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Moral Agency and Legal Responsibility

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moral agencyWhat distinguishes humans from other animals is that we use reason and reflect on our beliefs, values, expectations and experiences, to make important judgments and decisions - we are rational. In the absence of such capacities we cannot be held responsible for our decisions and actions - we would no longer be moral agents. Recent evidence from the sciences of the mind, particularly cognitive neuroscience, suggests that we may not be as morally rational as we thought. This raises questions about the scientific and theoretical foundations of moral agency, which will therefore clearly have normative implications. Will this change the way we think of ourselves as persons and moral agents? The neuroscientific data has also refuelled some debates central in moral philosophy, particularly metaethics. How does neuroscientific data bear on these topics, and can it inform those philosophical debates?

Neurological dysfunction is generally held to be relevant to a defendant’s responsibility for their actions. Hence when diminished responsibility can be established by appeal to neurological dysfunction (“neuro-mitigation”), then it is reasonable that the defendant receives a proportionate punishment. However, the challenge of imputing responsibility is difficult given the multitude of the deterministic effects of brain function, genetic predispositions, experience and environment. Hence one ought to ask whether cognitive neuroscience, amongst other sciences of the mind, will have a bearing on the legal doctrine of mens rae and thus change our perception of legal responsibility?