In The Field

Morality, responsibility, and neuroscience

If we can explain violence—from biological, psychological, and sociological angles—are people more or less responsible for their violent acts?

Bridging neuroscience with law and morality, Thursday night’s Brutality and the Brain event at the World Science Festival commenced with the neuroscience of violent behavior and psychopaths and ended in a more philosophical realm of what is socially acceptable and how we define morality. Aptly enough, the packed auditorium first watched a collage of old coverage of atrocious acts of violence—such as the 1999 Columbine High School shootings and the more recent Virginia Tech shooting. As the gravity of the images and the criminals behind them sunk in, veteran journalist and moderator Walter Isaacson asked the panel, has science, namely neuroscience, taught us that evil and violence are part of human nature? (This question was sort of answered— equivocal yes—though the first one posed here, not surprisingly, never was).


There was no pause from the panelists consisting of Marc Hauser, an evolutionary biologist and cognitive neuroscientist; Oliver Goodenough a neuroscience and law expert; and Stephen Morse, professor of law (the panelists’ full titles and expertise are significantly shortened for brevity—suffice to say each has delved deep into the mechanics and semantics of neuroscience and law).

The session progressed smoothly, the panelists were almost too nice to each other (where’s the conflict?!) and Isaacson aimed to push them with every “why” question he could come up with.

Why did we evolve a taste for war? Hauser spoke of evolutionary competition for resources and Goodenough summarized humans’ need for a leader, which sometimes means creating an external enemy to fight against.

Why are psychopaths responsible for their actions? Morse discussed intentionality—how these individuals know what they are doing is wrong, but don’t care. Hauser and Goodenough tag teamed with a clinical study of a man who developed pedophilic tendencies because of a brain tumor; once the tumor was removed all the desires and actions went away, though as the tumor re-grew the same sexual behaviors came back.

Why should juveniles not be punished at the same level as adults? Again from Hauser: neuroimaging studies show that the juvenile brain—especially specific regions important in decision making—are not mature in juveniles. Though oddly none of them touched on the arbitrary distinction of juveniles as 18 years and younger, even though studies indicate that the mature adult brain (esp. the regions implicated in decision making and emotion) do not fully develop until people are in their early- to mid-twenties—with some differences seen in men and women.

Somewhere in the midst of brain imaging, the chemistry of aggression, and psychological aspects of violence the conversation veered away from the research labs and social observations and ended up with a discussion about determinism (are we predisposed for violence and is punishment futile?) and the philosophical levels of morality. And just as suddenly as the conversation had digressed, Isaacson wrapped up the night, asking each panelist: what can science determine in the next ten years that will affect the law? The most significant contribution of science to law, Hauser said, will be shedding light on what are the triggers for violence and how and when intervention would be helpful. Goodenough foresees that our scientific understanding of violence will in fact show that we all have the “evil other” in us. And lastly, Morse almost avoided the question stating his fear that all this science will, in fact, de-humanize us—uncovering the science of aggression might be useful to educational and treatment purposes, but it may also rob society of its variations.

And then we were done—applause, lights up, and the panel disembarked their chairs heading for the door. I wasn’t the only one lingering for a moment, craving a question and answer session to further pick their brains.

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