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Genes & neurology – virtue & criminality

The “ought implies can” principle of ethics suggests that it is only if people are morally autonomous that they should be required to act ethically.  So what if neurology or genes program people to behave in a way that society condemns? Is a pedophile an evil monster or simply a human with predetermined, unusual tastes? The Marquis de DeSade, in fact, simply describes such people as “preferring their fruit green”. While this seems monstrous it is in fact a version of an old argument about free will and determinism.  If I tell you that should jump over the Sydney Harbour Bridge I can hardly find fault with you if you tell me you cannot. It is a tricky issue and although I have never entirely been happy with positions that assert high degrees of individual moral responsibility,  regardless of personal characteristics, I’ve uneasily stuck with the view that to not assign such responsibility in many practical situations would be too socially disastrous to contemplate.  

It is interesting to me too that economic theory offers no help at all on such issues. While tastes and preferences condition much of economic theory we assume they are God-given or, at best, conditioned by advertising or social emulation.  Economists don’t make judgments at all about the desirability of tastes although we do dislike externalities and violent crime is an externality.

This Age article by Allan McCay  takes up the issue of free will in relation to criminal law – hardly a new topic – but asks whether defendants in criminal cases might reasonably pose a genetic defence – “I was born with the wrong genes so don’t hold me responsible” your Honor! It follows an earlier piece by Julia Smith that looked at the behavioural genetics of mass murders.  Is there an “evil gene” or do psychopaths have distinctive brain structures? Following this logic will the concept of “evil” itself eventually become extinct. Conversely, of course. the virtuous among us deserve no special acclaim – they just did “well” in the genetic/neurological lottery.

Such issues are being investigated in courses on “neurolaw”and “neuroethics” although political correctness has made such fields of study controversial. The possible eugenic implications of high crime rates among racial minorities, where crime tends to be concentrated, are hypotheses many people would not even want to think about. They revive memories of Nazism and racism.  Outrage from the victims of horrific crime is also an understandable limiting factor. Non-victims too despise pedophilia and rape because most of us can understand the terrible consequences of such actions.

The evidence seems to be that criminals are not born but that certain people have enhanced odds of becoming a criminal. Most psychopaths have been subject to environmental factors such as parental or sexual abuse. Moreover, the law does recognise diminished responsibility for a crime because of the personal characteristics of the criminal.  A mentally-impaired individual who was sexually or physically abused is generally seen as deserving less punishment. They have regarded as having greater difficulty controlling their behaviour.

So where does one draw the line? One might argue that locking people up who have defective genes protects society and that it is this protection rather than any idea of “punishment” that is important.  Certainly the idea of “punishment” has an uneasy basis in logic.  Obviously we should not seek to prosecute those whose tastes do not create victims – John Stuart Mill saw this – but what do we do with pre-programmed monsters who do create real victims? I have meandered about and have not offered much insight beyond perhaps the suggestion that incarceration be regarded as hospitalisation or the insulation of society from those who would otherwise create damage. I am interested in the views of readers.




5 comments to Genes & neurology – virtue & criminality

  • Jim Rose

    Psychopaths have a stronger genetic element than sociopaths and are more impulsive.

    Psychopaths know what they are doing. that they don’t care about the rights of others is their problem.

    If someone has a genetic predisposition to crime, their sentence should be longer on the grounds of incapacitation. Their longer sentence protects the rest of us.

  • conrad

    I think there’s no real solution — and it’s almost impossible to draw the line between when one really isn’t responsible and when one is because we don’t understand these processes well enough (and I doubt we will in our lifetime), and so we just assume essentially everyone has enough free will (or inhibitory processes) not to offend. Perhaps we really just want a safe society, even if this happens to be unfair for some and because we have no other way of dealing such people, and so this makes a convenient assumption.

    Alternatively, if you look at the reality, there are now a number of studies looking at, for example, violent offenders in jails, and you find extremely high rates of identifiable frontal lobe damage (around 50% in some of the classic studies). Of course not all people with frontal lobe damage become offenders, and so we use that comparison to justify sticking offenders in jail. Paedophiles are another weird group, who not only often believe they are doing nothing wrong, but they also have high rates of other disorders which would otherwise appear unrelated. It seems to me that these guys clearly have mis-wired brains since you have a lot of bizarre beliefs and obsessive behavior in terms of trying to get they want (hoarding is common also). Of course, even if one believes this, there seems no alternative to sticking them jail for community safety.

  • Jim Rose

    conrad, I found the chapter in Tullock and McKenzie’s recent book about token economies to be most enlightening.

    Certified lunatics respond to incentives. The first token economies were for chronic, treatment-resistant psychotic inpatients.

    In 1977 a major study, still considered a landmark, successfully showed the superiority of a token economy compared to standard treatment and specialized milieu therapy. Despite this success, token economies disappeared from the 1980s on.

    The tokens were for spending money at the canteen, trips to town and other privileges. They were earned by keeping you and your area clean and helping out with chores.

    Experiments which would now be unethical showed that the occupational choices and labour supply of certified lunatics responded to incentives. For example, tokens were withdrawn for one week for helping clean halls and common areas. All but one Certified lunatic stopped supplying their labour until the tokens were restored.


    I agree that there is bizarre behaviour, some people have major problems with living and drug treatments save the lives and greatly improve the welfare of the mentally ill.

    I also agree with Szasz in that the most salient fact about human motivation and thought is its vast heterogeneity; one of the lessons of literature is that superficially inexplicable behaviour becomes intelligible once you see it from the perspective of the character concerned.

  • Sean

    The important thing to remember is that genetic variation within a cultural grouping is generally greater than the difference between groups. This implies meme sorting not gene sorting. ‘Race’ is a meme concept, not genetic.

    The second is that genetically driven heuristics, and their relative presence in a group, will evolve over time (or die out) an appropriate ethical framework for social stability and growth. The problem for economics I think is the belief that everyone is the same, or that things average out, when in fact the variability is so high that even random (path dependent) groupings will lead to optimal but heterogenous belief structures. I.e. there is no one optimal outcome and this needs to be taken into account. And it is the mixing of the wrong ethical frameworks (or economics) with the wrong cultural heuristics that lead to a lot of our global problems. We fail to be multilingual in ethical systems.

    So based on the above, a individual can’t blame their genes because the social expression of their heuristics is not predetermined as right or wrong. They make the choice. But also on the flip side as a society we can make the ability to make the appropriate choice unnecessarily harder.

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