Neural determinism vs. blameworthiness

This Atlantic article is lengthy, but very much worth reading. The author tells some amazing criminal stories along the lines of “my brain made me do it,” and recommends we stop thinking in terms of retribution and think solely along lines of rehabilitation and deterrence. The upshot:

The crux of the problem is that it no longer makes sense to ask, “To what extent was it his biology, and to what extent was it him?,” because we now understand that there is no meaningful distinction between a person’s biology and his decision-making. They are inseparable.

While our current style of punishment rests on a bedrock of personal volition and blame, our modern understanding of the brain suggests a different approach. Blameworthiness should be removed from the legal argot. It is a backward-looking concept that demands the impossible task of untangling the hopelessly complex web of genetics and environment that constructs the trajectory of a human life.

Instead of debating culpability, we should focus on what to do, moving forward, with an accused lawbreaker. I suggest that the legal system has to become forward-looking, primarily because it can no longer hope to do otherwise. As science complicates the question of culpability, our legal and social policy will need to shift toward a different set of questions: How is a person likely to behave in the future? Are criminal actions likely to be repeated? Can this person be helped toward pro-social behavior? How can incentives be realistically structured to deter crime?

Author: Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.

13 thoughts on “Neural determinism vs. blameworthiness”

  1. In order get such sweeping consequentialist penal reform off the ground, it seems to me that we also need more understanding of the neuroscientific underpinnings of the retributivist intuitions that stand against “a shift toward a different set of questions”, Listening to interviews with Eagleman, I sometimes wonder if he’s not merely expressing the neuroscientific fact that he happens to be more prone to consequentialist intutions.


  2. Ah, but Rob, are you not expressing the neuroscientific fact that you are more prone to assess others’ views as expressing neuroscientific facts?


    1. True. My suspicion, however, is that if neuro-philosophers devoted as much attention to the brain underpinnings of those whose intuitions incline more towards a retributionist outlook as they do to exposing the brain underpinnings of bad or outlawed behavior, they might find that retributionism is much more resistant to persuasion by incompatibilist objections.


      1. These issues exhaust me endlessly, and to no apparent end, as my self-experience inclines strongly towards no-freedom/pessmistic incompatibilism, in that I have relatively little (defective?) retrospective sense of buck-stopping ‘ownership’ of my doings when I reflect on them (they seem like components of a concatenation), and to retributivism, in that for instance it simply feels profoundly right that, say, the Petit family killers*, should die, despite my ready acceptance of their, like everyone’s, ultimate lack of ownership of their evil doings, but I see no way of harmonizing these two divergent intuitive spheres. (However, I am opposed to capital punishment, though for pragmatic, economic, ethnic/racial-inequality, reasons, as well for the added moral clout abolition would give the U.S. in condemning the practice in other countries, like Iran.)



  3. “we now understand that there is no meaningful distinction between a person’s biology and his decision-making.”

    Wow. I had not realized that we had reached such a complete understanding of these issues and settled them with such finality and confidence. Apparently I missed the memo that materialism had scored a knock-out triumph over hylomorphism, etc.

    Instead of beating the dead horse again, I will just refer people to past posts on the inadequacy of materialism when it comes to explaining intentionality.


  4. I have a lot of ambivelent views on the article, but mostly I think it takes one concept and extends it well past the point it deserves. To begin with, I don’t think the question should be “To what extent was it his biology, and to what extent was it him?,” but rather “To what extent was it his biology, and to what extent was it circumstance/environment?,”. Essentially the genetics vs environment scale. It isn’t random chance, or biology, that generates an excess of felons in the bottom of the social pyramid (ignoring the bias of the law that acts in favor of white collar criminals) and if we actually wanted to address that distribution we could without breaking out neural analysis. US Society, however, has a contradictory view of prison being both punishment and rehibilitation (and the for profit prison companies definetly have a vested interest in continueing that contradiction as it ensures a steady stream of returning offenders), as well as a lack of commitment towards addressing the underlying problems. If you look at the norwegian model that focuses as much as possible on rehibilitation (things like effective drug cessation programs, education and trade programs, etc – things we do with only minor commitment they have gone all in on) they have an amazingly smaller rate of repeat offenders – no understanding of biology needed.

    I also find the notion of biological treatment to be very problematic, simply because we still have very primitive means of treatment. For example, Lithium may be great at stopping mania, but at the expense of emotionally neutering a person. There are a heck of a lot of current treatments that might as well represent chemical prisons instead of physical ones, and I think a focus that direction can very easily be used to justify greater injustices to the convicted than simple confinement (and to be fair, we also have a pretty high false positive rate for the convicted). It also is a very slippery slope for situations where the biological factor is well understood but there is no treatment – for example sociopathy has a fairly well understood biological component (unique brain structure [and its implications] as well as genetics, plus dentistry since the genetics also impact that…), and the environmental trigger that generates the sociopathy (the biology makes you susceptible to life experiences that create the behavior). What it doesn’t have is any treatment – do we use that to justify perpetual confinement under the notion that it is a person beyond rehabilitation? I am sympathetic to the intentions of the article, but I am not prepared to believe we are mature enough (scientifically or socially) to act as it suggests.

    @Kleiner – I would counter not with whether materialism has supplanted hylomorphism but whether hylomorphism actually can support itself even without a competing idea. What actual emperical evidence (other than lack of competing explination) supports the idea, and how can engineers take hylomorphism and actually apply it to anything? In what way have we derived useful utility from the idea? ( Huenemann – per previous discussions this is a prime example of where I have issue with Aristotle’s legacy)


    1. Can hylomorphism “support itself”? I suppose it depends on just how narrowly your conception of “actual empirical evidence” is (I suspect you have a very narrow sense in mind). Following Aristotle, I think the compelling reasons to sign on to hylomorphism are the reality of intellectual activity and intentional language; hylomorphism best explains and is most consistent with the philosophical and neurological evidence concerning these basic human activities.

      If you want a good defense of hylomorphism, read Oderberg’s Real Essentialism.
      If you want something a lot shorter, read this blog post:

      Can engineers apply it to anything? I don’t know, and I frankly don’t really care. Why would that matter in any case? Is the applicability of a theory to some practical task of engineering, or more broadly to some “useful utility”, now a basic criterion for truth? Why in the world should we think that?

      I am reminded of what GK Chesterton said in his book Heretics:
      “There are some people — and I am one of them — who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether in the long run, anything else affects them.”


      1. > “I don’t know, and I frankly don’t really care. Why would that matter in any case?”

        If you can’t actually use hylomorphism for anything, if it can’t be applied in the real world to achieve anything, how is it anything other than trivia? A materialistic understanding of intellect allows us to address cognitive, behavioral, and personality disorders – to devise treatments or means of coping, and the ability to trace the conservation and development of mental traits among species. Ultimately such an aproach holds the promise for artificial replication of intellectual traits. Materialism gives us an explination for why people judge certain risk poorly, we can see the evolution of that behavior, and we can then devise means of helping them judge risk better by altering the presentation to fit the context they understand.

        As an aside – anyone who uses the term neurobable has as much credibility as a mac user that constantly refers to M$. It is a petty reference that implies an inability to objectively analyze something, and the NYT op-ed author that Edward yanked the term from used his op-ed to declare his ignorance to the world (of course immature science is funded, that’s how it progresses from immature to mature. Why would you fund science that already has answered all of the questions? And that is just one complaint in an entire article penned by what can only be gross ignorance of the subject he is addressing). And Edward’s arguements don’t at all move me – how can hylomorphism be remotely consistent with neuroscientific evidence when it has absolutely no mechanistic definition? (and yeah, the reference to angels does a lot to undermine credibility)

        So here is my challenge to you – how does hylomorphism explain the bonding of a mother to child? Materialism has entire pathways of changes, supported by evidence, showing cascading changes in neural structures (physical alterations to neural structures – not activity, but changes) and hormone levels – for example at near term and following birth the olfactory bulb and amygdalae both experience growth and specific structural changes strongly correlated with chemical recognition, bonding, and very specific emotional learning. Similarly the petuitary releases oxytocin both during birth and during nipple stimulation, which in turn further activates the amygdalae. This is just one pathway of physiological alterations that are directly correlated with alterations in behavior, and all of them are alteration of form (and are just a small subset of a much larger picture – not complete by any means, but useful enough that we can manipulate sheep via this knowledge to get them to foster lambs that aren’t theirs and that they would otherwise leave to die). Can you explain to me the mechanistic changes in matter that would give rise to this altered behavior, and also the mechanisms that would instigation the change in matter?

        And per intentional language, I do not find the explination to be complete or reflective of reality. It strikes me as an artifact of flawed communications and fuzzy neural procesing rather than an actual entity in and of itself. I don’t see any evidence that there is an intrinsic mental state associated with intentional language, given the huge variability from individual to individual. Additionally, different language refering to the same thing creates fundementally different mental cognition of the subject. For example, there is profound difference betwen someone who thinks of numbers in the modern decimal system and someone who thinks of them fully in the ancient roman numeral system; the latter is unable to concieve negative quantities, zero quantities, division, multiplication, decimals/fractions, etc because they literally do not have the language to do so; so 3 is not universally 3. It has significantly more properties in modern times than it does in ancient times. Another example, 10, to me, is not specifically a quantity that corresponds to a number of fingers the average person has. It could be 2 fingers, or it could be 4, or 8, or 16 in decimal [though admittedly for 16 it properly should be expressed either 0x10 or #10]. It largely depends on the context that I think of that in. Similarly A can be a word, a letter, a quantity, or a place holder for a quantity. There is nothing intrinsic about it, even in my own mind.


  5. I think the arguments here are just slipping past one another. Josh is right that neuroscientists and engineers don’t need to know Aristotle in order to produce the results they find valuable. I don’t think Kleiner would disagree. Kleiner’s concern, and Feser’s, is that a philosophical understanding of the phenomena requires more than what neuroscientists and engineers demand. Now Josh might well ask, “So what sort of explanation does a philosopher require?”, which is a good question, but one that will require a lot more background and care than this blog can provide.


  6. Josh, I can’t refrain from adding my own schoolmarmish warning to you. I am a reductive materialist, like you. I think Dan Dennett is on the right road to explaining mentality in books like “Consciousness Explained” and “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.” So you and I agree on a lot, I suspect. But we reductive materialists come in two kinds. One kind is open to consider objections coming from deeply different conceptual schemes, like Aristotle’s, and tries to get a clear picture of what the issues are, and to rightly see things from various perspectives. Call this the “contemplative” kind. The other kind simply shuts down anything coming from outside the reductive materialist village, usually labeling it as stupid or naive or superstitious or whatever. Call this the “combative” kind. I endeavor to be contemplative, and Kleiner has helped me greatly in this regard, but it’s a lonely path, since almost all of the reductive materialists I encounter (including Dennett himself) are combative. I daresay they are at least as combative as religious fundamentalists, and are just as rigid in their thinking. How they can so flippantly toss aside so many serious, engaged thinkers is a mystery to me, and is in my view deeply antiphilosophical, despite the fact that many of these combative types are professors of philosophy. Just something to reflect on, as you work out your own position.


  7. Thanks, Huenemann, for sparing me a very long post in response to Josh. You were much more brief than I was going to be.

    One thought: I don’t think the non-practical is then merely the trivial. What a sad reduction. I am with Aristotle – philosophy is the highest intellectual activity precisely because it is useless. It is done for its own sake and not for the sake of something else. I can think of a number of things that do not allow you to “achieve anything” that are among the highest goods, those things pursued for their own sake rather than for the sake of some practical application – philosophy, beauty, love, etc etc.

    This doesn’t mean I am uninterested in helping address cognitive, behavioral or personality disorders. My wife is a psychologist, we talk about that stuff all the time. Nor is the hylomorphist incapable of speaking to those issues. The hylomorphist will take the body quite seriously. You don’t have to be a materialist to think that neuropsychology is an important mode of inquiry. As Huenemann points out, you can do neuropsychology without doing any metaphysics or philosophical anthropology at all. I change my light bulbs and they work, but I am not an electrical engineer. Scientists can do science without understanding the epistemological or metaphysical ground of their own inquiries. Good for them too. I am just asking a different question.

    As for your neurobabble aside: since in a previous post you brushed aside Aristotle as “obviously wrong”, I should not be surprised that you brushed aside distinguished professors of philosophy (see the NYTimes op-ed) as “ignorant”. If these arguments were so obviously silly, then why would highly trained philosophers of various stripes take them so seriously? And are you, an admitted beginner in philosophy, able to see so clearly through errors that highly trained experts simply miss? Some humility and some charity are in order here, Josh.


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