Criminality, Neurology and Ethics

I attended the BSC conference this summer. It was interesting and I feel like I learned some useful things. In one of the panel sessions there was a brief discussion about individuals being changed by committing crimes. Some talked about it in terms of identity and attitudes and one person talked about it in physical terms. I may have misunderstood, but what I took from that session was that they thought that criminality physically changed the neural structure of individuals. The idea that there are neurological markers for criminality bothered me and I asked about the ethical implications of that and if it wouldn’t fundamentally change criminology and legal structures. I got a pretty basic answer of “yes” but time was limited and there were other things to discuss. So I’d like to expand on that idea here.

Ethics is a pretty big deal in social science. Actually I think it’s a big deal in most disciplines, a friend of mine works in digital ethics and she always has interesting things to tell me. In social sciences I think we (quite rightly) go out of the way to justify our research because of some previous work in the area being very unethical (See: Zimbardo, Milgram, Humphreys). Also because we deal with people so regularly and there’s such opportunity to cause problems. The general rule is: Do No Harm. But we don’t give as much consideration to the harm that our findings could do. By purporting the idea that criminality has a biological aspect, it gives that idea credibility and it will be researched (Check google scholar, many people already have done this). In the current political climate of “what works” and evidence based practice,  if there are studies showing a link between specific neurological structures and criminality, that could be used as justification for fMRI scanners to be included in the MoJ budget and for brain scans to be permissible evidence in court.

The thought that brain scans would take over from other forms of criminal evidence may seem slightly outlandish. (Yes, I do read Sci-fi and yes, sometimes it does colour my thinking.) But many other things that seemed like science fiction have come true in my lifetime. People carry devices with them that can essentially act as the Hitchhikers Guide. Just the thought that it could be possible is enough to give me pause. So I believe that we should be careful about how we discuss criminality and neural plasticity. For example, if we show biological markers for criminality, does that mean that the person couldn’t help their criminal behaviour? In that scenario, would it be right for them to be punished by the state? If you are arguing that criminality is biological, then criminal behaviour is the result of a condition rather than a choice to break the law. Would it be right for the state to use fMRI scans to determine if someone is a criminal or not? Even in cases where there is little evidence other than one person’s word against the other?

Personally I don’t believe it would. We have built up ideas of justice to deal with human behaviours or concepts that are not accounted for by nature. Our laws are self imposed, so it would seem wrong to enforce those laws based upon something that is involuntary, like our neurological make-up. But there wasn’t time for these wider ethical implications to be discussed at the conference. In the articles I’ve seen looking at criminality from a biological perspective, the authors are careful to state that the implications of the findings must not be exaggerated. I do think we must remain very aware of the ethical and political implications in these discussions and hopefully my concerns will stay in the realm of fiction.


About Jess Urwin

Lecturer in social work at De Montfort University, youth justice researcher, musician, crafter, constant reader.
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