Blaming the Brain

51 Pages Posted: 12 Sep 2009 Last revised: 4 Aug 2015

Date Written: September 12, 2009


Criminal law scholarship has recently become absorbed with the ideas of neuroscience in the emerging field of neurolaw. This mixture of cognitive neuroscience and law suggests that long established conceptions of human agency and responsibility are fundamentally at odds with the findings of science. Using sophisticated technology, cognitive neuroscience claims to be upon the threshold of unraveling the mysteries of the mind by elucidating the mechanical nature of the brain. Despite the limitations of that technology, neurolaw supporters eagerly suggest that those revelations entail that an inevitable and radical overhaul of our criminal justice system is soon at hand. What that enthusiasm hides, however, is a deeper ambition among those who desire an end to distributive punishment based on desert in favor of a prediction model heavily influenced by the behavioral sciences. That model rests squarely on the presumption that science should craft crime policy at the expense of the authority of common intuitions of justice. But that exchange has profound implications for how the law views criminal conduct and responsibility – and how it should be sanctioned under the law. Neurolaw promises a more humane and just criminal justice system, yet there is ample reason to believe otherwise.

Keywords: neurolaw, cogntive neuroscience, responsibility, intuitions of justice, psychology, criminal law

Suggested Citation

Erickson, Steven K., Blaming the Brain (September 12, 2009). Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Vol. 11, 2010, University of Missouri School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2009-34, Available at SSRN:

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