Monday, September 15, 2008

The Future Impact of Neuroscience Upon Jurisprudence

I'm reading The Best Technology Writing of 2008 (kindly provided to me for review by The University of Michigan Press) and finishing up Jeffrey Rosen's excellent March, 2007 article, "The Brain on the Stand," which details how advances in neuroscience may affect the U.S. legal system in the near future. To wit, if we discover that some people are predisposed neurologically to anger, how can we hold them responsible for their actions in the same way we do now? He interviews Stephen Morse, professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, who asserts a more skeptical tone, suggesting that just because a neurological condition can be established in an individual, we may not automatically absolve them of responsibility. But Morse also concedes that some conclusions might have an inevitable impact upon our legal system:
“Suppose neuroscience could reveal that reason actually plays no role in determining human behavior,” he suggests tantalizingly. “Suppose I could show you that your intentions and your reasons for your actions are post hoc rationalizations that somehow your brain generates to explain to you what your brain has already done” without your conscious participation. If neuroscience could reveal us to be automatons in this respect, Morse is prepared to agree with Greene and Cohen that criminal law would have to abandon its current ideas about responsibility and seek other ways of protecting society.
Rosen has apparently stated his fear more explicitly elsewhere that these conclusions could lead to a society, which embraces the pre-emptive incarceration of those likely to commit crimes (well, we're already doing this in principle at the international level, right?), instead of punishing people for committing actual crimes.

That wasn't my first thought, though. My first thought was that, should this sort of empirical data amass to significant proportions, it might likely make society feel much more comfortable with genetic engineering. If you know you can isolate the neurological problem, wouldn't the next step be to prevent it genetically? After all, you might argue, it'd be like preventing cancer - only if you're preventing the creation of, say, a serial killer, so you might be saving several lives.

So, do we end up with a future of Philip K. Dick's Minority Report? Or Gattaca? Seems like one of the two is inevitable. We just have to agree to which we feel more comfortable embracing. Was Gattaca just a worse-case scenario? Is there a best-case scenario for genetic engineering we'll have to consider as a species?

Also under neurology: Robert Burton's recent Salon article, "Born that Gay," asks "Do recent neurological studies prove once and for all that homosexuality is biological?" Short answer: Yes.

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