Responsibility and the Brain Sciences

  • Felipe De Brigard
  • Eric MandelbaumEmail author
  • David Ripley


Some theorists think that the more we get to know about the neural underpinnings of our behaviors, the less likely we will be to hold people responsible for their actions. This intuition has driven some to suspect that as neuroscience gains insight into the neurological causes of our actions, people will cease to view others as morally responsible for their actions, thus creating a troubling quandary for our legal system. This paper provides empirical evidence against such intuitions. Particularly, our studies of folk intuitions suggest that (1) when the causes of an action are described in neurological terms, they are not found to be any more exculpatory than when described in psychological terms, and (2) agents are not held fully responsible even for actions that are fully neurologically caused.


Responsibility Neuroscience Free will Experimental philosophy Mental illness Law 



Many thanks to the audience at the Society for Philosophy and Psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada, the audience at the 2008 Central Division Meeting of the APA in Chicago, IL, the audience at Mind, Brain, and Experience at the University of Colorado in Denver, and the audience at the tenth anniversary conference for the journal Ethical Theory and Moral Practice at the Blaise Pascal Institute in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Many thanks also to Bryce Huebner, Mark Phelan, and Jesse Prinz for insightful comments, and to Joshua Knobe for his unprecedented generosity. Thanks also to two anonymous referees for their helpful comments.


  1. Alicke M (2000) Culpable control and the psychology of blame. Psychol Bull 126(4):556–574, doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.126.4.556 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Borum R, Fulero S (1999) Empirical research on the insanity defense and attempted reforms: evidence towards informed policy. Law Hum Behav 23(1):117–135, doi: 10.1023/A:1022330908350 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Festinger L (1957) A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford University Press, StanfordGoogle Scholar
  4. Fodor J (1974) Special sciences (or the disunity of science as a working hypothesis). Synthese 28(2):97–115, doi: 10.1007/BF00485230 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Gazzaniga M (2005) Neuroscience and the law. Sci Am Mind 16(1):42–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Gilbert D (1999) What the mind’s not. In: Chaiken S, Trope Y (eds) Dual process theories in social psychology. Guilford, New York, pp 3–11Google Scholar
  7. Greene J, Cohen J (2004) For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 359:1775–1785 doi: 10.1098/rstb.2004.1546 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Haidt J (2001) The emotional dog and its rational tail: a social intuitionist approach to moral judgement. Psychol Rev 108:814–834CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Knobe J (2003) Intentional action and side effects in ordinary language. Analysis 63:190–193, doi: 10.1111/1467-8284.00419 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Lerner J, Goldberg J, Tetlock P (1998) Sober second thought: the effects of accountability, anger, and authoritarianism on attributions of responsibility. Pers Soc Psychol Bull 24(6):563–574 doi: 10.1177/0146167298246001 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Likert R (1932) A technique for the measurement of attitudes. Arch Psychol 140:1–55Google Scholar
  12. Maikovich A (2005) A new understanding of terrorism using cognitive dissonance principles. J Theory Soc Behav 35(4):373–397, doi: 10.1111/j.1468-5914.2005.00282.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Mandelbaum E, Ripley D, De Brigard F (in preparation) Abstract thought in concrete situationsGoogle Scholar
  14. Nadelhoffer T (2006) Bad acts, blameworthy agents, and intentional actions: some problems for jury impartiality. Philos Explor 9(2):203–220, doi: 10.1080/13869790600641905 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Nahmias E (2006) Folk fears about freedom and responsibility: determinism vs. reductionism. J Cogn Cult 6:215–237, doi: 10.1163/156853706776931295 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Nichols S, Knobe J (2007) Moral responsibility and determinism: the cognitive science of folk intuitions. Nous 41(4):663–685, doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0068.2007.00666.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Tversky A, Kahneman D (1974) Judgment under uncertainty: heuristics and biases. Sci 185:1124–1131, doi: 10.1126/science.185.4157.1124 CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Felipe De Brigard
    • 1
  • Eric Mandelbaum
    • 1
    Email author
  • David Ripley
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUNC/Chapel HillChapel HillUSA

Personalised recommendations