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Does Neurobiological Determinism Entail the End of Criminal Responsibility?

posted on 2023-05-22, 13:38 authored by Frederic GilbertFrederic Gilbert

Imagine an ultramodern courtroom scene. A defence lawyer stands up and, pointing to his client on the stand with his left hand while holding in his right hand a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging picture, makes this plea: “My client is not guilty; it was his brain that did it. Do not blame my client, blame his overactive amygdala and his underactive frontal lobe. Look at the dots here, he had no free will, and therefore he cannot be held responsible for having strangled the victim to death.” This futuristic1 courtroom illustrates one fundamental point: linking the brain to criminal and antisocial behaviour raises neuroethical questions regarding free will and moral responsibility. How can an individual be held responsible if his criminal behaviour was neurobiologically determined? Neurobiological determinism has put the once-thought “out-of-date” free will problem back into applied ethics discussions.

According to folk presupposition, which allows for punishing a convicted person, criminal behaviour is a consequence of free will. But this common presupposition seems open to challenge. Indeed, since most neuroscientists support neurobiological determinism, this implies that the empirical facts of the matter rule out the possibility of any actions being determined by a free will. The ethical implications of neurobiological determinism regarding this issue force the question: Does acknowledging the increasing weight of evidence from neurobiology rule out blaming criminals for their actions? Should criminals be allowed to pass through the judicial system scot-free? Or does this open the door to new neurological interventions and treatments for criminals?

To answer these questions, first let us explore whether the notion of neurobiological determinism is compatible with the concept of responsibility. To do so, this article will analyze (1-2) the philosophical notions of free will, determinism and responsibility. Secondly, it will examine (3) whether compatibilism is the correct position to hold in these matters. Thirdly, it will investigate (4) how someone can be held truly and ultimately responsible as is required by the libertarian position. Finally, it will explore (5) the consequences of lacking free will and responsibility from the perspective of practical ethics and criminal justice.


Publication title

Applied Ethics: Life, Environment and Society


Center for Applied Ethics and Philosophy






School of Humanities


Center for Applied Ethics and Philosophy

Place of publication

Hokkaido University, Japan



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Copyright 2009 Center for Applied Ethics and Philosophy, Hokkaido University

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Expanding knowledge in philosophy and religious studies

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