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What does recent neuroscience tell us about criminal responsibility?

Maoz, Uri and Yaffe, Gideon (2015) What does recent neuroscience tell us about criminal responsibility? Journal of Law and the Biosciences, 3 (1). pp. 120-139. ISSN 2053-9711. PMCID PMC5033437.

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A defendant is criminally responsible for his action only if he is shown to have engaged in a guilty act—actus reus (eg for larceny, voluntarily taking someone else's property without permission)—while possessing a guilty mind—mens rea (eg knowing that he had taken someone else's property without permission, intending not to return it)—and lacking affirmative defenses (eg the insanity defense or self-defense). We therefore first review neuroscientific studies that bear on the nature of voluntary action, and so could, potentially, tell us something of importance about the actus reus of crimes. Then we look at studies of intention, perception of risk, and other mental states that matter to the mens rea of crimes. And, last, we discuss studies of self-control, which might be relevant to some formulations of the insanity defense. As we show, to date, very little is known about the brain that is of significance for understanding criminal responsibility. But there is no reason to think that neuroscience cannot provide evidence that will challenge our understanding of criminal responsibility.

Item Type:Article
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URLURL TypeDescription CentralArticle
Maoz, Uri0000-0002-7899-1241
Additional Information:Copyright © The Author 2015. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Duke University School of Law, Harvard Law School, Oxford University Press, and Stanford Law School. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs licence (, which permits non-commercial reproduction and distribution of the work, in any medium, provided the original work is not altered or transformed in any way, and that the work is properly cited. First published online: December 30, 2015. This work was funded by the Ralph Schlaeger Charitable Foundation and Bial Foundation for UM, Templeton funded ‘Big Questions in Free Will Initiative’ at Florida State University for UM and GY and the Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship for GY. In addition, preparation of this article was supported, in part, by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to Vanderbilt University. Its contents reflect the views of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the official views of either the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation or the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience ( A shorter and less detailed version of this manuscript was previously published as the ‘Cognitive Neuroscience and Criminal Responsibility’ chapter in Gazzaniga et al., ‘Cognitive Neuroscience’.
Funding AgencyGrant Number
Ralph Schlaeger Charitable FoundationUNSPECIFIED
Bial FoundationUNSPECIFIED
Templeton FoundationUNSPECIFIED
Andrew W. Mellon FoundationUNSPECIFIED
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur FoundationUNSPECIFIED
Subject Keywords:Intention and perception of risk; neuroscience and criminal responsibility; neuroscience and law; self-control; voluntary action
Issue or Number:1
PubMed Central ID:PMC5033437
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20161031-095737018
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Official Citation:Uri Maoz and Gideon Yaffe What does recent neuroscience tell us about criminal responsibility? J Law Biosci (April 2016) 3 (1): 120-139 first published online December 30, 2015 doi:10.1093/jlb/lsv051
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:71615
Deposited By: Tony Diaz
Deposited On:31 Oct 2016 17:11
Last Modified:05 Mar 2020 17:38

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