Responsibility for One’s Actions

The article in the New York Times magazine this weekend on neuroscience and the law brings up issues that I’ve been thinking about for quite some time. It seems to me that as a society we have yet to make a decision on where one draws the line for what a person is responsible for in their own actions and what a person is not responsible for. I think about this in my own personal relationships: what should I excuse away in a friend, parent or boyfriend’s behavior due to past traumas, upbringing, and other things out of their control, and what can I really hold them to task for? Take, as an example, a boyfriend who can’t commit. Your first reaction is to blame him for his inability to meet your needs. But if your boyfriend acts this way because of a trauma in childhood, or some sort of depression, or a million other things that might make him act this way, are you justified in blaming him? Is it his active choice to not commit, or is it something out of his control? And how do we define a “free choice”? This article brings these dilemmas into the arena of the law. If it can be proved that a defendant’s brain is making them act a certain way and that is the cause for their crime, can we really hold that person responsible? But where do you draw the line? There is something in all of our brains making us all do the things we do, the difference being that mine doesn’t make me kill anyone. Can’t it be said that every killer has some sort of disorder in his or her brain, and that that is the real division between a criminal and a normal, healthy citizen? It strikes me as an arena just as difficult to draw lines in as when a fetus becomes a person, dealing with similar boundary issues of mind and soul. What of your mind is your own, and what is out of your control? What actions can you own as your own, and what actions come from something in your brain?


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