Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

My Brain Structure Made Me Kill!


There is growing advocacy among the intelligentsia that denies free will–one of the morally relevant traits in our natures that make us exceptional–claiming instead that our behavior is predetermined by evolutionary forces acting on human behavior down the ages, and more particularly, on our individual genetic makeup. If we can’t help ourselves, concepts of “right” and “wrong” will have to be replaced by forced non judgmentalism toward all personal behaviors and the medicalization of society’s responses to what are now considered criminal behaviors.

Along this line, the Guardian has published a long article about research by Adrian Raine, by which he seeks too demonstrate that violent behaviors may be products of the perpetrators’ brain structures. Raine has taken brain scans of violent criminals and believes that he has found organic commonalities, leading him to propose that the time has come to stop punishing violent behavior as a crime, but instead, to treat murderers as if they are medical patients. From, “How to Spot a Murderer’s Brain:”

Raine’s account of the most recent research into these reactions, it still seems to me quite new and surprising that environmental factors change the physical structure of the brain. We tend to talk about a child’s development in terms of more esoteric ideas of mind rather than material brain structures, but the more you look at the data the clearer the evidence that abuse or neglect or poor nutrition or prenatal smoking and drinking have a real effect on whether or not those healthy neural connections–which lead to behaviour associated with maturity, self-control and empathy–are made. The science of this is called epigenetics, the way our environment regulates the expression of our innate genetic code.

There is no doubt that epigenetics is real. But is gene expression really a puppet master?

One result of epigenetics might be, Raine suggests, that “social scientists can actually win from this. I mean, if a child experiences a murder in his or her neighbourhood, we have found that their test scores on a range of measures go down. There is something happening in the brain as a result of that experience of violence to affect cognition. So social scientists can have their cake and eat it. They can say look, we can prove that these environmental social factors are causing brain impairment, which leads to some real, measurable problems.”

Of course emotional upset can impact performance. But that doesn’t mean brain structures are altered to the point that people cease to be personally responsible. For example, abused children are more likely to be abusers. But not all abused children abuse and not all abusers were abused children.  

But Raine apparently believes the criminal doesn’t make free will choices, and hence, we should medicalize society’s response to what are now deemed “criminal” actions:

But if neural scanning becomes more routine, and neuroscience more precise, will there not come a point where most violent behaviour–that of the Boston bombers, say, or the Newtown killer–is argued away in court as an illness, rather than a crime?

Raine believes that there might well be. He even likens such a shift to our change in perception of cancer, until fairly recently often deemed the “fault” of the sufferer because of some repressive character trait. “If we buy into the argument that for some people factors beyond their control, factors in their biology, greatly raise the risk of them becoming offenders, can we justly turn a blind eye to that?” Raine asks. “Is it really the fault of the innocent baby whose mother smoked heavily in pregnancy that he went on to commit crimes? Or if he was battered from pillar to post, or even if he was born with a, abnormally low resting heart rate, how harshly should we punish him? How much should we say he is responsible? There is, and increasingly will be, an argument that he is not fully responsible and therefore, when we come to think of punishment, should we be thinking of more benign institutions than prison?”

As I said, this is an attack on free will and moral responsibility.

But I want to focus on the idea that ”social scientists can actually win” from destroying personal responsibility. That reinforces an idea I have been pondering lately. So let’s take a look at this from a different–and I must say, provocative angle: It seems to me that the political and cultural left tend to be most receptive to theories and research of this kind. Why? The contemporary left (generally) rejects the traditional concept of liberty because it assumes a generally accepted moral order to which most adhere willingly, requires personal responsibility, and expects self-restraint as a concomitant duty to enjoying the fruits of freedom.

But the left sees that as oppressive and wants to “liberate” us all from those burdens so that we may fully explore and actualize our own personal identities–and that requires allowing behavioral license, doing away with moral judgments and fixed concepts of right and wrong, and payment by society for the costs and consequences associated with living as truly ourselves.

Of course, such radical self-actualization can lead to moral chaos. Ah, but that’s where the technocracy comes in.  The left wants society to be ruled by scientific ”experts,” managed by bureaucrats, with dysfunctional (to be judgmental) ”clients”( if you will) served and protected by hosts of social and government workers doling out welfare state benefits and services. Stripping personal responsibility from what is now considered “criminal” behavior is consistent with that meme. We shouldn’t punish criminals, but instead protect us from them by empathetically treating and serving them as victims of their own anatomy. 


Subscribe to National Review