Criminal Responsibility in the Age of "Mind-Reading"

By Sasso, Peggy | American Criminal Law Review, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Criminal Responsibility in the Age of "Mind-Reading"


Sasso, Peggy, American Criminal Law Review


While academics debate whether advances in the neurosciences eviscerate notions of guilt and innocence precipitating the demise of the criminal justice system as we know it, in the courtroom practitioners on both sides are busy exploiting the novelty and ambiguities of emerging research to advance arguments the nascent data cannot now, and may never, support. This Article contends that the significance of the neurosciences to the criminal law can only be assessed in the context of a given theory of punishment. In other words, assumptions about what justifies who and how much we punish and, indeed, the very practice of punishment itself, must be made explicit. Yet, this essential threshold analysis is all but missing from the debate. This Article concludes that advances in the neurosciences have a limited but potentially critical role to play in the criminal courtroom. It reaches that conclusion, however, only after first articulating a mixed theory of punishment with expressionistic and retributivist elements that comports with our current criminal justice practices and has the capacity to accommodate emerging scientific knowledge.

INTRODUCTION

I.    TOWARDS AN EXPRESSIVE THEORY OF PUNISHMENT
      A. Insights from Evolutionary Biology
      B. Emile Durkheim and the Social Function of Punishment
      C. To Whom May Punishment Be Applied?
      D. How Severely May We Punish?
         1. Defining Desert
         2. The Problem with Deontological Desert

II.   THE EXPRESSIVE THEORY WITHSTANDS THE NEUROSCIENTIFIC
      CHALLENGE TO ULTIMATE RESPONSIBILITY
      A. Normative Free Will
      B. Alternative Possibilities
      C. Source (In)compatibilism
      D. Folk Intuitions of Criminal Responsibility

III.  DEFINING NORMATIVE COMPETENCE: WHAT CAN THE
      NEUROSCIENCES TELL US?

      A. Limitations
      B. The Neurobiology of Social Cognition
         1. Role of Emotions in Human Cognition
         2. General Capacities Required for Social Cognition
            a. Self-Representation
            b. Perception of Others
            c. Social Knowledge
         3. The Neural Anatomy of Social Cognition
            a. Prefrontal Cortex
            b. Amygdala
            c. Hippocampus
            d. Anterior Cingulate and the Insula Cortex

CONCLUSION

INTRODUCTION

It seems that every other day the popular media is heralding what it perceives to be the latest neurological findings, which it invariably distills down to a story about mind-reading or biological determinism. In just the past two years, the cover of Time proclaimed "Science is Discovering" what makes us good and evil; (1) NBC's Today Show asked "Are Kids Born to Bully?"; (2) the CBS newsmagazine, 60 Minutes, suggested that in limited circumstances neuroscientists already have the ability to know what we are thinking; (3) Newsweek threw caution to the wind and boldly asserted "Mind Reading is Now Possible" (4) and, not to be outdone, a few weeks later Nature magazine summarized the findings of a study from U.C. Berkeley in an article headlined "Mind-Reading with a Brain Scan." (5)

The potential implications of these and other "pop" neuroscience reports have not been lost on the legal field. In March 2007, Jeffrey Rosen's "the Trials of Neurolaw" was splashed on the front page of The New York Times Magazine. (6) A year later, even the California Bar Journal entered the fray with a cover story entitled "Bridging the Worlds of Neuroscience and the Law." (7) And by donating ten million dollars in October 2007 to fund the newly created Law and Neuroscience Project, (8) the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation lent its imprimatur to the interdisciplinary study of law and neuroscience.

With all the flurry surrounding recent neuroscientific advances it is important to step back and assess what we actually know about the human brain or are likely to learn in the not too distant future. …

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