Monday, September 12, 2005

Diminished responsibility: the next cultural battleground

My wife and I were chatting about the genetics of cognition when conversation turned to one of the great emotional touchstones of the conservative momement -- "individual responsibility"

My wife tells me of a conversation she had with a neuroscientist who studies brain maturation in adolescents. After the neuroscientist explained about the extraordinary transformations and faults of the adolescent brain, my wife remarked on the obvious connection to diminished responsiblity. The scholar was appalled "but they are still responsible for their actions ...". My wife, who is far nicer than I, changed the subject.

Like much conservative language "individual responsibility" is best understood as a denial rather than an affirmation, in particular it is a denial of the concept of 'diminished responsibility'. Republicans hate the idea that age, brain maturation, retardation, or other disorders of cognition should in any way mitigate punishment. This is why, for example, they are keen to execute children (ok, teenagers). If one treats children differently from adults, then why not hold retarded adults to a different standard than average adults? The age exemption is a big step down a slippery slope to the terror of relativism.

But what are the roots of this terror? I'm not sure. There is, however, a theological component. If humans can see that a person's responsibility may be diminished in proportion to their consciousness, then could a deity do no less? Who then, would ever go to Hell? Either no-one goes, or as CS Lewis suggested -- God judges each person on the basis of what they did with what they were given. If that were so, many New Orleans looters could bask in paradise, and many born-again Republicans whither in damnation.

Scary thought indeed.

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