Q&A: How responsible are we for our actions?

When a wrongdoing is explained by a brain imbalance we tend to forgive that person of responsibility. SmartPlanet speaks with neuroscientist John Monterosso to explore the ethics of such thinking.
Written by Christie Nicholson, Contributor


As neuroscience continues to uncover more and more of the brain’s interconnected functioning we—the general public—are forced to consider a pretty big philosophical dilemma. As far as our behavior, thoughts or actions are concerned are “we” in charge here, or is “our brain” in charge?

Research done with teenagers has proven that a lot of their reckless thinking and subsequent irresponsible behavior can be attributed to the immature frontal lobes of the brain. In other words, their brains are limited. They literally don’t know any better. But does this remove them of responsibility? Even in the eyes of the law? How do we even make such a decision?

To explore such heady questions SmartPlanet spoke with John Monterosso, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California, who has written about the way the public views individual responsibility once they learn about brain limitations and other biological causes for certain actions. Monterosso believes we inherently forgive those actions explained as having a biological cause versus a life-experience cause, even though the two are intertwined. In his view we cannot have a "my brain made me do it" excuse since it is always the case that our brains made us "do" something.

SmartPlanet: Research over the last five years increasingly shows that teens might not be responsible for their actions because their frontal lobes aren’t fully developed. For you this sparked a dangerous slippery slope of accountability. Can you talk about that?

John Monterosso: We have two ways that we think about teens. We have the traditional limitations that are part of normal development and then we have limits of the individual.

When a teenager behaves in a reckless way, at least in any period of time that I’ve been alive, it’s natural to talk about it as part of development. But these days we bring in neuroscience and now we see that in teens the prefrontal cortex is not yet at full development during the teen years.

So now we’ve got a different type of explanation for the same phenomenon of risky behavior. And this sort of explanation has different implications in people’s minds than the first sort of explanation.

I’ll just jump into what I think is the big philosophical issue lurking here. We’re built to understand causality when it’s applied to intention. That’s part of our makeup and it’s not something we can turn off.
If somebody cuts me off on the road, I get angry at them even though I know very little about them. I’m just built to react to people in a certain way.

I think we’re built to see behavior in a certain way, and that’s a lot of what our brain does: It provides a functional understanding of the social world. But when objects bump into each other and move around, or somebody drops a rock, we understand as being different. They don’t involve [an individual's] agency.

So we naturally have these two ways of making sense of things in the world, one that applies to intentional creatures and one that applies to everything else like objects.

And indentifying physiological antecedents can push our perspective from the agency type to the object type. I no longer understand the behavior by the intentions, I view it as being caused by the biology in much the same way that I think the billiard balls bouncing around is caused by Newtonian physics.

So if we go back to this adolescence question, we’ll still come up with mental states to explain the behavior. But in the case of, "oh, it’s an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex" I think we’re thinking of it as more like billiard balls.

You performed an experiment that showed people naturally think this way, meaning we tend to remove individuals of responsibility when there is a biological or physiological explanation for their actions.

Yes. [In the study] we gave people examples of bad behavior, either bad with respect to causing harm to others or to their self. In each case there was some cause of the behavior identified. Half the time it was something of the physical world and half the time it was something described in terms of experience.

For instance, if I am unloved by my parents I’m giving that explanation in experiential terms rather than physical terms. If I talk about it in terms of a gene then I’m giving it in physical terms.

In all cases the behavior was described as motivated. It wasn’t as though the person didn’t have the urge to do what they did. We also varied the strength of connection between the antecedent [cause] and the action, meaning we varied the number of people who have that gene act in that way, or the number of people who are unloved by their parents act in that way.

But the factor that made the biggest difference, by far, was whether it was a biological or an experiential explanation. And we asked people, okay, not everybody with the antecedent behaves this way. What was different about those people who had the antecedent and did not exhibit the behavior?

Were you trying to get people to understand that an antecedent like a gene or an experience does not lead directly to specific behavior? Or were you trying to see if people believed there is still some form of individual control, in either the gene case or the experiential case?

Well we found that a difference in character of will power was selected when we had an experiential antecedent. If you and I had the same bad upbringing, and I behave badly but you did not, people wanted to explain that difference as you have better “character” than me.

But if we both had the same biological antecedent—for example we both had this gene that was associated with it—but only fifty percent of people with this gene were themselves known to exhibit violent behavior, and I was violent and you weren’t…very few people would select difference in will power or character between us. Because they are thinking of this now as a cause like an object’s behavior in the world.

As if the individual’s self has no part in it?

My interpretation here was there was something categorically different about these two types of explanations. I think the cleanest way to see the effect of that difference is the inapplicability of character and willpower once there was a biological antecedent.

The idea of intent or character is a really big deal in the legal world, and it’s often the difference between guilt and innocence. So what do you think about that and how neuroscience is changing things?

I think intent in the legal sense is generally workable. It’s consistent with your goals. I don’t think these issues are really typically a problem for the law because the law generally takes a pragmatic approach. I’m not an expert in this. But my understanding is that intent requires that something closer to the behavior was of the person, considering the person’s goals, than it requires metaphysical agency.

Presumably, if intent is in line with a person’s goals, that is the person’s own conscious awareness of "I am doing this." Is there intent when there’s someone who’s schizophrenic and having some sort of delusion?

Ah, yes, right so there’s all sorts of considerations that I think are part of the sausage making for laws. For a case where somebody is schizophrenic, the behavior could be totally consistent with their goals. Say they were under the impression that someone was trying to kill them. But we don’t want to hold them accountable for that behavior because we can see where it comes from, and we’re sympathetic to it.

I agree that’s a challenge. I think illness is separate category; at least it introduces other issues that I think could make a difference in how the legal system works.

But if we talk about justice, we cannot ignore intent.

Yes, if we want to introduce the idea that we want legal punishments to be commensurate with the wrongdoing, now we’re operating in the zone of the intentional stance. This is putting into legal code what is our automatic reaction to behavior. This is the same stuff of the person cut me off and I want to yell at them, and make them feel bad and punch them. And the justice piece is the piece that has gone through the trouble with respect to creeping boundaries of causality in neuroscience. I think it’s because it’s built on this starting point that’s itself not scientific. It’s part of our natural intentional stance.

Your concern is that the general public doesn’t have this clear line between mind and body. And this creates issues because there’s this idea of different blame based on whether it’s biological or personality. How do you think this is going to shake out over the next twenty years?

It’s not something that will go away. There’s some quote from a philosopher, Nagel, I’m not going to get it exactly right, but it’s something like the philosopher who thinks the will is free is a bad philosopher. The person who feels his will is not free is pathological.

We can’t help it. It’s like seeing depth. I can know that I’m putting on 3-D glasses and it’s not really a 3-D world. But it doesn’t matter, I can’t turn it off.

I’ve been set on this view that metaphysical agency—what some people view as "free will"—doesn’t exist, and in twenty-five years of being an adult, I don’t respond any differently to somebody who cuts me off on the road. It’s not something that goes away with insight.

But from a distance we can know that we ought not pay attention to whether there’s a biological antecedent to a behavior. I think as far as the legal system is concerned, it will become increasingly irrelevant because it’s not workable. It won’t be part of our legal system that a person is exonerated if they have a biological cause to their behavior. It won’t be part of our legal system because it doesn’t work and the legal system is subject to a kind of natural selection. Things get suggested and don’t work and then they get returned. And finally you arrive at something that’s stable. And I don’t think that it will be stable to maintain that the identification of a biological antecedent makes a difference when it comes to responsibility.

[Photo: Science_Jerk]

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards