- Published: November 28, 2012
New neuroscience may transform people’s moral intuitions about free will and responsibility. Answering some philosophical questions, like asking ourselves if we truly have free will, can have a lasting effect on the way we organize our public policy and how we think of criminal behavior. Today many people accept the fact that many criminal activities are the result of biological disorders. Many neuroscientists, who question whether or not mankind has the freedom of will, foresee several changes that could change our instincts about criminal liability (1). This article will explore these changes.
Many accredited neuroscientists question a fundamental question about our species: does mankind have free will? Do we really control our choices? Neuroscientists and neuropsychologists argue that many of our decisions can be altered by several means. Environmental (situational) stimulus often influences our decisions, as well as chemistry; many chemical compounds have the ability to influence our actions and choices, one as common as alcohol. Neuroscientists, like Sam Harris, explain that we are creatures of biology and chemistry, and our decisions and actions can be influenced by chemical imbalances and biological abnormalities. This is a fundamental property of our species; hormones often affect the way we feel and influence our actions. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, claims that “you may seem to be an agent acting of your own free will. The problem is that this point of view cannot be reconciled with what we know about the human brain.” (2) Scientists seem to be finding more and more about how we are less in control.
Taking this into account, we must ask ourselves how this research will change our perceptions of criminal behavior and free will. Centuries ago, criminals with mental disorders were not differentiated and were held responsible equally to those of sound mental capabilities. Today the law must separate criminals whom have mental disorders and offer them treatment and recovery; many of these criminals will be able to overcome their abnormalities with treatment. This obviously shows that people today understand that some criminal activity can be the result of biological abnormality. As we dive into neuroscience research, finding more and more evidence suggesting that we have limited control of our own decisions, legal authorities and the general public may change the way they think of free will and criminal activity. Andrea Yates, a woman with a psychotic disorder, killed her five children. Although the public intuition was to ask how somebody could do something so evil, it turns out that Andrea Yates needed better treatment, and suffered from various mental disorders that today are masked with psychiatric treatment and medication. The general public continues to gain a better understanding of the idea that sometimes we cannot control our own actions (3). Further neuroscience research may influence the way people feel about personal control and criminal action.