It wasn’t me — my brain made me do it!
Posted on August 2, 2012
Well, of course it did, say John Monterosso and Barry Schwartz. But what does that really mean?
As a general matter, it is always true that our brains “made us do it.” Each of our behaviors is always associated with a brain state. If we view every new scientific finding about brain involvement in human behavior as a sign that the behavior was not under the individual’s control, the very notion of responsibility will be threatened. So it is imperative that we think clearly about when brain science frees someone from blame — and when it doesn’t.
“Was the cause psychological or biological?” is the wrong question when assigning responsibility for an action. All psychological states are also biological ones.
A better question is “how strong was the relation between the cause (whatever it happened to be) and the effect?” If, hypothetically, only 1 percent of people with a brain malfunction (or a history of being abused) commit violence, ordinary considerations about blame would still seem relevant. But if 99 percent of them do, you might start to wonder how responsible they really are.