At The Crossroads Of Psychopathy And Law With Columbia CSS

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gavel on stryker against white background
gavel on stryker against white background

Can you be responsible and not responsible at the same time?

If you wander into Faculty House on any given weekday, you’ll probably find some great event you never expected to come across (unless you read our Bucketlists and Science Fairs). I, for instance had no idea that The Zuckerman Mind Brain and Behavior Institute existed, or that it partnered with the Center for Science and Society (CSS) and the Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience to put on lecture and panel events. Monday’s event, “Responsibility, Punishment, and Psychopathy,” called upon an interdisciplinary panel of speakers to discuss how the law does and ought to treat psychopaths in regards to ideas of capacity responsibility and mens rea. Scholars from Columbia, Penn, and Elmhurst College gathered in front of a large crowd in Faculty House to muse on the subject and its implications for the legal system at large.

The talk was briefly introduced by Federica Coppola, a Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience. As a Presidential Scholar, Coppola is mentored not only by neuroscience faculty but by interdisciplinary scientists and artists. She provided a quick rundown of the condition of psychopathy, in which people can have rational understandings of the world and society but can act cruel and remorseless. Psychopathy has existed as a condition for centuries, but the current medical definition refers to a package of antisocial symptoms and a lack of respect for morals measured using a variety of scales such as the PCL-R.

The first of the day’s three speakers was Adrian Raine, a professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania with four published books about crime, biology, and mental disorders. He focused much of his talk on the etiology (or causes) of psychopathy. Raine pointed to studies of the brain which indicated biological correlations with psychopathy which include reduced amygdala activity, increased striatum activity, and cavum septum pellucidum, a condition in which emotional regions of the brain do not grow properly around gaps in the brain’s grey matter. Several factors in the first decade of life, including childhood maltreatment and low self-control are major indicators for symptoms related to psychopathy and “negative life outcomes.” Finally, Raine brought up the prevention and treatment of psychopathy. While still in the early stages of testing, omega-3 may lower callous antisocial behavior, according to studies by Raine and peers.

Next to speak was Katrina Sifferd, chair of Elmhurst College’s philosophy department, who came on to discuss the evaluation of psychopaths as criminally and morally responsible for their actions. Sifferd pointed out that, in studies, some psychopaths have trouble distinguishing between moral and conventional rules (that is, whether a rule is arbitrarily applied or part of a greater moral system). But she stressed that psychopaths are a heterogeneous group, and a diagnosis of psychopathy cannot provide a blanket answer to questions of culpability. In some court cases, such as that of serial killer Brian Dugan, scientific evidence of psychopathy has been exculpatory – punishments have been reduced on the grounds of mental capacity. However, Sifferd believes that scientists must examine individuals’ specific executive functions to determine culpability.

Finishing the trio was Stephen Morse of Penn Law School. Morse discussed the idea of Desert/Disease Jurisprudence. His inclusion of the topic was not surprising, considering he coined the term in a 2011 paper. He also spent much of the talk on the gap between responsible and not-responsible criminals. Those found responsible (mentally competent) are retributively punished through incarceration and are then expected to re-enter society. Those entirely non-responsible are warded into civil programs meant to properly care for and contain them, the “disease jurisprudence.” Morse used the example of an ebola patient as a dangerous but not-responsible individual whose liberties were revoked as they were quarantined. The same often happens to the mentally ill. Psychopaths straddle the line between responsible and not-responsible, and are often subject to both genres of punishment. Psychopaths bring up questions about the purpose of punishment, and the criminal justice system does not currently have a good answer for dangerous, semi-responsible people with high rates of recidivism.

Rounding off the lectures and introducing the Q&A was Kathryn Tabb, an assistant professor of philosophy at Columbia. She was more critical of the use of science in the courtroom. She pointed out that any reforms to the criminal justice system informed by science would disproportionately affect people of color. While the use of biology to claim that some criminal behavior is “predetermined” could be interpreted as exculpatory, it could also be seen as an aggravating factor of recidivism – juries would be more likely to see only the negatives of determinism for defendants of color. Tabb suggested that the justice system must either be made more effective or overhauled entirely, and that science could help either goal.

Accurate image of the law via Blogtrepeneur

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1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    Just fry the offending lobe in their brain

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