Are You Responsible for Your Thoughts?

By Michael Baker

A new idea has popped up in our criminal justice system – that a criminal defendant should be allowed to present evidence of his neurological state in order to prove that he’s not guilty (or not that guilty) for a crime that he committed.  The overarching idea is that a person shouldn’t be held accountable for the things that they do as a result of the way that they think.  It’s not the criminal’s fault that he thinks like a criminal.

To me, this seems both totally obvious and completely ridiculous at the same time.  I mean, of course you do the things you do because of the way that your brain works.  And of course you don’t really have control of the way that your brain works (to the extent that you do, your ability to control it is a function of how your brain works).  So of course if your brain is the brain of a criminal then you’re going to do criminal things; if you don’t then your brain isn’t really the brain of a criminal, is it?  And yes, that’s completely circular.

But should that mean anything in terms of how we think of criminal culpability?  I think not.  If we take the stance that a person should not be held responsible for things that they do as a result of their mental state, then we’re basically saying that no one should ever be punished or commended for anything that they do.  It also ignores the fact that our criminal justice system isn’t just there to punish or rehabilitate, but also to protect law abiding citizens by segregating those who don’t know how to play nice.

I do think that neuroscience has a proper place in the criminal justice system.  It makes sense to use this evidence to determine criminal sentencing, in order to decide who can be rehabilitated and how.  But how judges would analyze that evidence would present a whole new field of legal discourse.  It seems to me that it could be a real Pandora’s Box.  But on the bright side, maybe we’ll get a new Law & Order spinoff out of this.