On challenging the growing appeal of neuroscience to remove blame

Sally Satel
[a practicing psychiatrist] writing on James Q Wilson book ”The Moral Sense" in honor of the occasion of  the 75th anniversary of the American Enterprise Institute where Wilson was on the Council of Academic Advisers:

“ Although we generally think of ourselves as free agents who make choices, a number of prominent scholars claim that we are mistaken. "Our growing knowledge about the brain makes the notions of volition, culpability, and, ultimately, the very premise of the criminal justice system, deeply suspect," contends Stanford University biologist Robert Sapolsky. “Progress in understanding the chemical basis of behavior will make it increasingly untenable to retain a belief in the concept of free will,” writes biologist Anthony R. Cashmore.

Philosopher-neuroscientist Joshua Greene and psychologist Jonathan Cohen contend that neuroscience has a special role to play in giving age-old arguments about free will more rhetorical bite. 'New neuroscience will affect the way we view the law, not by furnishing us with new ideas or arguments about the nature of human action, but by breathing new life into old ones,” they write. ' [It] can help us see that all behavior is mechanical, that all behavior is produced by chains of physical events that ultimately reach back to forces beyond the agent’s control,' Greene adds. Other neuroscientists hope to see a general attitude 'shift from blame to biology.'

….Sapolsky, Cashmore, Green, and Cohen, seem to disagree, insisting that our deliberations and decisions do not make us free because they are dictated by neuronal circumstances. They hope that as the general public becomes more familiar with the latest discoveries about the workings of the brain, it will inevitably come to accept their view on moral agency. In turn, they predict, we'll be compelled to adopt a strictly utilitarian model of justice dedicated solely to preventing crime through deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation."

But Dr. Satel rejects this deterministic position …

"The belief that discoveries in neuroscience will threaten morality seems unrealistic. After all, the high degree of consensus across cultures regarding the value of proportionate punishment suggests that human intuitions about fairness and justice are deeply entrenched. That babies too young to have absorbed social rules from their parents behave as if guided by these foundations bolsters the view that reciprocity, proportionality, and the impulse to punish violators are so deeply rooted in evolution, psychology, and culture that new neuroscientific revelations are unlikely to dislodge them easily, if at all.

...By failing to reflect the moral values of the citizenry, which encompass fair punishment, the law would lose some, if not most, of its authority. What’s more, a blameless world would be a very chilly place, inhospitable to the warming sentiments of forgiveness, redemption, and gratitude. In a milieu where no individuals are accountable for their actions, the so-called moral emotions would be unintelligible. If we no longer brand certain actions as blameworthy and punish transgressors in proportion to their crimes, we forgo precious opportunities to reaffirm the dignity of their victims and to inculcate a shared vision of a just society. In the words of Wilson, “if we allow ourselves to think that explaining behavior justifies [them] …  virtue then becomes just as meaningless as depravity — a state of affairs in which no society could hope to remain ordered or healthy.”


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