Mind Over Morality

32 Pages Posted: 13 Feb 2007


This paper is a review of a great book titled MINDS ON TRIAL (Oxford Univ. Press 2006). The book presents an upfront and personal account of twenty of the leading cases in forensic psychology. The influence of behavioral science experts has grown, in large measure, with our culture's reliance of scientific explanations of behavior. These explanations are embedded deep within our social constructions and affect the way we conceive culpability and responsibility.

While our culture is imbued with these notions, the law continues to struggle with them. As the recent Clark v. Arizona case demonstrates, moral ontological constructions are quite different from scientific ones. Yet legal constructions of lawbreakers leave us hungry for more: The law tells us rules, but tells us little about why people break them. Delving into the mind of the offender gives us the motive of the offender and tells us much about human behavior and the law alike. But what are the limits of such explanations?

This Essay briefly explores those limits with an eye towards the legal system's response to insanity and diminished capacity claims. American criminal law is based, in many respects, upon the importance of mental states in ascertaining guilt; the more willful and wicked the intent, the worse the crime. Yet, the trend as represented in cases like Clark is against distinguishing gradations of mens rea. This Essay posits that this outcome is due to the inherent limitations science encounters in explaining the metaphysical mind and because such explanations drive at the heart of culpability - a concept central to our legal construction of human agency.

Keywords: law and psychology, insanity, evidence, criminal procedure

Suggested Citation

Erickson, Steven K., Mind Over Morality. Buffalo Law Review, Vol. 54, 2007, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=962469

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