Is Executive Function The Universal Acid?

19 Pages Posted: 19 Nov 2020

See all articles by Stephen Morse

Stephen Morse

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

Date Written: November 16, 2020


This essay responds to Hirstein, Sifferd and Fagan’s book, Responsible Brains (MIT Press, 2018), which claims that executive function is the guiding mechanism that supports both responsible agency and the necessity for some excuses. In contrast, I suggest that executive function is not the universal acid and the neuroscience at present contributes almost nothing to the necessary psychological level of explanation and analysis. To the extent neuroscience can be useful, it is virtually entirely dependent on well-validated psychology to correlate with the neuroscientific variables under investigation. The essay considers what executive function is and what the neuroscience adds to our understanding of it. Then it addresses moral and legal responsibility generally, and specific doctrines. Executive function is seldom found to be the most perspicuous approach to any of the general or specific moral and legal questions.

Keywords: cognition, perception, executive functioning, decision-making, brain, self-regulatory activities, moral & criminal responsibility, excuse, psychological correlation to neuroscientific variables, sleepwalking killer, unwilling addict, juvenile justice, mental disorder, blame, desert, punishment

Suggested Citation

Morse, Stephen J., Is Executive Function The Universal Acid? (November 16, 2020). U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 20-46, Available at SSRN: or

Stephen J. Morse (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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