Minding Moral Responsibility: The Supreme Court's Recent Mental Health Rulings

By Steven K. Erickson
October 01, 2007
It can be fairly said that American criminal law is based upon a moral consensus about which behaviors are considered right or wrong. This consensus is derived from our cultural and legal traditions, which inseparably hold individual autonomy and freedom in tandem with individual responsibility. As such, which behaviors are considered right or wrong flows not so much from legal precedent but from popular notions of agency, accountability, and the belief in an objective truth demarking good actions from evil ones. Yet, modern times have borne witness to such truly revolutionary advances in psychological science that many question whether these popular beliefs about agency and accountability are in fact true. The emergence of various forms of brain scanning technologies has led scientists to make startling claims. Recent studies have suggested that the brain embarks on a decision before an individual is actually aware of his choice, while others propose that neuroscientists have located an area of the brain, known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, where moral
decision-making takes place....