New Project

Free will, responsibility and punishment


This project aims to explore the extent to which a three-way collaboration between philosophers, lawyers and neuroscientists can shed light on questions concerning free will, responsibility and punishment.

Recently there has been a huge amount of academic debate about, and public and legal practitioner interest in, the general question of how or whether neuroscientific discoveries should prompt us to reconsider the theoretical underpinnings of, or the actual practice of, the legal system. Developments in neuroscience increasingly uncover the underlying causal mechanisms in the brain that generate our behaviour, thus raising the question whether it is ‘us’ or instead our brains that are really responsible for what we do. This raises questions both about whether we act freely – something that is central to both the moral and legal notions of responsibility – and about whether the purpose of punishment for criminal acts should be conceived as a matter of retribution or rehabilitation.

However, the academic debate has largely been focussed on specifically philosophical issues (involving neuroscientists and philosophers) or specifically legal issues (involving neuroscientists and lawyers). Philosophy can bring conceptual clarity and a significant body of relevant philosophical discussion to the debate about law and neuroscience; while the law, in turn, brings a practical dimension to philosophical debates about free will, moral responsibility and punishment. This project therefore aims to look at these issues by bringing together philosophers, neuroscientists and lawyers.

The project, running from April to August 2012, is based at the Institute of Philosophy and is funded by an AHRC ‘Exploratory Awards’ grant as part of the ‘Science in Culture’ theme. Participants include Prof Helen BeebeeAssociate Director of the Institute of Philosophy; a postdoctoral researcher, Dr Marion Godman, and Dr Thomas Nadelhoffer.

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