Experiments in Philosophy

The impact of psychological research on life's big questions.

Can the mentally ill be to blame?

Can the mentally ill be to blame?

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Suppose you discovered that someone has committed a horribly violent crime. And now suppose I tell you one additional fact about the person who performed this act: he or she is mentally ill. In fact, suppose I tell you that the reason he performed this act he is suffering from damage to a particular area of his brain. Would you still conclude that he could be morally responsible for what he had done?

 

At this point, you might be guessing that no one would hold an agent morally responsible in such a circumstance. After all, how could we hold someone morally responsible for behavior that was clearly the result of neurological illness? Surely, anyone would agree in such a case that the agent is not to blame for what he has done!

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Guess again. As Matthew Hutson has recently emphasized, people show a depressingly persistent tendency to attribute moral responsibility -- a tendency that persists even in the face of strong theoretical reasons to reach the opposite conclusion.

A particularly striking example of this tendency emerges in a recent study from Eric Mandelbaum, David Ripley and Felipe De Brigard. In their study, subjects were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. Subjects in the 'abstract' condition received the following story:

Dennis has recently found out from his doctor that he has a neurological condition that has caused him to behave in certain ways. Were someone else to have this neurological condition then that person would have had to behave in the same ways as Dennis.

Just as you might expect, most subjects who received this story said that Dennis was not morally responsible for the behaviors he performs. But don't be too swift to assume that people with neurological conditions will get off the hook. Mandelbaum and colleagues also included a 'concrete' condition, in which subjects were told:

Dennis has recently found out from his doctor that he has a neurological condition that has, in the past, caused him to rape women. Were someone else to have this neurological condition then that person would have had to behave in the same ways as Dennis.

When the story is made more concrete in this way, people's intuitions change radically. They end up concluding that Dennis actually is morally responsible for what he'd done.

So it seems that, no matter how much we tell people about damage to an agent's brain, the impulse to blame will get the last word. It is as though people are thinking: 'Well, he does have a neurological condition... but then again, someone ended up getting raped. We just can't let this go by without declaring at least one person to be morally responsible!'

[Eric Mandelbaum, David Ripley & Felipe De Brigard, 'Responsibility and the Brain Sciences']

Joshua Knobe is a professor in the philosophy department at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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