Neuroethics Publications

Document Type

Book Chapter

Date of this Version


Publication Source

Oxford University Press




In this chapter, we explore the potential influence that advances in neuroscience may have on legal decision makers and present the findings from some recent studies that probe folk intuitions concerning the relationships among neuroscience, agency, responsibility, and mental illness. We first familiarize the reader with some of the early research in experimental philosophy on people's intuitions about agency and responsibility. Then, we focus on a more specific issue—namely, whether people respond to explanations of human behavior framed in neuroscientific terms differently than they respond to explanations framed in more traditional folk psychological terms. Next, we discuss some new findings which suggest that explanations of criminal behavior that are couched in neural terms appear to make people less punitive than explanations couched in mental terms, especially in the context of mental illness. Finally, we offer what we take to be the best explanation of these differences in people's intuitions—namely, when people are presented with neural explanations of human behavior, they tend to think that the agent's “deep self” (the values and beliefs the agent identifies with) is somehow left out of the causal loop or bypassed, which in turn mitigates the agent's responsibility.

Copyright/Permission Statement

This material was originally published in The Future of Punishment edited by Thomas A. Nadelhoffer, and has been reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press For permission to reuse this material, please visit


punishment, retributivism, philosophy, neuroscience, free will



Date Posted: 14 July 2016

This document has been peer reviewed.