[Cross-post] Neuroethics Journal Club: Judging Mens Rea

March 14, 2011 at 02:13 (Neuroethics) ()

This personal blog is not the only place on the internet you can find me typing into the void; I also contribute to Neuroethics at the Core, the academic blog for the research group I currently work with. Generally, when I hold forth on neuroethics-flavored topics, I’ll be cross-posting between this space and that one. Here’s the first few paragraphs of my post, followed by a link to the whole thing. If you’re inclined to leave a comment, I guess it’s really up to you which version you do so on! Incidentally, while you’re over at the Core blog, I encourage you to check out some of my previous posts there; although there’s only a handful, I’m quite proud of what I’ve contributed.

The National Core for Neuroethics had a lively journal club discussion recently on a paper by Bertram Malle and Sarah Nelson that dealt with “the tension between folk concepts and legal concepts of intentionality.” As I was presenting the paper and facilitating the discussion, I decided to blog about it to share some of the highlights with our readers and crystallize my own thoughts on the matter, stirred up as they were by the proceedings.

The basic gist of the paper is as follows. Malle and Nelson identify “the valid and precise use of the concepts of mental states in reasoning about the defendant’s actions and in assigning responsibility, blame, and punishment” as a central challenge in creating a system of criminal adjudication. (One interesting point to consider going forward is how these same issues might apply to the context of torts, where instead of the epistemic criterion being “beyond a reasonable doubt” one is instead prompted to consider “the balance of evidence.”) In legal contexts, the term used to refer to the mental states in question isĀ mens rea, Latin for “guilty/sinful mind.”

The specific mental state that the paper is concerned with is intention, especially as it relates to intentional action. In the grand tradition of experimental philosophy (though it really wasn’t yet a tradition in 2003!), Malle and Nelson find the by-now familiar faults with how these concepts have been developed in legal theory and philosophy – with theories of intentional action checked primarily against the intuitions of a small, non-representative group of participants in the debate, leading to a confusing mismatch between how the law asks us to use concepts, and how we (generally) are inclined to actually use them.

Read the rest of the post on Neuroethics at the Core.


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