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Puppets to neurology and genes, or free agents?

 
 
dlowan
 
Reply Mon 13 Dec, 2004 03:17 pm
Interesting story from Wired.com. ( http://www.wired.com/news/medtech/0,1286,65990,00.html?tw=rss.TOP )

Frankly, I had no idea whether to put this in legal, medicine, or here - I decided that, if it arouses discussion, it most properly belonges here in Philosophy and Debate.

Have a read, and say what you think.

Are We Puppets or Free Agents?


By Rowan Hooper

02:00 AM Dec. 13, 2004 PT

In 1995, the Supreme Court of Georgia heard a lawyer make a novel argument. He had read a study describing violent behavior shared by several generations of men in a Dutch family. Scientists had identified a mutated gene shared by all the violent men, and that's what got the lawyer's brain ticking.

The accused, argued the lawyer, might carry a gene -- like the men in the Dutch family -- that predisposed him to violence. (The lawyer's client was on trial for murder.) Therefore, went the argument, the accused did not have free will, was innocent of the murder and should be acquitted.

The defense, an attempt at legal trickery remarkable even for a lawyer, failed. However, scientific discoveries, particularly advances in neuroscience, are nevertheless having profound consequences for legal procedure.

For example, the insanity plea in the United States currently requires that the accused does not know, because of mental illness, that he did wrong.

The insanity plea derives from the M'Naghten rule, a case from English law. In 1843, a man named Daniel M'Naghten attempted to assassinate the British prime minister; at his trial, he was found to be insane and the trial was abandoned. From that point on, lawyers saw the power of mounting an insanity defense, and many such claims were made.

"By the early 1980s, half the USA and most federal courts were using some sort of insanity test that incorporated elements of loss of volition," said Robert Sapolsky of the Department of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University. "This trend abruptly reversed when the potential assassin of Ronald Reagan, John Hinckley, was acquitted."

The acquittal caused a public outcry, and U.S. courts were put under intense pressure to make it more difficult to make a plea of insanity and to restrict claims of impaired volition. Now Sapolsky is calling for a serious reassessment of the law.

"Given that M'Naghten is based on 160-year-old science, it definitely needs to be de-emphasized, or more precisely, to not be used as the sole criterion in so many U.S. states," he said. "The U.S. was definitely moving in the direction of laws that would have encompassed issues like impaired frontal function until the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, which led to massive repeal of frontal-friendly laws."

The problem with the reliance on M'Naghten is that modern findings by neuroscientists suggest that damage to the prefrontal cortex of the brain can produce individuals who are able to tell right from wrong but are organically incapable of regulating their behavior.

Sapolsky worked for the defense in a notorious case earlier this year. Scott Erskine was accused of murdering two boys out for a bike ride along the Otay River near the U.S.-Mexico border.

"I worked on the case for the defense, as there was a major issue of damage to his frontal cortex," said Sapolsky. Nevertheless, Erskine was found guilty and sentenced to death for the crimes. The case also starkly illustrates how emotion plays a part in judgments.

"For moral judgment, I think the most interesting trends in neuroscience are the ways in which judgments vary as a function of how emotionally salient the situation is," said Sapolsky.

It is an area that Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen, of Princeton University's psychology department, are interested in as well. The pair believes that neuroscientific discoveries will change the law because they will change our moral intuitions about free will and responsibility.

To illustrate what they mean, Greene tells the story of Mr. Puppet, a fictional character genetically designed and environmentally influenced to commit crimes.

"When we know Mr. Puppet's genes and environment were manipulated so that he would behave badly, we pity him and are not inclined to punish him as an end in itself, even if we continue to recognize that he is dangerous and that he and others like him must be contained or deterred," said Greene.

The point of the story is that a deeper understanding of neuroscience will change the way we see behavior, and thus, perhaps, change the way we see the necessity for punishment.

"Neuroscience can help us see that all behavior is mechanical, that all behavior is produced by chains of physical events that ultimately reach back to forces beyond the agent's control," said Greene. "And if we can see that, then I hope we will think differently about punishment, that we'll think of it as a practical tool and not as a way of balancing the universe's moral books."

Of course, that's easier said than done. Emotions are powerful, and it's sometimes difficult to be rational in the face of them. After all, we're not Vulcans.

"But sometime in the future, I hope, when the lessons of neuroscience are as familiar to ordinary people as the fact that the Earth is round, people will have a more accurate understanding of the nature of human action," said Greene, "and they will put aside their intuitive views of punishment, at least for the purposes of legal decision-making."
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Merry Andrew
 
  1  
Reply Mon 13 Dec, 2004 06:13 pm
I don't know. I find it very hard to believe that -- quoting Dr. Greene -- "all behavior is mechanical, that all behavior is produced by chains of physical events that ultimately reach back to forces beyond the agent's control." This sounds too much like a cop-out, like the old "the devil made me do it" defense. Also, if that statement is true, than the insanity defense becomes meaningless. It means that none of us should be held responsible for our behavior. It equates the gangland slaying with the irrational act of a disturbed serial killer or a jealous lover.

The writer of the article, in his penultimate paragraph, says, "Emotions are powerful, and it's sometimes diffiult to be rational in the face of them." Agreed. But the operative word here, I think, is "difficult." Sometimes damnably difficult. Would that I had a penny for each time I've felt the almost uncontrollable urge to throttle someone. Most normal people, however, find the inner strength to resist this will to violence. Perhaps it is we who have a special gene which enables us to do so.

My first sentence stands: I don't know.
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joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Tue 14 Dec, 2004 09:20 am
dlowan: This is a very interesting article and a worthwhile topic for discussion. I am, unfortunately, currently burnt out on the issue of free will: there seems to be a new thread devoted to this topic every week.
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dlowan
 
  1  
Reply Tue 14 Dec, 2004 10:01 am
Lol Joe - I understand - I was, I supopose, prolly more hoping for a scientifically based rather than solely philosophical discussion!
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dlowan
 
  1  
Reply Tue 14 Dec, 2004 10:09 am
Merry Andrew wrote:
I don't know. I find it very hard to believe that -- quoting Dr. Greene -- "all behavior is mechanical, that all behavior is produced by chains of physical events that ultimately reach back to forces beyond the agent's control." This sounds too much like a cop-out, like the old "the devil made me do it" defense. Also, if that statement is true, than the insanity defense becomes meaningless. It means that none of us should be held responsible for our behavior. It equates the gangland slaying with the irrational act of a disturbed serial killer or a jealous lover.

The writer of the article, in his penultimate paragraph, says, "Emotions are powerful, and it's sometimes diffiult to be rational in the face of them." Agreed. But the operative word here, I think, is "difficult." Sometimes damnably difficult. Would that I had a penny for each time I've felt the almost uncontrollable urge to throttle someone. Most normal people, however, find the inner strength to resist this will to violence. Perhaps it is we who have a special gene which enables us to do so.

My first sentence stands: I don't know.


Yeppers - I don't know, too.

Part of what I found interesting here is the beginnings of a chance to begin to remove the vengeance/punishment aspects of criminal law for some folk - mebbe more than some folk.

The practical reality of the need to protect society from some folk remains. The fella who killed - allegedly because he was unable to control the impulse to do so - is a clear case of this, if the allegation is true. Clearly, there is a need to put him where he cannot kill, unless a way is found of assisting him to gain control of himself - but there is no need to PUNISH him - especially to kill him. (I NEVER agree with judicial killing, but that is beside the point here.)
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Merry Andrew
 
  1  
Reply Tue 14 Dec, 2004 04:25 pm
Granted, dlowan, judicial killing is not the subject of the debate here. But I once heard a proponent of capital punishment use the exact same argument that you are expressing here. He said that the problem with capital punishment is use of the word punishment. If you don't think of it as punishment, but more in the sense of euthanasia -- this man said (it's not my argument) -- then putting to death the sufferer of an incurable psychosis which is dangerous to the humans he comes into contact with is an altruistic act. That's certainly one way "to put him where he cannot kill."
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Ray
 
  1  
Reply Tue 14 Dec, 2004 09:28 pm
A person should be punished for a harmful action period, but capitol punishment is no way to do it. You can put people in jail, put them into rehab if they must, but death is not the way to punish someone. It can not even be called altruistic since the death of a person is one of the worst things you could do to a living conscious being, next to torture.

Anyways, what do they mean by the "agent"?

If a person can not control himself then he should definitely be put in jail or a mental institute. If this is the case, then I'm for that electro-convulsive therapy thing.

Mens Rea must be considered when judging a case, so if the person has the motivation to commit the crime, then he is in fact guilty.
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dlowan
 
  1  
Reply Wed 15 Dec, 2004 01:49 pm
Aaaargh - people who wanna execute can always find justification!!!



I was interested in this article because of my infant mental health training - and the increasing amount of neurological information that supports the awful neurological consequences of poor attachment, neglect and abuse.

Fascinating to begin to see the possible neurology, for instance, of the poor little kids described by Bowlby so long ago in orphanages - with no empathy, no ability to form real relationships and so on. Tragedy is, I am STILL seeing them now - in a system which allows kids to be abused through their formative years, acts, if it acts at all, way too late - and is not prepared to fund its alternative care system well enough to prevent further abuse in care, let alone at the level where the system can offer restorative (if this is possible - we are beginning to think it may be) assistance.
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