Thursday 28 January 2016

Neuroscience and Responsibility Workshop

Responsibility Project
This post is by Benjamin Matheson, Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Gothenburg, working on the Gothenburg Responsibility Project. (Photos of workshop participants are by Gunnar Bj√∂rnsson).

The workshop on ‘Neuroscience and Responsibility’, part of the Gothenburg Responsibility Project, took place in 14 November 20145. The conference was well attended, the talks were informative, and the discussion was lively and productive.

Michael Moore (Illinois) kicked things off with his talk ‘Nothing But a Pack of Neurons: Responsible Reductionism About the Mental States that Measure Moral Culpability’. Part of Moore’s current project is to show that reductionism (roughly, the view that mental states are just brain states) is not a threat to our responsibility practices – that is to say, we can still be morally and legally responsible even if mental states reduce to brain states. The worry is that if mental states reduce to brain states, then it is not us but rather our brain states that are responsible for our actions – that is, we are ‘nothing but a pack of neurons’ and not the appropriate loci for attributions of responsibility. Moore argued that this worry is ill founded. He emphasised that reducibility does not imply non-existence, and that mistakenly conflating reductionism with this second stance (also known as eliminativism) is what leads to the worry that the truth of reductionism would imply responsibility scepticism. Moore ended by noting that the same move can assuage worries that neuroscientific discoveries are or might be a threat to our responsibility practices.

Next up was Gerben Meynen (Tilburg). His talk concerned psychiatry and responsibility. In particular, he focused on the evidence required for judgements of diminished responsibility. These judgements ranged from slightly diminished, where a person isn’t fully responsible, to completely diminished, where a person counts as legally insane and is therefore not all responsible. Meynen discussed two problems with such judgements. First, they often rely on first-person reports and this raises worries about deception – i.e. the worry that a perpetrator of a crime might lie in order to avoid a more severe punishment. Second, mental illness is not sufficient for insanity – i.e. it does not follow that someone is insane just because she is living with a mental illness. So even if we have evidence that someone is living with a mental illness that isn’t based on person’s report of their own mental life, this is not enough to conclude that their responsibility should be diminished whatsoever. Meynen suggests that neuroscience (or neurolaw) could be helpful here. Soon we might be able to diagnose both mental disorders and the impact of those disorders without relying on first-personal reports. But Meynen suggests we should not rely solely on one method, but rather aim for a comprehensive approach that includes traditional (if problematic, for the reasons mentioned) methods along with methods of contemporary neuroscience.

Nicole Vincent (Georgia State) then argued for her ‘capacity’ account of moral responsibility. On her view, an individual is morally responsible only if she has certain capacities. Her starting insight is that even if determinism is true we still distinguish between responsible and non-responsible agents. As we would lack the ability to do otherwise (given the same past and laws of nature), it cannot be on the basis of the ability to do otherwise that we make this distinction. According to Vincent, we instead distinguish between such agents on the basis of their capacities. For example, a young child has far fewer capacities than, say, a fully developed adult. Vincent went on to argue that her view fares better than Fischer and Ravizza’s account of moral responsibility in accommodating our judgments about praiseworthiness and blameworthiness.

Nicole Vincent
Robin Repko Waller (King’s College, London) then took us on a guided tour of the empirical literature that has been alleged to show that we lack the sort of control required for moral responsibility, including Libet’s experiments that have been claimed to show that we start to act before we form the conscious intention to perform that action. Waller explained how these experiments hinge only on certain sorts of cases – namely Burdian’s Ass style cases where an individual must pick one thing out of two, but has equal reason to pick both. Moreover, these experiments all involve choices that are morally neutral. So these experiments do not show us anything significant about moral responsibility. Waller ended by proposing ways in which this kind of experiment could be improved.

Al Mele

Alfred Mele (Florida State) ended the day with a discussion about Libet-style experiments. Mele argued that even if we grant all the assumptions that proponents these experiments make about free will and moral responsibility (even though some of these assumptions are dubious), these experiments still do not show what their proponent take them to show – namely the data from these experiments do not support the claim that we do lack free will.

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