Brains to blame
New techniques and developments in brain imaging can raise tricky ethical questions
Brain injuries often affect a person’s behaviour and personality, causing them to do things that they may not otherwise do. One example is the US schoolteacher who began visiting prostitutes and collecting child pornography, then molested his 12-year-old stepdaughter. The man was eventually charged and remanded in custody.
He then started complaining of severe headaches, which got so bad that he was taken to hospital. A brain scan showed that he had a large tumour in his frontal lobe. Doctors removed the tumour and his inappropriate sexual behaviour stopped. But about a year later, the tumour grew back, and the behaviour returned.
Drug treatments can also cause profound changes in behaviour. The drug L-dopa, for instance, which is given to patients with Parkinson’s disease, can sometimes lead to compulsive gambling or impulsive sexual behaviour.
Questions for discussion
- Are people responsible for their actions in cases like this?
- Should they be punished in the same way as others, or should their brain damage or drug treatment be taken into account?
- And is there an ethical problem with prescribing a drug when it is known to have side-effects, like L-dopa?
- According to research published last year, judges are more lenient towards violent criminals who are known to be genetically predisposed towards violence. Do you think this is right?
Wellcome Collection CC BY
- The double-edged sword: does biomechanism increase or decrease judges’ sentencing of psychopaths? (2012)