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I just read an article about the extensive role of genetics and neural physiology in criminal behavior. It’s heady stuff with a lot of implications, but the upshot is that as neuroscience progresses, more and more common criminality will fall under questionable culpability on the part of the individual.

Oddly enough, I just had a conversation on my back deck about this very subject. It was asserted that people could not engage in heinous acts unless they were mentally ill — that ordinary people weren’t capable of such things. This becomes a prime example of where an age-old philosophical debate can no longer be tabled until the next generation: Free will versus determinism.

If circumstances and biology (nurture and nature) are the primary actors in punishable actions, then law as it stands is useless with it’s assumptions of free, willful action. But do we want a [[Twinkie Defense]] for every little act? Do we treat every social transgression as an illness to be cured? Lots of scary corners there as we continue to tiptoe toward an outwardly civil, passive-aggressive [[police state]].

On the other hand, punishment in general doesn’t work, at least not in any meaningful way given recitivism stats. The whole penal system might even be seen as little more than a complicatedly rationalized collective revenge and control mechanism.

But my greatest concern is something no one seems to want to touch. What if really horrible crimes are committed by perfectly sane people, in a willful and deliberate manner? This is a terrifying, forbidden contemplation because it implies that we are capable of such things. We cannot accept that one of the Boston Bombers was a friendly, social fellow. We cannot comprehend that Hitler was a smoke-free vegetarian who probably played innocently with other children, or perhaps stooped to all hours to spend time with nephews. We need a narrative where [[Nazis]] are an other-worldly species unrelated to ourselves, and contrary stories such as the [[Buddha of Nanking]] are quickly forgotten or ignored.

I find the denial of this view more disturbing than the view itself, and expect us to repeat such atrocities so long as we assume we are immune from such things, individually or collectively. If we cannot imagine ourselves committing a crime, we will be unprepared to face the choice — if we face it at all — if circumstances hit down upon us.

As financial success correlates strongly to education, family social status, et alia, bad behavior likewise can be traced strongly to childhood traumas, living environment, and even one’s physical health. But we can only correlate such things as a statistical tendency. The world is filled with rags-to-riches uneducated millionaires, and there is no shortage of children of alcoholics that are not drunks as adults. At some point for many of us, how our mommies treated us is no longer an excuse for how we treat our spouse.

We can use biology and environment and history as an excuse to be forgiving or compassionate. That in itself I do not object to, and think criminal justice and psychology/psychiatry must work hand in hand. But at some point, if we truly believe there is an actor, an independent kernel-source of free will, there must be some accountability in all but the most blatantly uncontrollable acts.

We don’t — or perhaps inherently can’t — have any definitive answer on the question of free will. And it certainly appears not to be an either-or proposition. A layman student of psychopathology for years, I may never elucidate the grey area between moral and mental illness. I cannot decide if I should be angry at or sorry for many a hard-luck con man or cult leader I’ve known. But I do prefer to believe in free will as an alternative to throwing the idea of a moral compass out the window in exchange for a scalpel-chiseled or drug-corrected persona.

The issue of culpability and how a society deals with it is timeless. The Age of Neuroscience has become the watershed moment in which our understanding must evolve and in so far as it may be possible and pragmatic, the debate settled. So will we decide it, or will it be determined?