Monsters are born, not made: the latest round in the debate about criminal responsibility questions the very existence of intuitive morality.
Rosalind English for the UK Human Rights Blog, part of the Guardian Legal Network.
The US neuroscientist Sam Harris claims in a new book that free will is such a misleading illusion that we need to rethink our criminal justice system on the basis of discoveries coming from the neurological wards and MRI scans of the human brain in action.
The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously demonstrated in the 1980s that activity in the brain’s motor regions can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. Subjects were hooked up to an EEG machine and were asked to move their left or right hand at a time of their choosing. They watched a specially designed clock to notice what time it was when they were finally committed to moving their left or right hand. Libet measured the electrical potentials of their brains and discovered that nearly half a second before they were aware of what they were going to do, he was aware of their intentions. Libet’s findings have been borne out more recently in direct recordings of the cortex from neurological patients. With contemporary brain scanning technology, other scientists in 2008 were able to predict with 60% accuracy whether subjects would press a button with their left or right hand up to 10 seconds before the subject became aware of having made that choice (long before the preparatory motor activity detected byLibet).
Clearly, findings of this kind are difficult to reconcile with the sense that one is the conscious source of one’s actions. The discovery that humans possess a determined will has profound implications for moral responsibility. Indeed, Harris is even critical of the idea that free will is “intuitive”: he says careful introspection can cast doubt on free will. In an earlier book on morality, Harris argues
Thoughts simply arise in the brain. What else could they do? The truth about us is even stranger than we may suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion (The Moral Landscape)
But a belief in free will forms the foundation and underpinning of our enduring commitment to retributive justice. The US supreme court has called free will a “universal and persistent” foundation for our entire system of law.
Implications for the criminal justice system
Any scientific developments that threatened our notion of free will would seem to put the ethics of punishing people for their bad behaviour in question. In Free Will Harris debates these ideas and asks whether or not, given what brain science is telling us, criminal justice, in focusing on retribution, rests on an entirely false basis. An example he gives is a murderer who kills because of a brain tumour. This person is a victim, not a criminal. The tumour is the cause of his crimes. People imagine that the normal brain is a different story. But in fact the study of any criminal brain, says Harris, is the equivalent of finding a tumour in it – the wrong genes being transcribed, the brain being dictated by events over which he has no control. Human choice, says Harris, is as important as fanciers of free will believe. But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being.
Clearly we need to lock up dangerous people. But there is no sense to the idea that they somehow deserve it. Retributive justice is like requiring us to hate, as well as shoot, a wild animal who escapes from the zoo. His short book opens with an account of an horrific crime that mesmerised America with its cruelty – the home invasion in Connecticut by two men in 2007. Two career criminals first brutally bludgeoned the father (the only survivor), then raped and murdered the mother, and finally killed the two young daughters when they set the house on fire. As one reviewer says,
Harris gives voice to most everyone’s worry when he writes that, without (contra-causal) free will, monsters like these men are “nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork,” and therefore they aren’t really responsible for their actions. They’re just damaged goods.