Reading the criminal mind

Besides its surprisingly good action cinematography, ‘Minority Report’ owes its huge success to the deep discomfort it created in viewers. The movie constructs a future world where law enforcement makes use of ‘Pre-Cogs’ — humans who have been given the gift of foresight through genetic modification, so that they can see crimes before they happen. When a crime is predicted, the purported criminal is promptly apprehended and the crime prevented. The movie forces the viewer to confront a host of questions that have troubled philosophers for millennia.

If the future is predetermined, in what sense can we be said to be free? Central to our commonsense conception of freedom is the inherent possibility of doing otherwise. If the future is closed to alternate possibilities, then there is no sense in which a murderer could have acted differently and then it seems that  the act of murder is not a free act. Relatedly, if a person cannot do otherwise, is there a sense in which the person is morally responsible for the action? Hume, most famously, articulated the seemingly essential relationship between the notion of moral responsibility and the possibility of freely choosing your actions. ‘Ought implies can,’ he said. One is morally obligated to act in a certain way only if one can in fact act in such a way. If the future is predetermined, then in a clear sense the murderer could not have failed to murder. But then what sense is there to the claim that the murderer ought not to murder? And if there is no sense to be given in response to this question, there is little reason to hold the murderer morally responsible. The murderer is no different from a person who happens to slip on a banana, land on an innocent bystander, and accidentally snap his neck. The person is causally responsible for the unfortunate killing, but, since the person could not have done otherwise, is not morally responsible for it.

These are deep and disturbing questions mainly because of the centrality of the notion of freedom in our conception of our selves as persons (rather than objects or ‘mere’ animals). (An influential and interesting response to this set of problems was developed by Harry Frankfurt. Well worth a read.)

Though such sci-fi scenarios don’t really need to be considered seriously, the questions that they raise do call for greater attention. This is especially true given recent advances in cognitive psychology and brain imaging technologies. In the last few years, cognitive psychologists using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have discovered a variety of differences between the brain activities of people who are lying and those telling the truth (see for example R. Henig’s article in the NY Times, and G. Stix’s article from Scientific American). fMRI can then be used as a lie detector superseding the traditional polygraph. Even more interesting is a recent study (by T. Baumgartner et al., published in Neuron) reported in NewScientist which suggests that fMRI technology can reveal a person’s intention to break a promise, an intention to cheat at some future time. Such technology, according to the report, could be used to assess the intentions of criminals who are up for parole. It would indicate whether criminals intend to keep their promise to avoid a life of crime, or whether they intend to cheat the system.

Of course, even assuming the adequacy of the technique, ‘reading’ a person’s intentions for future action is not yet to foresee that person’s action. This fact raises many pertinent questions. Most clearly: Should people who aim to cheat the system be held morally (and legally) responsible for acts they have yet to perform? Insofar as an intention is not yet an action, what weight should be assigned to such fMRI data in assessing a criminal’s petition for parole? To penalize people, by denying them parole, for example, on the basis of their current intentions, is to strip them of what is most essential to their being persons. It is to treat them as lacking the freedom to have, and also change, their intentions; to treat them as lacking the freedom of self-determination. On the other hand, it might be argued, the current parole review process assesses petitions in part of the basis of a criminal’s self-report regarding his or her intentions. fMRI data can then serve as supplemental data to assess the veracity of that report, which could then feature as part of the deliberation process.

Though we are still far from the scenarios of ‘Minority Report’, it is clear that as scientists peer deeper into our minds, clarity on the nature of personhood, of freedom, and of moral responsibility, becomes increasingly urgent.

Related articles:

£1.99 - small Recent Work on Free Will and Moral Responsibility
By Neil Levy and Michael McKenna, University of Melbourne Florida State University
(Vol. 3, November 2008)
Philosophy Compass

£1.99 - small Legal and Moral Responsibility
By Antony Duff , University of Stirling
(Vol. 4, November 2009)
Philosophy Compass

£1.99 - small Causation and Responsibility
By Carolina Sartorio , University of Wisconsin at Madison
(Vol. 2, November 2007)
Philosophy Compass

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