The Problem of Volition 1

Here I mentioned Jeffrey Rosen’s The Brain on the Stand. Quoted in Rosen’s article (and elsewhere) was Stephen J. Morse, professor of law and psychiatry (but not, as he is sometimes described, a psychiatrist) at the University of Pennsylvania. Morse is the go-to pundit for the proposition that, neuroscience be damned, people are still “responsible” for their actions. I will read what Morse has written and said on the subject (here, for example, and in articles cited here) and report back. Meanwhile, however, I will note:

(A) That of all the accepted purposes of punishment, only retribution would be adversely affected by a belief that we do not have some discrete volition independent of nature and nurture. Even if free will is an illusion, specific and general deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation are appropriate goals of punishment. Retribution, some would say, is unworthy of us whether free will is real or illusory. Eighty years ago Clarence Darrow said, “The human mind is blind to all who seek to look in at it and to most of us that look out from it.” He argued that this was good reason to cling to “charity and understanding and mercy” instead of trying to ignorantly pursue justice. Neuroscience has rendered the human mind a little more visible, but nothing neuroscience has taught us should lead us to believe that we know enough about the workings of the mind to mete out justice;

(B) That the conclusion that we have such volition invites the question of whether we choose to have the ability to exercise it appropriately or not;

(C) That once you concede that nature and nurture affect a given person’s ability to make the right choice in a given situation, despite knowledge of right and wrong, the conclusion that there are people who are incapable of making the right choices in certain situations, even despite knowing right from wrong, is inescapable;

(D) That the question of volition is freighted with religious implications — neuroscience provides what my friend Kelvin calls “a scientific answer to a religious question” — but might well have a scientific answer, or at least enough scientific signposts toward an answer to guide us in our treatment of other people; and

(E) That if you want to learn about neuroscience, you ask a neuroscientist, and if you want to learn about human nature, you ask a criminal-defense lawyer or a cop or a therapist — people whose jobs (or lives) depend on their understanding of human nature. You don’t ask a law professor.

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