PHIL 8700: Neuroscience and The Law

This course investigates topics at the intersection of philosophy, neuroscience, psychology and law.

The criminal law has traditionally punished certain kinds of behavior. Retribution, deterrence, reform, and incapacitation of dangerous offenders are among the aims of punishment. But human behavior is in an important sense produced by our brains, and these, in turn, are to a significant degree shaped by genetic factors. Put another way, human behavior is produced by two things – i.e. genes and brains – about which until recently we knew very little and over which we exercised equally little control.

However, as the mind sciences reveal increasingly more about the human brain, some say that not only does this challenge the law’s assumption that criminal conduct deserves punishment, but that it also promises better ways of predicting who is likely to (re-)offend, of designing laws that more effectively motivate socially-acceptable conduct, and developing medical interventions that directly target the causes of criminal misconduct at one of its most important sources — the human brain. Some claim that recent advances in neuroimaging, and the development of neuroimaging-based lie detection techniques, promise to revolutionise the criminal trial, while others worry that these things threaten to undermine the sanctity of the most important private sphere — the human mind. While some predict the dawn of a new age of equality and enlightenment through the use of cognitive enhancement medications, others worry that these drugs will have a range of undesirable effects on individuals and society, as well as the potential for ill health effects. Lastly, the moral and legal issues created – as well as the promises and solutions offered – by these and other advances in the mind sciences raise numerous jurisprudential and regulatory questions.

This course will introduce students to this new, interdisciplinary, and quickly-developing field of “neurolaw” — a field in which mind scientists work alongside philosophers as well as legal academics and professionals to address a range of pressing social problems. It is designed to be equally accessible to graduate students of philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, law, and criminology since no prior knowledge of law, psychology or neuroscience is required. It is suitable for psychology and neuroscience students wishing to explore future career options as expert legal witnesses, for law students wishing to stay ahead of the game by understanding the opportunities and challenges they are likely to encounter in the courtroom, and to these as well as philosophy students wishing to interrogate the central ideas that shape this new and exciting field.

The Course Syllabus contains further information.