Minding Moral Responsibility
Engage, Vol. 8. No. 59, 2007
5 Pages Posted: 23 Aug 2007 Last revised: 26 Mar 2008
Perhaps one of the most enduring areas of controversy in our criminal law involves questions about mitigation and the insanity defense. These affirmative defenses flow from our legal and cultural traditions which hold mens rea as a key component of a just criminal justice system. Premeditated murder is viewed as a more heinous act than reckless homicide because our criminal justice system values mental states for ascribing the severity of guilt. Yet ascertaining the mental state of defendants remains a difficult enterprise. Thus, our criminal justice system relies upon behavioral science experts for guidance in navigating the opaque world of the mind. In doing so, the behavioral sciences have been roundly criticized for introducing junk science into the courtroom. Such criticisms often fail, however, to account for the fact that the behavioral science experts are invited into a legal system that views the world very differently than science. This melding of science and law is fruitful in some endeavors, but is increasingly leading science and law down a dangerous path where the legal system appears willing to easily entertain novel scientific claims and science has become increasingly politicized by normative questions. In this brief Essay, I discuss this effect by examining two recent Supreme Court cases that involved defendants with very different mental disorders: schizophrenia and psychopathy. I conclude that both law and science could greatly benefit from a healthy dose of modesty when considering novel scientific claims that appear to undermine longstanding notions of individual responsibility and accountability.
Keywords: psychology, insanity, panetti, landrigan, mitigation, law and science
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