At about 30 minutes into the most recent episode with Pat Churchland, the discussion touched on how the neurochemistry of people who are well socialized differs from those who aren’t. More specifically, there was a point made about how people who are well socialized and have the Humean (as we will soon discover, actually Smithian) moral sentiment have different brains than people who don’t. Representative of that latter group are criminals. Dylan made a point mentioning that this poses a challenge – or at least something to think about – relative to our notions of justice and punishment.
At one level, we want to hold someone accountable for their actions, regardless of whether we think they were made to do what they did by virtue of their brain chemistry. At another level, if someone’s brain chemistry affects how they act, it doesn’t make sense to punish them for it. Punishing a criminal who was not properly socialized and doesn’t have the same moral sentiment as most others won’t engender that moral sentiment in him/her. If it’s true that criminals don’t have or have a weakened moral sentiment and this is evidenced in their brain chemistry, we might consider as a society trying to socialize and address the brain chemistry, rather than simply punishing them. Additionally, there is the thorny issue of testing for this pre-disposition: doing tests on children to determine their proclivity for anti-social and criminal behavior, for example.
All interesting topics that made me recall a recent episode of Philosophy Bites, where Nigel interviewed David Eagleman, a neuroscientist. Eagleman’s understanding of philosophy has the typical scientific naivete, but he didn’t make outrageous and unfounded moral claims, as many scientists do. Instead, he seemed genuinely interested in how discoveries in neuroscience would complicate our understanding of criminal justice and punishment. Worth both a listen and a read of the comments to the podcast, which seem to mirror the tone and content on our site (but I still like all of you better). Or you can go read this article about an Indian court using a brain scan to determine guilt…