Ok... as background for this post... I just had an assignment to write a short paper using the following prompt:
The traditional perspective of the criminal justice system is that people are individual agents whose actions are free-will-based conscious choices made on a rational basis, and consequently people can be held responsible for their actions. What is the dividing line between behavior for which the individual is legally responsible and the behavior that is not the defendent's fault. If one assumes, as this course does, that all behavior is generated by brain activity, where and how do you draw the line between behaviors the individual is legally responsible for and those which are beyond his/her control? Is this even the right way to frame the issue? If not, what is?
The justice system in the United States assumes that individuals are responsible for their actions. Sentences are intended to punish individuals who fail to conform to society's laws. However, this conceptualization of the justice system is inadequate in the face of growing neuroscientific research. For millennia determinist philosophers have dismissed the justice system's assumption that people are in control of their actions. In the last few decades, neurosurgery research has begun to find support for a deterministic perspective. Notable neuroscientists like Joshua D. Greene and Jonathan D. Cohen are now arguing that the justice system should reorganize itself to focus on deterrence, instead of the current goal of revenge (Rosen, 2007). This does not change the challenges that our society faces when dealing with society's deviants, but it does call for a new approach to the justice system. Instead of a focus on punishment, the justice system must focus on protecting its citizens from those who cannot, or will not, live their lives without unduly imposing themselves on others.
In the American prison system many felons are substance abusers. Their crimes are either simple possession of a controlled substance, or other illegal activities they participated in to support their drug habit. Addictive drugs directly (cocaine, amphetamines) or indirectly (opiates, heroin, nicotine) trigger activation of the nucleus accumbens within the meso-limbic pathway (PA Packet, text). The meso-limbic pathway is responsible for the activation of behavior seeking further reinforcement, known as the "Go Signal". All reinforcers activate the nucleus accumbens, although controlled substances often provoke a much stronger response. Once a drug that triggers dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens is introduced, the "Go Signal" will be activated (PA Packet).
There is evidence that this can be avoided through the use of antagonist substances that stop the nucleus accumbens or other "upstream" structures from becoming activated by the controlled substance. For example, introduction of a DA receptor antagonist (Haloperidol, for example) can block the effect of the nucleus accumbens in projecting the behavior increasing "Go Signal”. However, there is little evidence that any other structure in the brain can simply override this signal. In fact, rats injected with cocaine will have a continuous activation of the "Go Signal" until the drug wears off (PA Packet). They will continually participate in species specific behavior. Similar behaviors are manifested in humans given cocaine, and the behaviors may be completely out of their control. More important, this is directly reinforcing, so there will be a continued drive to reactivate the nucleus accumbens using the same or a similar drug. This does not mean that individuals with a strong drive for cocaine or other substances should remain in society. They should be removed and placed in treatment facilities. When their behavior can be controlled, they can be released.
Another behavior that can have highly detrimental effects is an excessive amount of anger or rage. This can lead to assault or even homicide. Neuroscientists are finding many variables that may increase emotional reactivity, variables that seem to result in a chain of events outside of conscious control. Individuals who inject synthetic male hormones into their body will suffer from increased aggression. Additionally, a gene called the 5-HT (serotonin) transporter is responsible for the formation for serotonin reuptake in the brain (PA Packet). The homozygous long form of the gene leads to strong serotonin transmission, the heterozygous gene leads to weaker serotonin transmission, and the homozygous short form of the gene leads to a significant decrease in the transmission of serotonin. Low serotonin levels are linked to an increase in the reactivity of an individual to emotional events. This may lead individuals to respond with less control to stressful events in their lives, since the events actually create a stronger emotional reaction in them.
Violent crimes commonly occur when the aggressor is emotionally aroused. Negative emotions increase avoidance behaviors in an organism. One such avoidance evoking emotion is anger. Anger is aroused through the ventrobasal amygdala. The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is a brain structure that makes non-conscious assessments of the effects of environmental stimuli. Damage to the OFC can result in a decrease in the weight that long-term consequences are given (PA Packet). This would result in an increase in the amount of control that the emotion arousing ventrobasal amygdala would hold over an organism's behavior. The OFC can often be damaged or impaired in adults, and it may not even be developed at all in adolescents. The OFC is the non-conscious component of the prefrontal cortex, one of the last structures to develop in humans.
All this supports a more deterministic explanation of life, where emotions and behaviors are not controlled solely through a higher consciousness, but through the combined efforts of many smaller brain structures. This would not to say that behavior should not be controlled. Even if we are "moist robots”, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, the behaviors need to be controlled.
As the scientific evidence begins to give greater weight to the argument that people may not have a “free-will” to control their behavior, a reorganization of the justice system is in order. Instead of being based on a rubric of punishment for actions performed at free will, the justice system should switch to a pronounced intention to protect all members of society. The research indicates that people may not be capable of controlling their actions. No amount of pure punishment, be it incarceration or threats of penalties, will stop all crimes from being committed. For instance, long term threats of punishment mean nothing to an individual with a low functioning or damaged OFC. Treatment or removal of individuals from society, with no reliance on a concept of punishment, is a way to protect the society through the most productive means possible.
The goal of the justice system should be to protect society from those who do not behave in a way that is productive, and to protecting those same destructive people from themselves. This would require a complete overhaul of the system, with a focus on treatment. It also would require a much stronger focus on prevention, since many of these deficits are caused by exposure to negative environmental stimuli. It would also require people to give up the construct of "punishment" or "revenge" in favor of the greater good. This may not be something that is feasible at this point in our society, but it is the path that is supported by the scientific evidence.
All this is based on the assumption that the justice system is capable of acting in a purely rational way and seek out the greater good. The justice system in the United States is a collection of individuals. The prosecutors, the judge, and the jury are all individual humans, with the same susceptibility to dangerous behaviors as the citizens it rules.
Take, for example, the story of Zenos the Stoic and his slave. Zenos was a Greek philosopher whose views approached strict determinism. It is said that Zenos once caught a slave stealing from his home. He captured the slave, and was preparing to punish him. The slave, however, stopped Zenos. He quoted Zenos’ writings, where he argued that every action is predetermined through the Providence. If this was true, said the slave, his actions as a thief were predetermined, and simply a matter of fate. Zenos is said to have responded by agreeing that the theft had been a matter of fate. He argued, however, that his punishment of the thief was also predetermined. And with that he whipped the slave.
This isn’t to say that we cannot break out of the system we are currently within. We cannot, however, expect this to be a simple process. In a democratic state, the citizens in charge of the justice system are prone to the same neurological deficits that the citizens they prosecute are. We might very well expect that the justice system would have great difficulty breaking out of this cycle, since the crimes of others have the power to evoke great emotions within observers.