- Published: November 7, 2012
In an article in Aeon magazine, Steve Fleming, a cognitive neuroscientist at NYU, discusses what discoveries in neuroscience means in terms of guilt. This topic has been discussed by many before with much rigor, but Fleming take an interesting angle that I have not heard of before. Instead of arguing that "a link between brain and behavior" is "enough to push responsibility out of the courtroom", he believes that we "need new ways of thinking about responsibility, and new ways to conceptualize a decision-making self." He says that a possibility of this greater understanding is that people, "armed with our greater understanding of the fragility of consciousness", "would be able to put in place counter-measures" to mitigate the chances of mistakes or errors occurring. For instance, Fleming presents the scenario where "we discover that the brain mechanisms underpinning consciousness are primed to malfunction at a particular time of day", such that we exercise greater caution during those times, or avoid any possibly risky activity. Additionally, he argues that "increased self-knowledge often percolates through to laws governing responsible behavior." If a person knows that they have a condition or predisposition to that will lead them to committing a crime or hurting others, they are responsible for preventing or at least decreasing the chance of them entering a state where such a likelihood is higher. Just as "a diabetic who slips into a coma while driving is held responsible if the coma was the result of poor management of a known diabetic condition", or "someone committing crimes while drunk is held to account, so long as they are responsible for becoming drunk in the first place", a person with a known predisposition for violence should avoid situations where he may be triggered to lash out. This brings up several issues, such as, does this necessitate that everyone have themselves tested for such predispositions, as well as how far will we require people to go in preventing themselves from entering a state where they are more likely to commit crimes. Additionally, what do we do with people that are continually at risk for committing a crime. These are questions we will have to deal with as we incrementally increase our knowledge of the inner workings of the human mind.
Fleming, Steve. "Was it really me? Neuroscience is changing the meaning of criminal guilt. That might make us more, not less, responsible for our actions." Aeon. 26 2012: n. page. Print.