Directors: Antonio M. Battro, Kurt W. Fischer and Fernando Vidal
Program officer: María Lourdes Majdalani
Personhood, immorality, and the history of brain science
Presently, several neuroscientists advocate a reconceptualization of immoral persons. The description of reprehensible behavior as brain dysfunction, the surfacing of brain imaging evidence in the courtroom, and the called-for redefinition of legal concepts according to neuroscientific insights spur an ongoing debate on notions and practices regarding immoral persons. This particular discourse is much older than modern neuroscientists generally acknowledge. Since the 19th century, brain scientists developed brain-based descriptions of immoral persons and postulated an overhaul of the respective legal systems in the light of their science. This had consequences for understanding personhood in general. With the aid of several historical cases, I will analyze brain scientists’ understandings of the immoral person. The focus will be on the scientists’ rationalization, justification, and proclaimed superiority of their views. Though the associated arguments were embedded in specific historical contexts, the underlying rationale still features in current calls for changing the discourse on immoral persons. Against this backdrop, I will argue for the relevance of historical knowledge in understanding bodies, brains, and personal identities.