Neuroscience and normativity: How knowledge of the brain offers a deeper understanding of moral and legal responsibility

This is a response to the commentaries on Responsible Brains published in a 2021 issue of Criminal Law and Philosophy. They are by Craig Agule, Federica Coppola, Douglas Husak, Michael Moore, Dennis Patterson, and Stephen Morse.

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Neuroscience can relate to ethics and normative issues via the brain’s cognitive control network. This network accomplishes several executive processes, such as planning, task-switching, monitoring, and inhibiting. These processes allow us to increase the accuracy of our perceptions and our memory recall. They also allow us to plan much farther into the future, and with much more detail than any of our fellow mammals.

These abilities also make us fitting subjects for responsibility claims. Their activity, or lack thereof, is at the heart of culpability. For instance, planning to kill someone is strong evidence of what the law calls men rea—a guilty mind.

Claims about norms, or ethical “should” claims, express two-level propositions, directed at the behaving person at one level, and at that person’s mind and cognitive control network at another level. Thus, “People should stop themselves from hurting others,” is a claim about how people should behave and also a claim about how their cognitive control networks should behave—i.e., they should inhibit harmful behavior, or the intentions leading up to it. Planning is both an ability of the full person, and of that person’s mind.

Neuroscience affirms the common notion, seen both in law and folk psychology, that what makes us guilty or culpable are certain events and states that exist in our minds. Overt behavior, including speech, is fallible evidence of these states and processes. Cases of negligence still involve the executive processes, but “negatively,” in that negligence results when certain types of executive activity fail to take place.

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