity 50 years ago can now be treated with a prescription for amphetamines, a drug considered addictive and dangerous and is therefore illegal for the general public. Many of these diagnoses are made based on inherently subjective criteria. Criminal law already contains the affirmative defense of insanity, and cognitive neuroscience begs the question of how and to what extent neurological conditions should influence culpability and punishment.

But the criminal system is not aimed solely at punishing for the sake of justice. Another main goal of criminal law is to reduce crime in society, both by deterring would-be criminals and by reducing recidivism. While understanding human behavior as simple mechanics may make punishment seem irrational, cognitive neuroscience aims to ameliorate the criminal justice system by understanding the causes of criminal behavior and therefore being able to effectively predict crime and rehabilitate offenders.

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