Implications of the Biomedical Paradigm for Criminal Responsibility

Posted: 3 Jun 2012

See all articles by Robin Pierce

Robin Pierce

Delft University of Technology

Date Written: June 3, 2012


This work addresses the implications of the “biomedical paradigm” for criminal responsibility. Both descriptive and normative distinctions are frequently made about criminal responsibility based on what may be described as “the biomedical paradigm”, i.e. whether the underlying cause of criminal behavior was due to illness or disease or to some flaw in personality or character. The result of applying this biomedical inquiry in this way is that our sense of criminal responsibility tends to track that which happens to us (as in the case of disease or illness), rather than who we are. Similarly, treatment issues can be closely linked to sentencing in that whether and to what an individual is sentenced appears to hinge significantly on whether the underlying motivation for the criminal behavior (as assessed by the court) is rooted in a “treatable condition." Indeed, a biological deficit has tended (at least intuitively) to suggest motivation linked to incapacity, whereas an absence of biological correlate has tended to suggest motivation linked to badness. As neuroscience increasingly points to neurobiological correlates of what has previously been regarded as “behavioral dispositions” not recognized as biological conditions, the distinction between illness and disease on the one hand and badness on the other, becomes more difficult to define and harder to ascertain, presenting a challenge to the validity of such a distinction in the first place. Given that biomedical treatment is offered, and in restricted circumstances, compelled, within the context of the criminal justice system, critical questions emerge about the implications for treatment of a blurred, shifting, or invalid distinction between illness and character flaw or deficit.

This essay explores three questions regarding this phenomenon: 1) How should the biomedical paradigm inform this distinction?; 2) In view of the apparent persistence of a biomedical paradigm, what are the implications for treatment of this continued distinction? That is, if both incapacity and bad character can be “treated”, should that treatment take place within the context of the criminal justice system and 3) Should sentencing take into consideration treatment options for criminal behavior motivated by illness and disease or character deficits or flaws, regardless of the merits of such a distinction?

This policy analysis addresses both criminal behavior and non-compliant behavior with negative effects on others. As such, this analysis aims to be relevant to a number of policy questions as neuroscience increasingly comes within the purview of the law.

Keywords: neuroscience, biomedical model, criminal responsibility

Suggested Citation

Pierce, Robin, Implications of the Biomedical Paradigm for Criminal Responsibility (June 3, 2012). Available at SSRN:

Robin Pierce (Contact Author)

Delft University of Technology ( email )

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Stevinweg 1
Delft, 2628 CN

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