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Criminal Accountability and the "I" Function

Kate Lauber

The prevalence and misuse of the insanity defense in our legal system is astounding. Cases upon cases site drugs, brain tumors, car accidents involving head injury, blackouts and antisocial behavior as circumstantial evidence of a crime that was committed. These crimes involve murder, rape and robbery. The question of where criminal accountability lies and how we are able to hold someone accountable for an act may boil down to the brain itself. Where in the brain do reason, morality and inhibition lie? If these areas are affected by some disorder does that then mean that a criminal is no longer held accountable for their actions? Is there a specific area of the brain where accountability itself may lie? These seem to be questions that are not only debated in the classroom, but hospitals and courtrooms as well.

The classic example of this dilemma is the case of Phineas Gage. Phineas lived circa 1845 and was a railroad worker known for being a kind and generous family man. However, Phineas suffered from a unfortunate accident. After a dynamite explosion caused a metal rod to be passed through Phineas's head, he was a changed man. Phineas no longer was interested in family life, his personality seemed somehow changed. He became a drifter and a rebel and has left scientists wondering to this day how he was able to be totally unaffected by a metal rod being passed through his skull despite the obvious change in his moral reasoning and values (1). This has led neurologists to believe that moral reasoning and the existence of values may be localized to one are of the brain. How else can we explain Phineas?

Neuroscientists at the University of Iowa were interested in this phenomenon and conducted a longitudinal study with two infants who had damage to their pre-frontal cortex before the age of 16 months. Researchers found that although both children recovered completely from their injuries, they were shown to, "suffer from severely antisocial behavior later in life, resulting in criminal activities, behavioral problems, and physical abuse of others. " (1). These two subjects were both found to have normal I.Q. levels and were cognizant of ethical rules and standards, however were seemingly unable to inhibit themselves or show any signs of moral reasoning (1). The teenagers were unable to apply rules and values to moral dilemmas, although they were aware of what the standards themselves were and the accountability that resulted if these standards were not met (1). While this research has been well received and is interesting on a brain localization level, it still doesn't fully answer the question of where moral reasoning lies. If moral reasoning is the "I" function, or the ability to be accountable for your own actions because they are a result of your own free will, then should those who have an altered "I" function be held less accountable for their actions (2), (3). If the pre-frontal cortex is truly were moral reasoning lies then it should be simple enough to convict all criminals with other types of brain damage and acquit those with this specific type of damage. However, we don't seem to know enough about the brain to make these distinctions. In an entity as diffuse and complicated as the human brain, a secondary entity such as moral reasoning, which is just as complicated, will never be easily localized. The question is how do we make a distinction between what organic brain disorders allow someone to still able to be held accountable for their actions and which disorders do not.

The American legal system has long recognized that exceptions to culpability can be made in criminal matters. People capable of free and rational acts are able to choose alternative behaviors and those who choose to harm others can then be legitimately held accountable (4). At this point in time, a person is deemed as legally incapable of being held accountable when they are unable to understand "the nature and quality of what they are doing." (4). The evaluation of the capacity of a person to appreciate the wrongfulness and effects of their conduct begins with a determination as to whether or not they suffered from a serious mental disease or neurological defect at the time of the offense (4) These determinations are made from a wide range of effects such as biological factors and genetic predisposition's to recently acquired injuries or abnormalities. Social considerations relevant to the determination of the capacity to appreciate and be accountable for an action usually fall into the category of where intent and action lie. This category concerns itself with the belief that intellect or the "I" function is the predominate determinant of individual action. This assumption comes largely into question when evaluating neurological disorders, particularly in regard to persons with severe and persistent psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, schizo- affective disorder, bipolar affective disorder and perhaps damage to the pre-frontal cortex (4). If a disease keeps someone from being in touch with their "I" function, then is it fair to say that no action they committed came out of an intent?

This question seems to be the dilemma the legal system is facing. While every state differs on the insanity plea and what is admissible, the general theme is one of utter delocalization. Cases exist of men with benign brain tumors killing their wife's and being acquitted and then proceeding to never have the tumor removed because it has no effect on their day- to- day lives, sex-offenders who have repeated "black-outs" are put in a mental institution instead of jail, and men who rob a store and murder the clerk walk free two years later because they were "cured of their mental illness." (5), (6). On the other hand, cases of mentally incapacitated people being forced to stand trial also exist. The only explanation for this dichotomy is that we know very little about the localization of brain functions that fall under our "I" function. We know too little about the brain to assume we can target something as complicated as moral reasoning and the ability to understand one's actions. Therefore, criminals that prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a neurological disorder may keep them from understanding the effects of their actions are able to stay out of jail.

So, what is the solution? Where the "I" function exists seems not only to be a debate of students and philosophers but also of those who make legal policy. Recognizing that we know too little about the brain to pinpoint moral reasoning, and realizing that a lack moral reasoning and the ability to be accountable for actions are not always synonymous are first steps to coming closer to a solution. It seems that the legal system and our understanding of the brain provide us with similar constraints. Because we are unsure of so many things we are unable to place constraints on anything, localization of function or which disorders qualify as legal incapacity to be accountable. These constraints can be solved by research and a better understanding of the brain itself. The legal system has to follow brain research. While we may not find exactly where the "I" is, we can become much closer to understanding what disorders truly effect the ability to understand one's actions and be held accountable for them.

WWW Sources

1) Cyberpunks.org ,

2) The Biological Basis of Morality part 2 ,

3)"> The Biological Basis of Morality ,

4)"> Aggression and Insanity ,

5)"> Mincey vs. Head ,

6)"> Mental Illness and Criminal Responsibility , search results for "insanity defense" and "mental illness"




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