So what does compatibilism have to say about this? Nothing useful, it seems
Advances in brain science are calling into question the volition behind many
criminal acts. A leading neuroscientist describes how the foundations of our
criminal-justice system are beginning to crumble, and proposes a new way
forward for law and order.
ON THE STEAMY first day of August 1966, Charles Whitman took an elevator to
the top floor of the University of Texas Tower in Austin. The 25-year-old
climbed the stairs to the observation deck, lugging with him a footlocker
full of guns and ammunition. At the top, he killed a receptionist with the
butt of his rifle. Two families of tourists came up the stairwell; he shot
at them at point-blank range. Then he began to fire indiscriminately from
the deck at people below. The first woman he shot was pregnant. As her
boyfriend knelt to help her, Whitman shot him as well. He shot pedestrians
in the street and an ambulance driver who came to rescue them...
WHILE OUR CURRENT style of punishment rests on a bedrock of personal
volition and blame, our modern understanding of the brain suggests a
different approach. Blameworthiness should be removed from the legal argot.
It is a backward-looking concept that demands the impossible task of
untangling the hopelessly complex web of genetics and environment that
constructs the trajectory of a human life.
Instead of debating culpability, we should focus on what to do, moving
forward, with an accused lawbreaker. I suggest that the legal system has to
become forward-looking, primarily because it can no longer hope to do
otherwise. As science complicates the question of culpability, our legal and
social policy will need to shift toward a different set of questions: How is
a person likely to behave in the future? Are criminal actions likely to be
repeated? Can this person be helped toward pro-social behavior? How can
incentives be realistically structured to deter crime?
The important change will be in the way we respond to the vast range of
criminal acts. Biological explanation will not exculpate criminals; we will
still remove from the streets lawbreakers who prove overaggressive,
underempathetic, and poor at controlling their impulses. Consider, for
example, that the majority of known serial killers were abused as children.
Does this make them less blameworthy? Who cares? It’s the wrong question.
The knowledge that they were abused encourages us to support social programs
to prevent child abuse, but it does nothing to change the way we deal with
the particular serial murderer standing in front of the bench. We still need
to keep him off the streets, irrespective of his past misfortunes. The child
abuse cannot serve as an excuse to let him go; the judge must keep society
You received this message because you are subscribed to the Google Groups
"Everything List" group.
To post to this group, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
To unsubscribe from this group, send email to
For more options, visit this group at