Would a neuroscience of violence aid in understanding legal culpability?

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Defense attorneys in criminal cases are beginning to argue that their clients were biologically predisposed to committing their crimes and therefore were less responsible for their behavior. Indeed, if our brains cause our behavior, and our brains are the way they are because of genetic composition, insults, disease, and life experiences, it becomes difficult to argue that any punishment as justified retribution for behavior is cogent. In this essay, I address the question of whether understanding the neuroscience behind human behavior should alter our legal notion of responsibility. We will examine this query in greater detail, using violence as a case study, asking whether understanding the neuroscience underlying violent behavior impacts our notion of personal or legal culpability. I shall argue that it does not. I proceed by first briefly sketching what we know about human violence and the biology behind it. Then I turn to a quick discussion of psychopaths, their connections to violence, and what we think we know about the biology of their brains. Finally, I come to the question of whether we should consider violent people with specific brain abnormalities as mad or bad, which will feed into the question of whether such people are responsible for their criminal behavior. I conclude with some very general and very brief speculations on what this discussion has to tell us about nature of being human.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Amygdala
  • Law
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Psychopathy
  • Responsibility
  • Violence

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  • Valerie Gray Hardcastle

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