In the present legal system, when a criminal stands in front of the judge’s bench, the legal system asks “Is this person blameworthy?” Currently, in the majority of cases where behavior is attributed to biology, the system says that a person is not culpable. If there is no obvious biological problem, the legal system attributes one’s actions to free will. Given that recent brain research is proving resoundingly that a large part of human behavior is beyond conscious volition – even in sane, mentally healthy individuals, this is not really a reasonable way to construct a legal system says David Eagleman, in his book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.
He tells of Charles Whitman, who, in August of 1966, took the elevator to the top floor of the University of Texas tower in Austin. At the top, he killed the receptionist with the butt of his rifle, shot at two families of tourists coming up the stairs, and, then, randomly fired on pedestrians on the ground below killing thirteen and wounding thirty three. Whitman was killed on the scene by police.
When his home was investigated, it was discovered that, in the hours before his rampage, Whitman had murdered his mother and stabbed his wife to death in her sleep. He left a suicide note, in which he requested that his brain be autopsied and wrote about killing his wife:
It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight….I love her dearly, and she has been a fine wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot pinpoint any specific reason for doing this…
In the autopsy, it was determined that Whitman had a brain tumor about the size of a nickel pressing on his thalamus, hypothalamus, and amygdala. The amygdala is known to be the emotional regulator, especially with fear and aggression.
Eagleman, who is also director of Baylor College of Medicine’s Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, says that blameworthiness is not even a pertinent question to ask. He writes:
My argument in this chapter has not been to redefine blameworthiness; instead it is to remove it from the legal argot. Blameworthiness 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. Consider, for example, that all known serial killers were abused as children. Does this make them less blame worthy? Who cares? It’s the wrong question to ask….We still need to warehouse him. We still need to keep him off of the streets….
The concept and word to replace blameworthiness is modifiability, a forward looking term that asks ‘What can we do from here?’ Is rehabilitation available? If so, great. If not, will the punishment of a prison sentence modify future behavior? If so, send to prison. If punishment won’t help, then take the person under state control for the purposes of incapacitation, not retribution.
Eagleman suggests that a biological understanding of behavior based on neuroscience incorporated into the legal system would improve it and would not exculpate criminals. He advocates an “evidence-based, neural compatible social policy instead of one based on shifting and provably bad intuitions.”
To those who may think it is unfair to take such a scientific approach to sentencing, Eagleman says:
As it stands now, ugly people receive longer sentences than attractive people, psychiatrists have no capacity to guess which sex offenders will reoffend; and our prisons are over crowded with drug addicts who could more usefully be dealt with by rehabilitation rather than incarceration.
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