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    09.19.17 Ethics Roundtable Questions Assumptions About Free Will and Criminal Law
    Ethics Roundtable

    Can society hold people morally responsible for crimes if their choices were determined by forces in the universe predating their birth? This was the philosophical question explored by Professor Adam Kolber at an Ethics Roundtable on Sept. 12, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Law, Language & Cognition.

    In his presentation, “Free Will as a Matter of Criminal Law,” Kolber suggested that scientific evidence is affecting how people view human behavior and, consequently, current law may change.

    Illustrating his point, Kolber juxtaposed differing views on the issue: a “compatibilist” view, in which people recognize that environment can impact behavior as much as personal character; and a more traditional, soul-based “libertarian” view, in which people make choices of their own free will and should be punished for their bad decisions. The former is gaining steam due to scientific research, while the latter was likely the original intent of law creators, Kolber said.

    “Because the criminal law was and continues to be crafted by soul-based libertarians, it is plausible they never intended to punish people that make decisions in the mechanistic manner that scientists now take to characterize human choice,” said Kolber.

    Kolber, who writes and teaches in the areas of criminal law, health law, bioethics and neurolaw, is a leading expert in the relationship between brain science and the law. He created the Neuroethics & Law Blog and taught the first law school course devoted to issues in this area.

    The event was moderated by Professor Lawrence Solan, director of the Center for the Study of Law, Language and Cognition. The Center is devoted to exploring how developments in the cognitive sciences – including psychology, neuroscience and linguistics – have dramatic implications for the law at both theoretical and practical levels.

    “There are very controversial issues as we learn more about the brain,” said Solan. “It should affect our attitudes with how criminal justice should be dispensed.”

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