A Biosemiotic Body of Law: The Neurobiology of Justice

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Abstract

We offer a theory regarding the symbolism of the human body in legal discourse. The theory blends legal theory, the neuroscience of empathy, and biosemiotics, a branch of semiotics that combines semiotics with theoretical biology. Our theory posits that this symbolism of the body is not solely a metaphor or semiotic sign of how law is cognitively structured in the mind. We propose that it also signifies neurobiological mechanisms of social emotion in the brain that are involved in the social and moral decision-making and behavior that law generally seeks to govern. Specifically, we hypothesize that the symbol of a collective human body in the language of law signifies neural mechanisms of pain empathy which generate a virtual, neurally simulated, emotional sense of sharing the feelings or pain of others and of thereby being one-in-body with or virtually equal to them. We speculate that this may be the neural basis of what is signified in legal and political theory as the “body politic” or “sense of equality,” because neuroscience and psychiatry further suggest that such pain empathy may provide the natural, emotional motivation to think and act in a rights-based manner. We conclude that misunderstanding of these neural mechanisms of pain empathy and related misinterpretation of this corporeal symbolism for the same may have long resulted in legal discourse that misinterprets the function of “pain” in the law and misinterprets the associated positive law, specifically the law regarding individual, equality-based rights and criminal justice, in particular, punishment theory.