The “new” science of responsibility

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the BrainWe appear to be in the middle of a rash of books that seek to “re-examine” morality, responsibility, and the whole idea of criminal blameworthiness, in light of recent scientific discoveries. And while the field of neurology has had an astounding couple of decades, a lot of the work of applying these insights to our commonsense understanding of blame seems to be falling flat.

Consider The Science of Evil (British title: “Zero Degrees of Empathy”) by Simon Baron-Cohen. Here the premise is that ugly behavior is caused by a lack of empathy with others, which strikes me as banal, if not reflexive. There’s a scale of empathy, you see (and you can take the test!), and those with low to empathy are more likely to be “evil”. Of course your empathy score is a combination of nature and nurture, and people who normally have normal empathy can have temporary bouts of un-empathy. It’s all supported by research, but it’s also, I think, supported by our commonsense understanding.

Another book making the rounds is Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman. (You can hear him discuss it on Fresh Air.) Maybe I’m overinformed, but Eagleman’s central claim — that behavior is caused by brain chemistry — got little more than a “duh” out of me. His observation that the brain consists of a number of competing actors, and that the conscious mind is more an observer of decisions than a king, is lifted from the work of Daniel Dennett and others. And the idea that the criminal justice system should take people’s brain states into account when passing sentences is old hat to anyone with a passing knowledge of psychology; in fact our notoriously slow-changing and backwards justice system has actually been incorporating these ideas.

Eagleman’s big example of how brain chemistry cause our behavior is the pedophile who was cured and returned to normal when a suddenly discovered brain tumor was removed. But just because behavior in one person was linked to a tangible brain defect outside his control does not mean that we should re-evaluate our notions of blame in general. Some actions are within a person’s self-control and some are not. If Eagleman has a worthwhile message, it’s that the vast majority of decisions fall somewhere in the middle, and that our apparent free will is, much more so than we realize, an illusion of how our minds work.

The basis of that realization is actually decades-old psychological experiments (e.g. the pantyhose experiment), but it’s an idea that’s resisted by conventional wisdom. The value of Eagleman’s book (and his current publicity tour) is to spread this idea.

One thought on “The “new” science of responsibility

  1. Also, there seems to be a lot of talk about psychopaths and psychopathy lately. Apparently, there are more psychopaths than you think, it’s easy to test for them, and they often run businesses and manage people.

    Or something. Just wave your hands and call it science, most people won’t challenge it.

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