I'm in the middle of reading the book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eaglemen. I've come to a part of the book where he makes a bizarre argument. Here's how his argument goes:
1. Currently, "when a criminal stands in front of the judge's bench having recently committed a crime, the legal system wants to know whether he is blameworthy. After all, whether he is fundamentally responsible for his actions navigates the way we punish" (169).
2. There are situations in which someone performs a guilty act but they are still not responsible. In the legal system this is called "automatism. This is pled when the person performs an automated act- say, if an epileptic seizure causes a driver to steer into a crowd." There "was a guilty act, but there was not a choice behind it" (170).
3. We know of many situations where the problem is not someone's choices but their brain. Take schizophrenics, epileptics, those suffering from mania and so forth: give them the proper medication and their actions can be controlled while all the tough love or attempts at self control in the world wouldn't stop them. We know that Tourette's patients suffer from "involuntary movements and vocalizations" (163). A Tourette's patient "cannot not do it" where 'it' refers to their motor tics and inappropriate exclamations. We know about cases like that of Kenneth Parks, who murdered his mother-in-law and tried to kill his father-in-law while he was sleepwalking. We know that certain people with Parkinson's on certain medications become compulsive gamblers (and when the dosage is lowered, this goes away). We know that certain brain tumors can cause a man to suddenly exhibit pedophilic tendencies. Therefore, "high level behaviors can happen in the absence of free will" (166). In fact, "free will, if it exists, is only a small factor riding on top of enormous automated machinery. So small that we may be able to think about bad decision making in the same way we think about any other physical process, such as diabetes or lung disease" (170).
4. Therefore, "[t]he bottom line of the argument is that criminals should always be treated as incapable of having acted otherwise. The criminal activity itself should be taken as evidence of brain abnormality, regardless whether currently measurable problems can be pinpointed. This means that the burden of neuroscientific expert witnesses should be left out of the loop: their testimony reflects only whether we currently have names and measurements for problems, not whether the problem exists" (177).
5. Thus, we should punish based on a system of how the person is "likely to behave in the future," not based on what he has done, since though a guilty act was performed, he did not have a choice in the matter.
Problems with this argument:
1. There are numerous theories of how our system of punishment functions. Not all of them have to do with assigning blame. One major theory focuses on deterrence, where one could argue that even if someone did not intend to do the crime they committed, or did not have free will, still they must be punished in order to deter others from performing that crime. (Of course, it is likely the author of this book would argue that whether another does the crime has nothing to do with deterrence, as whether or not they will commit the crime is in their biochemistry to begin with.)
2. One could argue that there is still an issue of precautions that must be taken. We see this in the Talmud regarding an owner's obligation to cage in an animal that has gored once so that it may not gore again. If someone clogs their arteries with lots of fast food knowingly, perhaps they should be accountable for having gotten the heart attack while driving. Or at the very least, perhaps they should have known not to drive when at high risk for heart attack. What if the epileptic hadn't taken their medicine? Some of these guilty acts might be preventable. (Obviously, of course, others might not be.)
3. While it is true that there are instances where we know that someone's choices come about due to something that we can see as being wrong or wired differently in their brain, does it thereby follow that EVERY CRIME that occurs happens solely because something is wrong or wired differently in someone's brain? Take this quote:
"But it's like when my doctor told me the story of these two brothers whose dad was a bad alcoholic. One brother grew up to be a successful carpenter who never drank. The other brother ended up being a drinker as bad as his dad was. When they asked the first brother why he didn't drink, he said that after he saw what it did to his father, he could never bring himself to even try it. When they asked the other brother, he said that he guessed he learned how to drink on his father's knee. So, I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we'll never know most of them. But even if we don't have the power to choose where we came from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them."
~the perks of being a wallflower, 211
Eagleman certainly could argue that every single child has different brain-chemistry and that's why some people become alcoholics and others don't, and that's why certain alcoholics are able to quit drinking and other's won't and so forth- but it seems remarkably limiting when it comes to all our American ideas about the power of the human spirit. It also seems like you could never hold someone responsible for anything, as all they have to do is reply 'My genes made me do it' (we're already seeing this argument re: gayness, see Lady Gaga song for details.)
4. This is where he jumps to conclusions. He says: "Some crimes or inappropriate social behavior clearly occur due to issues with the brain that we can measure. Therefore, ALL crimes or inappropriate social behavior clearly occur due to issues with the brain, but we lack the proper tools to measure those issues." This could be a GRE argument question, the logic is so poor.
5. And what would determine that? The person's genes and DNA? Whatever the current science is saying about the rate of recidivism (what if that science isn't up to date, just like Eagleman thinks that the ability to measure issues in the brain isn't?) Isn't he concerned about our world becoming exactly like Gattaca and Minority Report? People would be arrested and held based on what their genes predict that they would do or how likely they are to repeat it, not what they would actually do...what a world to live in.
My thought was that this once again affirms religion in its most positive sense. Religion believes in the spirit of a person, his nobility, his ability to choose who he is, how he wishes to live and what he desires to do or not do. Science (or at least this man's science) argues for an impoverished human whose every move is scripted in his brain. Should he have been the recipient of a faulty one, he is doomed and there is nothing and no one- except perhaps the creation of robot brains that could serve as transplants- that might be able to save him. Obviously, at the core of the matter is which of these renditions of a human is true, not merely palatable, but it is ironic that as a race we should be willing to assert that in sum our lives are utterly meaningless. If I were such a scientist, the only logical thing to do would be to commit suicide immediately. (And of course, even that would doubtless have been scripted into my brain!)
Addendum (hat-tip to Tzila): This New York Times article shows that judges will sentence people who they believe had a genetic component behind their actions more lightly because they feel sympathetic towards them.
Addendum 2: One of my friends wrote me back and says that I am misunderstanding Eaglemen's point regarding crimes (where I said that he is employing faulty logic). Eaglemen is saying that one ought to look at this as a doctor would. If you were experiencing heart pains, it could be a blood clot and it could be a heart attack, but what is obvious is that something is *wrong*. It is not normal to be experiencing pain that severe. We may or may not have the science to find and stop what is hurting you, but the fact is that it is still there. So too, when the 'symptoms' of criminal activity manifest, that is a red flag that something is wrong in the biochemistry as a person. Thus, criminal activity should be viewed as a symptom not unlike heart pain that suggests that something is wrong- we simply may not yet have the tools to locate what that is.