Human Exceptionalism

The (Gene) Devil Made Me Do It

Some scientists think we have no real free will, that our behavior and beliefs are dictated by our genes. (Then, they cannot be upset with me for thinking they are just so full of beans; my genes prevent me from seeing the light.)

This theory is just one of many avenues to deny human exceptionalism, of course, because it makes the claim that we are not moral beings, but merely so many gene-dictated automatons. And, ironically it opens the door both to “anything goes” morality, and also, the imposition of a terrible tyranny against those perceived to have a predisposition to heterodox beliefs and behaviors that those in power disdain.

Along this line, some public intellectuals believe that we may one day prevent crimes before they occur by analyzing brain scans and gene make up. This could mean that people are detained and “re-educated” who have done nothing wrong. This Wired commentary, byline Jennifer Granick, (too) mildly objects: “Looking at scientific advances like these, legal scholars are beginning to question the foundational principles of our criminal justice system. For example, University of Florida law professor Christopher Slobogin, who is visiting at Stanford this year, has set forth a compelling case for putting prevention before retribution in criminal justice. Two weeks ago, Slobogin gave a talk based on his book, Minding Justice. He pointed to the studies showing that our behavior is predetermined or strongly influenced by biology, and that if we can identify those biological factors, we can predict behavior. He argues that the justice system should provide treatment for potential wrongdoers based on predictions of dangerousness instead of settling for punishing them after the fact.

It’s a tempting thought. If there is no such thing as free will, then a system that punishes transgressive behavior as a matter of moral condemnation does not make a lot of sense. It’s compelling to contemplate a system that manages and reduces the risk of criminal behavior in the first place.

“Yet, despite last week’s announcement from the Max Planck Institute, neuroscience and bioscience are not at a point where we can reliably predict human behavior. To me, that’s the most powerful objection to a preventative justice system–if we aren’t particularly good at predicting future behavior, we risk criminalizing the innocent.”

That would just be the beginning of our problems if we decided to let “the scientists” cast aside the concept of free will.

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