Neurocriminology: Ethical and Moral dimensions

By Madii Hussain

The emerging field of neurocriminology is packaged with the generation of important moral and ethical questions. The advancements in brain technology, to predetermine individuals that may resort to criminal behaviour, opens exciting new frontiers in our understanding in this field.

Beyond the conventional boundaries of neurocriminology, the field expands to raise the ethical dimensions created by these advances and applications. Hence, the emergence of the field of neuroethics. Neuroethics attempts to tackle the moral and ethical dimensions of the use of neuroscience. Furthermore, it stimulates reflection on the applications and implications of our research and trials in neurocriminology. As a researcher, we are confronted with important ethical questions, because these advances involve the powerhouse of our anatomy. Right now, there is so much more to discover about this biological component. In this blog, I will address some common misconceptions and ethical dilemmas that arise when considering the use of neurocriminology to predetermine criminal behaviour.

1. The advancements in neurocriminology could threaten human freedom.

Any crime prevention strategy which seeks to identify or engage in the pre-determination of criminal behaviour, before the actual act, is undoubtedly central to the investigation of ethical and moral responsibility.

The moral responsibility is linked to what extent is someone responsible for their actions, if it is partly driven by neurological deficits? Driven by lack of emotions? Driven by lack of moral or ethical judgements? We simply do not know. In essence, we are exploring the concept of free will. Is neurocriminology invading our privacy? Our freedom to do whatever we wish? which as such, raises multiple dilemmas of where is the boundary line between neuroscience and our free will?

2. Would we hold people in jail because they MIGHT commit a crime in the future?

No. Neurocriminology is not developed enough to play a significant role in the criminal justice system.

Predetermining someone as a potential criminal, is not something that is flagged up in the blink of an eye. With this information, we can offer rehabilitation, we can develop the field even further, we can increase our anatomical knowledge to be able to reduce crime in the future.

Biological predispositions are not the only factors in assessing an individual’s risk for criminal behaviour. The social and environmental factors are equally as important and intertwined into an individual’s profile. However, biological predispositions can influence certain ways in which individuals react to their surroundings. These biological predispositions can arise from a mixture of social, environmental and genetic factors. Unfortunately, some hereditary factors can become a precursor to criminal behaviour. In summary, predetermination of criminal behaviour is not based on one sole factor but the examination of multiple factors.

3. A lot of criminal behaviour is opportunistic, this cannot be predicted.

It is true that we cannot accurately predict crimes that are opportunistic; criminal behaviour that can take advantage of a moment; or that are fuelled by underlying stimulators like drugs or alcohol.

However, for an opportunistic crime, there has to be an intention to commit the crime. You cannot just commit an opportunistic crime without thinking about the consequences of your actions, the person you are targeting, how you will commit the crime? What weapon will you use? Therefore, a lot of criminal behaviour is pre-meditated. Premeditation is usually apparent in crimes like murder. These crimes are often products of misogynistic and patriarchal values. Even if criminal behaviour is opportunistic, this may be predicted, if it is repeatedly happening by the same offender. For example, serial offenders often have patterns (e.g. victim type, locations of crime, modus operandi), otherwise how would detectives and police be able to catch serial killers?

Identifying neurological risk factors for criminal behaviour does not imply that there are fixed structures in the brain which lead to the commission of a crime. A deficit in the brain does not predetermine criminal behaviour. Multiple deficiencies are interlinked in the making of such individuals. Also, it does not pinpoint that some individuals are destined to engage in criminal behaviour. As I said before, biological predispositions are not firmly rooted in science. Sometimes, we can have all the predispositions, but still turn out to be jovial, healthy, law-abiding individuals. Multiple factors play a role in the predetermination of criminal behaviour. Largely, it is a matter of choice. Ultimately, we have the power to decide whether or not to commit these unlawful acts.