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Why Your Brain is Not to Blame For Your Actions

David Eagelman's suggestion that judicial systems should be re-organized to reflect known environmental and physical conditions that diminish the responsibility of criminals for their actions has been on my mind lately. I wrote about it a few years ago (here). The basic story is as follows: A man is convicted of pedophilia discovers that he has a brain tumor. The tumor is removed and the man says he no longer has any impulses for pedophilia. After his release he forms a normal life until he begins to feel the return of his impulses. He goes to the doctor and discovers that the tumor has returned.

The story shows us that conditions that are not up to the person are determining actions that are criminal. Since the man bears no responsibility for his tumor it follows that he bears no responsibility for his criminal actions. 

The implication  of the story is that conditions should play a greater role in criminal justice. Being brought up in certain conditions, environmental factors, genetic dispositions and alike, all play a part in moving people to commit crime. Since these conditions are not under the control of the person the responsibility of for them is not on the criminal. And if these conditions cause the impulses for crime then the criminal is not as responsible for the crime as we once thought. 

My argument against this, at the time, was to suggest that it doesn't really get us anywhere. The principle can just as easily be applied to the judge who can say that his conditions have caused him to send the criminal to jail for the crime. 

David Eagleman
I wanted to think a little more about the assumptions and implications of Eagleman's story. Let's say we give him the premise: if a condition causes an action that the agent would not have otherwise chosen then the agent is not responsible for the action. A man with a brain tumor who, when without the tumor, does not desire to abuse children, is not responsible for abusing children. Similarly, a man brought up cruelly, with poor diet and no education is less responsible for a crime than a person who has had the benefit of a good education, good diet, and a so called well-rounded upbringing. 

First, let's examine an assumption. On Eagelman's story we are asked to assume that the determining factor is a physical matter, particularly the brain. There are a number of assumptions about the identity of a person that amounts to suggesting that the person is identical to his brain. The brain is physical and, consequently, the brain is subject to causal inputs just like any other physical thing.

This is not as obviously coherent as it first sounds. Without making a lengthy excursus it is worth noting that the brain is made of parts and if it is made of parts then it is not clear which part a person is. If, on the other hand, we say the the person is the whole brain what can we refer to once a small part of the brain is removed? The person, then, is not identical with the brain they are, but the brain they once were. If there is nothing that is identical to the brain as it was, then there is nothing that is responsible for anything.

Let's leave that alone and think more about the implications of Eagleman's story. What if we assume that conditions determine actions and if those actions are outside the control of the agent and if the resulting actions would not have been done without the action, then the agent is not responsible for the action. Furthermore, let's grant that the person is identical to his brain and that brain is a physical entity. What would follow?

If Conditions are not in the control of the agent and actions would have been different had the conditions been different then the agent is not responsible.

It turns out that there are no actions which avoid being the results of conditions out side the control of the agent and which would have been otherwise given different conditions. If a person is his brain and his brain is physical then the whole brain is the result of physical conditions outside the control of the person. If that is true then the person is not responsible for any action.