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PERSPECTIVES IN BIOLOGY AND MEDICINE Volume V · Number ? · Spring 1962 EDITORIAL: WHAT ARE THE BIOLOGICAL BASES OF RESPONSIBILITY? On the ward ofan institution for the feeble-minded lies a boy with a small body and an enormous head filled with fluid whichhas compressed the braininto athinsheet. Nearby is an ambulatory young adult with a tiny head. In a nursing home an old man lies in restraint; he has lived a useful, exemplary life, but, now a victim ofa senile psychosis, he tries to kill. Almost all decisions are made for each person, but though they may protest feebly, nobody speaks for them or claims diat their rights as citizens are violated. Some who are feeble-minded or mentally ill have identifiable structural or biochemical defects ofthe brain which explain their behavior. But as far as the majority ofbrains ofthefeebleminded and the insane are concerned, there is no direct means of showing the ways in whichthey differ from thenormal. Society accepts the idea ofincompetenceand irresponsibility for the very young and for those designated as senile, feeble-minded, or insane. When is an individual responsible for his acts? Not all individuals who are medically insane arejudged incompetent by the courts. Sometimes individuals are freed ofresponsibility by the courts on the basis of false claims of insanity. Among the voters brought to the polls by the political machines ofour great cities are individuals with feeble minds and others with psychoses who have never been judged incompetent by the courts. In other parts ofthe country local courts may uphold devious means ofdepriving individuals oftheir legal rights solely because they are Negro. Most ofus think that we understand these levels ofcompetence and responsibility and the ways in which relevantjudgments ofthe law and society can go awry. But there are deeper questions which embrace all ofhuman conduct. Can biology bring new insights into ethics? I ask the question without implying that an adequate system of ethics could be developed solely out ofknowledge ofbiology. Treatment ofthe criminal is gradually evolving away from the idea that society must achieve revenge toward the objective ofre-educating the criminal and preventing crime. Most rules ofsociety require that the criminal be held accountable for his acts. However, it can be argued that he is not responsible for his crime; society is responsible, for it did not provide a favorable environment. Theimplication is that society, but not the criminal, is endowed with freedom to choose between right and wrong and could have behaved differently ifit were not perverse and an ass. But, how does society, which is made up of 267 individuals, achieve a freedom ofchoice which is assumed to be lacking in the criminal? Moreover, how does the individual protagonist ofthis philosophy achieve freedom of choice and a special knowledge of truth? The ideathat the criminal is irresponsible is old buthas recently gained favor among social scientists and in some courts, and is sometimesused as an excuse to free thecriminalwithoutprotecting society from the risk of additional crimes. Ifthe criminalact is the product ofseed and soil, are there any citizens who are free and responsible? We assume freedom for ourselves and our fellows except when talking about these special problems. There is a partial resolution of this dilemma which is at least twenty-five hundred years old: the Indian concept "Athman-Brahman" (the personal self equals the omnipresent, allcomprehending external self). Man is the embodiment of innate drives and past experiences —all ofthe internal and external past and present causes. Man is not an unchanging black box in which the output is determined solely by input. He is not a bit offlotsam, but a changing, learning organism with a memory for scanning great stores ofinformation . Man makes the choice, but is it a free or a determined choice? Ifman is the embodiment of bad environment, it may be held that he too is bad. This differs from the idea ofsome religions that man is born tainted by original sin, and it differs from some current concepts ofthe everlasting dignity ofman. There have been abortive attempts to build a body of information on the biology of ethics. I suspect that an appeal for further attempts will bring a retort from philosophers that it...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 267-268
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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