I came across an incredible article the other day, which perfectly sums up my thoughts on human responsibility. I remember this topic was something I wrestled with when I was a Christian long before I started to experience any serious doubts. It’s often conflated with the ‘free will vs. determinism’ debate, but the subject of human responsibility or blameworthiness is a slightly different issue.

Here’s the article: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/07/the-brain-on-trial/308520/?single_page=true

I hope you get a chance to read it, as it’s well worth your time. This topic has important implications for our justice system, as well as for society as a whole.

The crux of the issue is whether humans can truly be blamed for their actions. Or more specifically, whether a person’s actions can make them worthy of punishment. I take the stance that the writer of the article, neuroscientist David Eaglemen takes: vengeance and retribution should play no part in our justice system. Rather, we should be placing our emphasis on creating a healthy, and safe society. It is not necessarily an argument against incarceration or all forms of punishment. Rather it is a call for a progressive philosophy of justice which takes into account the scientific evidence which suggests that our decisions are inseparable from our biology and cognitive makeup.

I have been familiar with mental illness for as long as I can remember. My mom is paranoid schizophrenic, and one of the most amazing people I know. She did not choose to have her brain malfunction. The traditional view of human responsibility cannot explain things like her illness. Our minds are intimately connected to our physical brains. We cannot remove ourselves from the causal chain.

Eaglemen goes into many examples, from those who suffer from Tourette’s to people who have become violent as a result of brain tumors. It reminds me of what Neuronotes wrote a while back about how brain injuries can affect a person’s moral character and lead to violent, uncompassionate behavior. The point is clear: we cannot look at another person and accurately predict that we would act differently in the same situation since we don’t have that person’s genes or brain. It’s apples and oranges. Those of us who are mentally stable should be profoundly grateful that we weren’t dealt the same biological hand as a psychopath; who did not choose to have a messed up brain.

Does anyone deserve pain? I would say no; regardless of what that person has done or how evil a person is perceived to be. Does that mean we never inflict pain on other humans? No. Sometimes it is necessary. The point is, all pain inflicted should have a purpose. Punishment for the sake of retribution or vengeance is a lingering relic of past assumptions about libertarian free will that are demonstrably false, and should have no place in our justice system.

Image from Wikimedia Commons, modified by myself.

Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

26 thoughts on “Paridigm Shift – Human Responsibility and Neuroscience

  1. TA, I am so appreciative of this post, and for the pingback. Like you, I highly recommend the brain on trial article. I read it a couple of years back. I’ve also watched his excellent lecture and I’ll post it for anyone who might be interested. It’s well worth the time invested.

    Learning about all this profoundly changed my view of humanity which religious indoctrination had tainted, and it also made me acutely aware how antiquated our justice system is as well as how unlearned the god of the Bible was.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll check it out! I enjoyed the article a lot; he had me hanging on every word. It’s like he was summing up all of my thoughts on the subject that had been accumulating over the years. As I mentioned in the article, this was one of the first things I felt aware of as a Christian which never set right with me, but I was always able to rationalize and put it on the backburner.

      Another important concept in relation to the justice system is memory. There have been some recent studies where people have been manipulated into believing false memories, even that they committed felonies (!) Of course eyewitness testimony has lost a ton of credibility over the years and so this is not much of a surprise. I’m sure you are probably aware of both of those issues.


      1. Memory manipulation is easy under hypnosis, which is why courts will not hear testimony of “repressed memories” retrieved through hypnosis.

        Back in the 60’s there was a book on reincarnation called “The Search For Bridey Murphy” where a woman was age-regressed under hypnosis all the way back to a prior life. It was later thoroughly debunked. But under hypnosis the subject attempts to please the hypnotist and will concoct a story if it seems necessary to follow the suggestion, even if he suggests going back in time before they were born.

        The McMartin Preschool trial was an example where children were influenced by a well-meaning but insistent woman to “remember” rituals of witchcraft and sexual abuse that never happened that the investigator implanted by suggestion. (See Wikipedia for details on Bridey and McMartin)

        And then there are the innocents falsely convicted by supposed certainty of eye-witnesses not to mention the confessions of innocents after hours of grilling and promises they could go home as soon as they signed the confession.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “Does anyone deserve pain? I would say no; regardless of what that person has done or how evil a person is perceived to be. Does that mean we never inflict pain on other humans? No. Sometimes it is necessary. The point is, all pain inflicted should have a purpose. Punishment for the sake of retribution or vengeance is a lingering relic of past assumptions about libertarian free will that are demonstrably false, and should have no place in our justice system.”

    Yes! I totally agree. I never want to inflict pain on anyone unless doing so is required to stop them from causing greater pain to themselves or others.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome. I share a lot of posts related to the free will topic because it is such a relevant issue. If we are shown to not deserve suffering, it sort of blows the current practice of revenge and the teaching that we deserve to burn in hell.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. ” Punishment for the sake of retribution or vengeance is a lingering relic of past assumptions about libertarian free will that are demonstrably false, and should have no place in our justice system.”

    1) Eagleman’s article in The Atlantic, the one your reference above, disagrees. Please note his description of the “prefrontal workout” that his team has been using to improve the operation of free will in patients with impulse control issues. Free will is a good thing.

    2) The point of “blame” is to identify what needs correction. If we blame the wrong thing then our attempts at correction are likely to fail. Blaming blame is the wrong thing to blame. Blaming the idea of free will is also the wrong thing to blame.

    3) A just penalty balances the rights of the victim to have the harm repaired (if feasible), the rights of society to protection from further harms (restrain the offender until behavior is corrected), and the rights of the offender to a penalty that does no more than is reasonably necessary to accomplish repair, correction, and protection.

    4) The Whitman case (see article) might have been avoided if the doctor were legally required to report Whitman’s urges to do harm to someone who would follow-through with monitoring, counseling, and medical treatment. Of course, knowledge that your doctor is going to escalate your antisocial thoughts and feelings might make some people afraid to seek help.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your comment Marvin. Good points. I think we agree, and it may be an issue of semantics. I am for a compatibilist view of free will, just not the kind which believes human choice exists in a vacuum. I think retribution and revenge are unjustified, but I agree with you on most of what you said. You phrased it in constructive terms such as repair, correction, and protection. So I think we agree on this for the most part.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am happy that people understand that revenge is unjustified. I tend to disagree with compatibilists because I think it causes confusion to redefine existing terms to mean something different. If someone defines the flaming ball in the sky as “moon” it leads to confusion and bizarre things like moonburn. Libertarian Free Will and Compatibilist Free Will are not the same thing and this is something that I have a hard time dealing with when communicating about the topic.

        But in the end, none of us have libertarian free will and are not responsible for the confusion of English.


      2. The problem with the Libertarian free will definition is that it is only meaningful to philosophers and theologians.

        Most people use the term free will in it’s ordinary sense, which is the ability to decide for oneself what to choose or what to do next. The “free” part of “free will” is when it is up to you rather than someone else forcing you to do something against your will.

        Ordinary free will does not require freedom from causality. Nor does it require the supernatural. In the dictionaries, ordinary free will is usually listed as the first definition, because it is how ordinary people commonly understand “free will”. The philosophical, libertarian definition is typically listed in the number two spot.

        That’s why I view libertarian free will as a “straw man” definition, one set up to be easily knocked down.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Gotcha. The libertarian free will definition is usually the one I am trying to debunk because in religion, it’s a very important concept. In a sense, many people don’t consider the inseparability of the will from the material body, hence our part in the causal chain.

        But yes, most learned people get the complexity of the will.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. There are problems when people are not specific about which free will they are referring to. Dr. Eddy Nahmias pointed this out in his article on “willusionism”.

        He cites several studies showing that people who hear claims like “Science has demonstrated that free will is an illusion” are likely to “cheat more, help less, and behave more aggressively”.

        To explain this effect, he suggests that they come to view themselves as having less control of their lives. They feel that “their efforts to deliberate about what would be best to do were inconsequential and that their efforts to do what they think best were insignificant”. “Put simply”, he says, “if people are told they have no free will, they might interpret this to mean they lack willpower, and believing that might lead them to exert less willpower to do the more difficult (but more appropriate) thing to do.”

        So there is a moral hazard to telling regular people that they have no free will.

        Here’s the link to the Nahmias article:

        Click to access Neuroethics-Response-to-Baumeister.pdf

        Liked by 2 people

      5. Yes, Travis has written about this. I am familiar with that concern.

        It seems kinda stupid to me that people would react that way, my beliefs about free will have helped me to see others as victims of fate, and hatred as a vain emotion. However, I do get the fact that people react in strange ways to information. Guess there is no easy answer.

        I do tend to think that on a macro level, our society would function better if everyone understood human will better. Whether it is worth discussing is hard to say,


      6. Well it is a bit daunting to be taught a new definition of free will and then the teacher turns around and says, “By the way, that free will doesn’t exist”.

        Nahmias’s article makes it clear that most people are talking about ordinary free will, the ability to make decisions for yourself without being someone else making them for you.

        And, of course, there is the problem that deterministic inevitability does not actually interfere with free will anyway. So telling people that free will is an illusion, even when said by well-meaning people who are intelligent enough to know better, remains a falsehood.

        Liked by 2 people

      7. Good points. I have always viewed it in the more philosophical realm, but I could imagine that many who aren’t thinking along the same lines could get the wrong impression.


  4. Zach,
    Thanks for the reference on the article. It was worth the read. You said that

    Punishment for the sake of retribution or vengeance is a lingering relic of past assumptions about libertarian free will that are demonstrably false

    I suspect it is more likely that our retributive impulse was evolution’s way of achieving the “forward looking” correction that the article seeks. In other words, we are programmed to want to punish somebody for the harm they inflicted on others because in the long run this influences the behavior of the group in a beneficial way. Last night my younger son widely opened his arms to demonstrate how big something was and accidentally hit his older brother in the face in the process. He was immediately apologetic but his brother’s desire for vengeance was obvious and it took a couple minutes of discussion and reasoning before it dissipated. The older son’s reaction had nothing to do with libertarian free will – it was instinctive, but it was also “forward looking” in that the threat of retribution was very likely an incremental contribution toward training my younger son to be more careful with his movements in the presence of others.

    Given that we are naturally inclined toward retribution – particularly in the heat of the moment – it seems like a solution which eliminates the punitive component entirely is a nearly impossible sell to the population as a whole. While I agree that we should recognize causative factors and seek to minimize future harm by addressing those, is it also possible that we might be better off acknowledging the hand we’re dealt; the one in which we often desire retribution? I worry that if we stray too far from human nature we may find ourselves with unwanted results that we didn’t see coming.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you’ve nailed the motivation for retributive penalty, Travis. It is not only instinctive but and it can also effect the behavior change.

      When I was 5 or 6 I though it would be funny to put some straight pins in my little sister’s modeling clay. After she yelled, Dad took out one of the pins and, holding it so that it could cause pain but no damage, tapped my hand several times and said “Now you know what it feels like.”

      In the Old Testament it was “an eye for an eye”, probably to convey the same message and threat.

      I believe that, assuming the offender can deliberate a choice, and is not handicapped in their free will, that it is appropriate for the penalty to be sufficiently punitive to convey the disapproval of the community, that the behavior will not be tolerated. That is an important message for motivating self-correction.

      At the same time it is important to provide assistance and direction in developing proper behavior. If a man steals to feed his family, the community must provide a viable alternative. If there is no alternative but to steal or starve, then the community has broken its contract with the individual.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Thanks for reading and commenting Travis, I always find your thoughts insightful and challenging to my own philosophies.

      I get your point about a minimal amount of retribution. I agree that it’s instinctual, and probably did serve the evolutionary purpose you suggested it did. I guess it depends on whether it has any real value in deterring criminal acts. I wonder if any studies have looked at this with the death penalty. I do agree that it probably would be a very tough sell to make the case that vengeance should not be a part of the system. Interesting thoughts which I’ll have to chew on.


  5. Thanks, a fascinating article. It makes me realise that we should be wary of rushing to jump to conclusions when people act in uncharacteristic ways.

    It accords with something Victoria had posted on her site, regards brain injury being correlated with people suddenly becoming hyper religious.

    I keep thinking back to the move “Phenomenon” that looked at an aspect of this issue. I had assumed that was just a bit of Hollywood fiction, they may have been closer to the mark than I expected.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Peter. It is definitely a article which makes you think more deeply about what our preconceived notions of justice entail. I think there are some outdated elements of justice we have yet to weed out.

      I’ll have to look into the religiosity-brain injury stuff. That’s wild.


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