Colloquium: Madness, Badness and Neuroimaging_Based Responsibility Assessments

What should we make of a brain scan that shows that Conrad (a violent murderer) has significant deficits in capacities required for responsible moral agency — deficits that fully explain why he is like that? Would such evidence excuse him (at least partially), or would it condemn him even further?

I think that such evidence could at least partially excuse him, since it shows that he is not fully a moral agent. But Heidi Maibom objects that such evidence would condemn Conrad even further, since it shows that he is bad all the way down to the core. I think that Maibom is partially right — such evidence might indeed condemn Conrad. But contrary to what she thinks, this does not oppose my claim that such evidence might also excuse him, because the condemnation relates to who he is, whereas the excuse relates to what he does. Once we distinguish assessments of people’s character and their capacities, any apparent contradiction between calling someone “bad” and saying that they are not fully responsible evaporates. Thus, contra Maibom, on my account neuroimaging evidence can excuse people for what they do by revealing their capacities, and this need not violate our intuitions about condemning people for who they are.

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