Walter Sinnott-Armstrong examines the defense “my brain made me do it”

Sinnott-ArmstrongWriting for The Conversation, KIE faculty Walter Sinnott-Armstrong explains that while our brain does, indeed, control our functions, there are times when one must take responsibility for ones choices and other times when moral thinking and behavior may be modified by problems with the brain, such as disease or injury.

Despite some rhetoric, almost nobody really believes that the fact that your brain made you do it is by itself enough to excuse you from moral responsibility. On the other side, almost everybody agrees that some brain states, such as seizures, do remove moral responsibility. The real issues lie in the middle.

What about mental illnesses? Addictions? Compulsions? Brainwashing? Hypnosis? Tumors? Coercion? Alien hand syndrome? Multiple personality disorder? These cases are all tricky, so philosophers disagree about which people in these conditions are responsible — and why. Nonetheless, these difficult cases do not show that there is no difference between seizures and normal desires, just as twilight does not show that there is no difference between night and day. It is hard to draw a line, but that does not mean that there is no line.