Our post-moral future?
Abstract: Murray responds to champions of a new brain reading technology who claim that it will combat future crimes before they happen. Murray argues that the concept of crime prevents us from identifying one proactively, and suggests an array of other problems with the scientists' assumptions and methodology. She places the scientists' announcement within the context of what she claims is a wider movement towards revising the laws of nature to cohere with new technological manipulations of the natural world. Over-emphasizing biological and genetic influences on human behaviour implies a deterministic model of human nature that paves the way for conservative changes to society, especially forms of technological social control. Promoting the deterministic model re-locates social evils in the individual or within human nature itself, while distracting attention from social and institutional inequities.

Sartre's critique of the ways in which humans attempt to obscure the extent of their freedom makes existentialism as relevant as ever. Moreover, the anguished wont to unburden ourselves of the dreaded responsibility that freedom implies makes us ever more susceptible to those who furnish excuses for bad behaviour and attribute it to natural causes. Murray concludes that the deterministic model of human nature implied by champions of "pre-cog" crime prevention is antithetical to the very meaning of "crime" as we know it. Crime and punishment depend upon free human agency, a cornerstone of liberal democracy. By re-defining criminal acts as involuntary and inevitable, proponents of the new technology merely fabricate a dubious demand for the product they hope to supply.


John Dylan-Haynes, brain-reading technology/mind-reading technology, 'Minority Report', civil liberties, Jeremy Rifkin, sociobiology, determinism/deterministic, behaviourism/behaviourists, forensic science, Jean Paul Sartre, existentialism, genetic manipulation.
Article Type: Essay
Subject: Telepathy (Analysis)
Crime prevention (Technology application)
Determinism (Philosophy) (Analysis)
Free will and determinism (Analysis)
Forensic sciences
Author: Murray, Terri
Pub Date: 01/01/2010
Publication: Name: Existential Analysis Publisher: Society for Existential Analysis Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Society for Existential Analysis ISSN: 1752-5616
Issue: Date: Jan, 2010 Source Volume: 21 Source Issue: 1
Topic: Computer Subject: Technology application
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United Kingdom Geographic Code: 4EUUK United Kingdom
Accession Number: 288874132
Full Text: On the 9th of February, 2007 the cover story in the broadsheets announced that scientists have developed a new type of brain scan to read people's intentions before they act on them. A research team led by John-Dylan Haynes at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences reported success at reading human intentions by identifying patterns of brain activity, revealing what the subject planned to do in the near future. The researchers called for an urgent debate into the ethical issues surrounding future uses of the brain-reading technology. Some of the suggested uses included: assisting interrogations of criminals and terrorists, handing down judgements before the law is broken on the strength of an incriminating brain scan, judging whether people are likely to commit crimes, preventing crimes that might not happen (ushering in a science-fiction scenario resembling the film 'Minority Report'), assessing criminals before they are released, and (most alarmingly) permitting innocent people the possibility of proving their innocence. With these in mind, let us consider some of the thorny ethical issues and assumptions that accompany this mind-reading technology.

There are a number of problems with the above-mentioned suggestions. The first is that many of the stated uses presume that an intended act is a 'crime' despite the absence of a perpetrator and a victim. The researchers pretend to merely use the word 'crime' in its current forensic sense, but in the context they describe, they are in fact re-defining it's meaning quite radically. In its ordinary sense, a 'crime' is meaningless unless it is done, and is a crime precisely because it is done. If we are prepared to punish people for what they merely intend to do, are we also prepared to reward people for good intentions before a virtuous deed is done? 'Crime,' as presently defined, depends upon the concept of (1) moral agency (i.e. a free, adult, rational human being, capable of understanding right from wrong) and (2) moral patients (morally significant beings who are unjustly harmed by the intentional acts of a moral agent). The definition of a criminal is always retrospective, not prospective, because the very freedom that allows a criminal to have an 'intention' at all (assuming that freedom entails choice) is what makes him blameworthy when he decides to commit an immoral act. Until he acts, it is assumed that he continues to have the freedom to choose differently. To think otherwise would be tantamount to thinking that he was a kind of automaton, unable to act differently. Intuitively most of us would reject the notion that one could be held morally accountable for doing something he could not have avoided doing.

All of us from time to time think of doing bad things. What allows us to feel virtuous, as opposed to the vicious people who commit crimes, is that we choose not to act upon these thoughts. Some scientific models of human behaviour assume that the ability to read an agent's intention determines the corresponding behaviour, since there is a high degree of correlation between the two. What is missing is conclusive proof that the brain activity causes the behaviour that follows. This could not be proved even if the scientists were able to achieve 100% accuracy in predicting a person's behaviour by reading the brain scan patterns that precede it. As David Hume showed, correlation is not cause.

But even if we allow that correlation is good enough for practical purposes because it generally works in helping us to make accurate predictions, the researchers only mention that they can read whether it is likely that a person will commit a crime. Even in the most simple controlled lab experiments, researchers were only able to achieve 70% accuracy in spotting the subtle differences in brain activity to predict a person's behaviour. It follows from the fact that someone might commit a crime that they also might not. That someone will probably commit a crime is not adequate grounds for punishing them or taking way their civil liberties. (Absolute certainty applies even retrospectively in capital cases, where jurors must be unanimously convinced 'beyond all reasonable doubt' in order to hand in a guilty verdict.)

The lab experiments mentioned in the broadsheets involved giving subjects a 'closed' set of options: add two numbers or subtract two numbers. The subject's choice was limited to option A or option B. In real life our choices may be infinite. Quite often our options are open rather than closed. For example, my option is not just whether to take an umbrella when I go out or not to take an umbrella. I may simply choose to stay indoors. The conditions described in the experiments may not resemble the way routine human decision-making actually works. We can't assume that the field of options is as narrow in life as it is in the lab.

Moreover, the laboratory conditions under which the subjects were tested were intended only to measure their immediate decision-making. Presumably the choices before the subject were mainly determined by the fact that he was there, in the lab, taking part in the research in the first place. This would have been due to a past decision to co-operate in the research, etc. If the technology only works for measuring a subject's immediate intentions then there is no means by which to leap from the immediate choices available to him/her under lab-controlled conditions to a future set of intentions that involve freedom and an 'open' set of options. This would appear problematic for the purpose of assessing criminals' intentions before they are released.

We have no reason to assume that human intention is static rather than dynamic. While some of my long-term plans and goals are realized, others are changed, altered or dropped altogether. The same seems true for my short-term intentions. As I sit here writing this I may decide to stop and have a cup of tea, or take a walk. Or I might become engaged by a new thought and just carry on writing. I may also respond to new stimuli, not immediately predictable, such as a phone call.

Professor Haynes, who led the research team, made the most disturbing claim. While Haynes recognizes the potential dangers in making this type of brain-scan mandatory, he also warns,

Haynes assumes that 'people who aren't going to commit any crimes' have the burden of proving their innocence. This is big news, and more worthy of front page headlines than new brain scan technology. In our current legal system, the state has the burden of proving a citizen's guilt, otherwise we are presumed innocent. Haynes' language suggests that citizens having to prove our innocence (and presuming our guilt) is an 'opportunity' or even a claim right, rather than a radical new obligation--one that would effectively strip citizens of all legal protections against state incursions on our privacy and liberty.

As biology and technology continue to fuse towards a single economic force, the ruling elites in charge of this biotech era are already fashioning the legitimating discourse to accompany it, making the proposed socioeconomic reorganization appear only 'natural' or inevitable. American economist and social critic of unregulated genetic engineering Jeremy Rifkin argues that rationalizations of our new technological and economic activity are couched in terms of a revised cosmological narrative in which the laws of nature are "being rewritten to conform with our latest manipulation of the natural world." (2) Rifkin notes that sociobiology provides the new mediating discourse in the Genetic Era.

The significance of sociobiology is that it privileges nature over nurture in the perennial debate over whether human behaviour is influenced more by biological inheritance or environment. Studies purporting to find the genetic basis for an ever-wider scope of behaviours--timidity, intuitiveness, aggression, alcoholism, anti-social behaviour, unfaithfulness--have proliferated in the scientific literature of the past decade. Central to this new narrative is the transition from a modern, agent-centred concept of crime to a deterministic, behaviourist model of the 'criminal type.' This discursive shift in forensic science is politically conservative both in its assumptions and its objectives.

From the end of World War II until the eighties, nurture over nature was the politically orthodox position. The liberal model of man that dominated that forty-year period pictured human nature as essentially mutable, or free, but also acknowledged that outside influences can impact on the individual in various ways. This model reinforced both individuality and social responsibility. But today's sociobiologists are increasingly convinced that social evils lie not with inequities in human institutions, but within the essence of humanity itself. If we are genetically fated to bad behaviour, our salvation must lie not with curing social injustice, but with curing human nature (while allowing rich investors in biomedical corporations to prosper). Dr. Ruth Hubbard of Harvard University forewarned in 1993 that the incipient shift from nurture to nature was part of a conservative backlash against the gains of the civil rights and women's movements. The nurture model had shown that the inferior social status of women and African Americans was wrought by institutionalised racism and sexism, not by 'natural' inferiority or 'innate differences'. Human beings were seen as responsible (individually or collectively) for what they are and for the social situations and circumstances in which they find themselves. By contrast, the naturalistic explanations picture human beings and societies as destined to be as they are, because of forces beyond human control.

It was no accident that the model of human nature that privileged nurture over nature was in vogue in the post-war period. The extent of Nazi atrocities was being revealed to a horrified world. Around the globe people were questioning how a holocaust of such monstrous scale could have been permitted to happen. In turbulent France suspected collaborators were being identified and tried. It was in this depressing and chaotic atmosphere that Jean Paul Sartre, on 29 October, 1945, gave his lecture 'Existentialism is a Humanism' at the Club Maintenant in Paris. Sartre emphatically argued that humans are responsible for themselves, for what they do and what they become, and so are responsible for humanity and the future of humanity itself. Sartre was adamant to defend existentialism against those who misrepresented it as a passive, contemplative philosophy that led to resignation and acceptance of the status quo. To the contrary, argued Sartre, existentialism was preaching a stern optimism in which people must accept responsibility for what they have become. Sartre contrasted existentialism to the writer Emile Zola, for whom, "the behaviour of [his] characters was caused by their heredity, or by the action of their environment upon them, or by determining factors, psychic or organic." Sartre claimed that most people would be greatly relieved if these excuses were accepted as explanations for their behaviour. They would say, "You see, that is what we are like, no one can do anything about it."3 On the other hand the existentialist portrays cowards as responsible for their cowardice. Sartre says, "he has not become like that through his physiological organism, he is like that because he made himself into cowardly actions. Many of Sartre's central examples and metaphors are drawn from the experiences of people in war. Because of the extremity of the circumstances, it is in wars that people are most likely to blame their environment rather than take responsibility for their choices, yet Sartre wanted to proclaim that we are free even in these most difficult circumstances. Even inaction is a choice.

Sartre's post-war Paris seems light years away from today's sociobiology. Today we are likely to see individuals who commit crimes not as responsible moral agents, but as diseased 'patients' in need of brain-altering drugs, therapies or genetic manipulation. Their 'badness' is not a consequence of their free choices, but a pre-existing condition that causes their (apparently) 'free' choices. In this brave new world, science not only furnishes the explanations for why some people are 'bad'; it also has all of the remedies.

The brain scan technology takes for granted the deterministic paradigm of socio-biology. The implication is that once a subject's brain has been 'read' he no longer has any choice in how he will behave. While the new paradigm of human nature may make millionaires of scientists and corporate investors in new forensic 'tools,' citizens should be wary when allegedly progressive 'advances' in law enforcement techniques are bought at the cost of fundamental liberties, and the entire worldview that underpins them.


(1) The Guardian, 9 Februray, 2007, pg. 1.

(2) Rifkin, Jeremy, The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World, New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1998, p. 207.

(3) Sartre, J.-P. Existentialism and humanism. Lecture given in 1946. In Kaufman, W. (ed) Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre. Trans. Mairet, P. Meridian Publishing Company, 1989; World Publishing Company in 1956.

Terri Murray is an American born scholar who has taught Philosophy in London since 2000. She holds a Master of Theology degree and a BA in philosophy and theology. She is currently pursuing a research PhD in theology and bioethics at Westminster Institute of Education, Oxford Brookes University.
... that if we prohibit it, we are also denying people who aren't
   going to commit any crime the possibility of proving their
   innocence. (1)
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