Field of Science

Will neuroscience end responsibility?

As we learn more and more about the brain, it seems fewer and fewer people are responsible for their actions. You may be mean, ignorant or violent simply because of bad genes or a bad brain.

In Freedom Evolves, Daniel Dennett argues that this is not a perpetually sliding slope, leading to nobody being responsible for anything:

"The anxious mantra returns: 'But where will it all end?' Aren't we headed toward a 100 percent 'medicalized' society in which nobody is responsible, and everybody is a victim of one unfortunate feature of their background or another (nature or nurture)? No, we are not... People want to be held accountable. The benefits that accrue to one who is a citizen in good standing in a free society are so widely and deeply appreciated that there is always a potent presumption in favor of inclusion. Blame is the price we pay for credit, and we pay it gladly under most circumstances."
What does he mean by "benefits that accrue?" Put it this way: kleptomania is the impulsive desire to steal. I had a friend his high school who was a compulsive shop-lifter, and I believe the disease is real. However, it doesn't matter whether you think kleptomania is a true medical condition or simply another symptom of Prozac Nation -- either way, you wouldn't put a kleptomaniac in charge of your store. More generally, people recognized as moral and responsible are likely to receive many advantages (more friends, better credit rating, community awards, etc.).

I'm less sure what he means when stating that this causes people to "want to be held responsible." However, I think do think the argument can be made that we will continue to hold people responsible for their actions. Acting morally leads to personal gain, but only if society at large recognizes and rewards good character (for instance, by employing people known to be honest and passing over thieves). Of course, anyone who does not distinguish between trustworthy and untrustworthy neighbors is not going to last long -- it doesn't matter whether the untrustworthy neighbor has a "condition" is is simply "bad."

By this argument, bad behavior is always going to punished. The question is how. Our growing understanding of neuroscience may change what bad behavior leads to jail time and what bad behavior leads to medication, but it won't affect whether we hold people responsible for their actions. As Dennett and others have convincingly argued, morality is useful.

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