I am happy to announce that MIT Press has agreed to publish The Responsible Brain, a book I have been writing with my Elmhurst College colleagues William Hirstein and Tyler Fagan. Our research for the book was supported by a Philosophy and Science of Self Control sub-grant as a part of a Templeton Foundation funded project headed by Al Mele at Florida State University. We are very thankful to Al and the Templeton Foundation for their support.


Here is a brief description of the book:

When we praise, blame, reward, or punish a person for something she has done, it is usually because we think that person is responsible for what she has done—that she is, in some significant sense, the author of her actions and deserves to be held accountable for their effects. Making these assignments of responsibility is utterly central to human life, yet how to justify those assignments remains an open question.

Common sense tells us that what makes human beings responsible has something to do with their minds, and with the relations between their minds and their actions. If a person’s mind is damaged or still developing, or if her actions are fundamentally uncoupled from her mental processes, we may judge her less responsible for what she does, or perhaps excuse her from responsibility altogether. Indeed, the idea of the “guilty mind”—mens rea—lies at the core of the criminal law, a stable and codified system of practices about whom to hold responsible for what, and how, and why. Modern neuropsychology, in turn, tells us that the mind is generated by brain structures and their functions, suggesting that, if our goal is to understand the conditions of human responsibility, then seeking out relevant facts about the mind will involve seeking out relevant facts about the brain.

In an attempt to answer the question of where the mechanisms of responsibility reside in the human brain, we construct a comprehensive hypothesis about human responsibility couched in the language of neuroscience. We argue in this book that the folk conceptions underpinning the structure of criminal offenses and verdicts implicitly refer to a particular set of cognitive functions. We think that the capacities most relevant to responsibility reside primarily in the prefrontal lobes of the brain, and are understood by cognitive science as executive functions (Fagan, Hirstein, & Sifferd, 2016; Hirstein & Sifferd, 2011, 2014; Sifferd & Hirstein, 2013). Examination of folk conceptions of the paradigmatic case of responsibility, legal responsibility, as well as analysis of cases “from the margins” of excuse, as Shoemaker (2015) labels them, indicate to us that legal responsibility is contingent upon a person having the capacity for some baseline level of executive function – both at the time a crime is committed, and for some significant period of time before the crime. Thus we hope to convince readers that the law assumes that citizens possess some baseline executive capacity, and that cases of legal responsibility are cases in which an offender either exercised executive functions with regard to the criminal act or could have done so, in a robust counterfactual sense (unless some justification applies). We argue, further, that cases of legal excuse tend to be cases where an offender had severely compromised executive functions, either chronically, as in the case of brain damage specifically affecting the executive processes, or acutely, as in the case of extreme intoxication or crimes of passion, both of which involve executive malfunction.

We believe folk concepts implicitly identify executive functions, partly because these functions are what allow us to be agents with reasons, plans, and values who can act in accordance with such reasons, plan, and values in a complex world. Executive functions, including planning, working memory, attention,  inhibition, and task switching, can ground or enable what contemporary responsibility theorists term a “reasons” account of the capacities necessary for moral responsibility (Fischer & Ravizza, 1998; Vargas, 2013) including both sensitivity to reasons and the volitional control to act in accordance with those reasons. Thus, executive functions allow agents to recognize moral norms and the law as a reason for action (or inaction), and to exercise the self-control to abide by such norms and laws.

The scientific understanding of executive functions is still a developing field of study, but there is an impressive amount of work done isolating and testing such functions. Exploration of the way in which these functions give rise to responsible agency can help illuminate the folk understanding of responsible action. Further, we hypothesize that once we understand that responsible agency rests on executive functions, we can use a scientific view of executive functions to re-analyze some difficult cases in the criminal law where it seems there may be discrepancies in the folk concepts. Folk concepts relating to offender’s psychology are fairly coarse-grained by necessity: folk hypotheses regarding mental capacities are categorical and driven by observation of outward behavior. Understanding these capacities in terms of executive function may allow us to offer solutions in cases where the folk concepts have been too coarse to treat like cases alike (or different cases differently). We think agents such as juveniles, schizophrenics, and psychopaths are good examples of cases the folk have difficulty categorizing with regard to responsibility. We believe that our approach can inform the folk concepts of responsibility relevant in these cases, and thus clear up some of the confusion surrounding these types of offenders.

We will also address recent debates within responsibility theory regarding the role certain brain processes play in self-controlled behavior. One issue that has been central to such debates is the function of consciousness in human behavior. Some—in particular neuroethicist Neil Levy in his recent book Consciousness and Moral Responsibility—have claimed that, for an agent to be responsible for some act, the act in question must be appropriately connected to conscious states of the agent (Levy, 2014). We will argue that this is a mistake, and that it is instead an act’s connection to a normally-functioning set of executive processes that is necessary for responsibility. We suspect that so-called consciousness theorists are mistaken about the role consciousness plays in culpable behavior because of the normally close functional connections between consciousness and the executive processes.


We expect the book to be finished fall of 2017.


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