“My brain made me do it”: Is moral responsibility compatible with the latest research in neuroscience and cognitive science?

The topic of whether moral responsibility is compatible with the latest cognitive science and neuroscience is in essence a question of free will. Moral responsibility is defined as the status of deserving praise or blame for ones actions. The premise of moral agents being responsible for their actions and thus held accountable in the judicial system, is underpinned by the assumption that we are autonomous beings capable of deciding our next action at every stage of our lives. It is interesting to note that, this is not entirely true, given that an old age person suffering dementia may not be held accountable in the same way as you or I. This also applies to younger people who are suffering various mental afflictions and quite famously just last year in the news. The son of the late Adelaide Football Club coach, Cy Walsh has attempted to plead insanity. His defence has been built around the notion that he was not freely controlling his actions and that it was his brain that made him stab his father in the chest in the early hours of that July morning. Can we really hold this man accountable for his actions if he is mentally insane? If not, then why should we hold anyone accountable for their actions, it may turn out that a mental disorder or brain tumour is just a special case of having ones brain wired incorrectly. We certainly have no responsibility for the wiring of our brains, or for that matter the genes that coded for our brains to be the way that they are or even the set of experiences that have shaped our personalities. This is the basis for the investigation of the whether we have free will. Suppose that it was to be discovered that Walsh, did in fact have mental problems, the wiring in his brain was not that of a normal person. Suppose that we were also to hear of his troubled upbringing. Does this begin to change our view of Walsh’s responsibility for his actions? I would think that for most of us, probably not. However it may subtly change the way we think about responsibility.

Cognitive Science

If the judicial system is to allow murderers such as the one mentioned above, a free pass on the basis that they are not morally responsible for their actions, then surely this will open up the flood gates. More and more convicted felons will claim that it is the unfortunate combination of genetics and experience that lead to their actions. This claim must be dealt with in a rigorous manner, and if it does turn out to be a valid one, where do we go from there?

From the beginning, the notion of free will typically entails that one may freely choose what they want. They can act on their desires and beliefs and are completely free to change their mind on any issue. Not in the completely common sense that a person is free to vote for whichever party they want and not even in the sense that I am free to write this essay on whichever topic I like. No, the traditional arguments in favour of free will go further and suggest firstly that one actively and consciously decides upon every aspect of one’s life, from getting up, to sitting down, to getting a glass of water and so on. Second, the argument would allow for someone to, if given the chance, make a different decision to that which one had already made.

We will address the actively deciding argument first. Now for this to be true, one would need to actively and consciously weigh up options, any competing possibilities before choosing to act. Say I decide to get up, which foot do I put down first ? And in what precise location to I place it ? Who knows, I have no idea why it was my left foot and why it was placed in the way it was, I ‘chose’ to do these things quite subconsciously. The actions were entirely the result of the way in which my brain is and because of my learned experiences. Am I truly responsible for having moved my left foot first and placing it in that exact location ? Of course not, and on any other given day, I may do it quite differently, I am in no position to know why. For a person to actively decide upon such things would require an unconscionable amount of decision weighing, based upon all consequences and previously held beliefs about the way the world is. We just don’t do all that, instead we are far more close to being on autopilot than we realise. If we can’t even justify why we did this particular action? In what way is it our ‘choice’?

The same can be said for our thoughts. Do we actively author our own thoughts? If so, then why do we get stuck on thoughts of misery or anger. We could just choose not to think them. Depression would be cured in an instant if we were able to control our thoughts. Addictions like smoking and alcoholism would be a piece of cake. The smoker could just choose not to crave a cigarette, in fact he could have chosen to never be tempted in the first place. If we wanted to achieve all of our goals, whether they be mental, physical or academic, then we would just achieve them. Nothing could stand in the way. But the reality is that we are trapped within our brains, they deliver our conscious experience of the world to us and instil in us the sensation of I. The sensation that we are the pilot, not merely a passenger along for the ride.

Compatibailists such as Dennett claim that a loss of belief in free will would lead to resignation and apathy, here, he is missing the point. To be resigned and apathetic is in itself a choice made by the brain. So the notion that one should just sit back and do nothing, merely waiting for something to happen is a deluded one. For this is a choice. A loss of free will need not resign people to just do whatever, but to continue along with life as normal. Allowing the brain free pass to think and decide upon things. And surely the best way to allow the internal processes of the brain to reach the best conclusion, is to have an honest understanding of how they work.

Another argument against the acceptance that free will is an illusion is to say that, supposing free will is an illusion, what’s the point of living? If we don’t have free will then isn’t everything determined and utterly predictable? Luckily there is a simple antidote to this, the brain is vastly complex. The possible patterns of neuronal firing is an unfathomably large number and combine this with all of the other brains that you interact with an are influenced by, there really is no predictability at all (Eagleman, 2015).

Intentions cause actions, but where do intentions come from. Do we intend to intend or do we just intend. To say that we have free will is to assert that we intend to intend, but then what makes us intend to intend to intend. This is a nonsense regression which could go on forever, but it is the responsibility of the argument in favour of free will to defend it. The importance of one doing what one intends remains the same; however we need not be under any illusion of where the intentions come from.

“In physical terms, we know that human action is brought about by impersonal events occurring inside the body” (Harris, 2012). We do not consciously control the transcriptions of our genes, neurotransmitters fire of their own volition, muscle fibres contract and an assassin pulls the trigger. If we are to retain our common view of free will, then these actions require us to posit the introduction of some other entity in control of these prior causes. This is what we call “I”, the sensation that we are the author of all of our thoughts and desires.



Benjamin Libet has used EEG to test the activity in the brain prior to an action being performed by a patient. The research found that the motor cortex lights up around 300 milliseconds before an action is performed (Libet, 1985). Here we have clear cut, empirical evidence that the brain decided upon actions prior to them being carried out.

The Compatibilist would step in here and say that this is congruent with free will. The action was caused by events in the motor cortex which is part of the persons brain. They accept this to be true, but will claim that the person authored the actions of their brain. This of course begs the question of what caused the actions in the brain to happen.

However surely the Compatibilist loses out when we look at the extension of this study where it was discovered that the intention to do something arises subconsciously as well. The extension was using fMRI to monitor activity in the brain regarding a decision between two alternative buttons. The researchers found information regarding the decision that participants would make 7-10 seconds before they became consciously aware of the decision. How can this decision truly be made by the participant if they are completely unaware of it. The decision is made by the brain as a result of prior background causes that the participant had no say over. The ‘decision’ then came to the participant 7-10 seconds later and the participant became aware of it (Haynes, 2011). They are under the illusion that they freely authored the thought even thought it was the result of causes that they had no control over. In what way is this free will?

Nahmias refutes the claims by Libet, saying that the actions in the brain detected prior to the patient moving, are simply a desire to move soon. In other words, there may be a mechanism designed to delay the movement from the onset of the activity in the motor cortex (Nahmias, 2012). However this rejection is strained when the later work done with fMRI shows that the decision was made prior to the patient becoming aware of it. And as Harris points out, even if this is the case and the neuron firings in the brain responsible for the decision occur in time with the feeling of making the decision, we still have no answer as to why the neurons fired in the first place. Surely we have no more control of the internal neuronal movements and patterns than we do over the beating of our heart.

“You can do what you decide to do—but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.” Harris 2012, points out that the issue is an infinite regress. Although it is true that we will in the end do what we decide to do, it is impossible to know where the decision to decide comes from. This does in essence remove the notion of moral responsibility in the sense that we hold people accountable for their actions. This however does not mean we shouldn’t lock up criminals, attempt to rehabilitate them and hope to deter other would be criminals from acting.


Is a person free to choose that which did not occur to them? If I asked you to think of a country, you would immediately have names start popping in. Australia, New Zealand, China, etc… But why was it these countries (or whichever one’s you thought of) that came into your mind, perhaps you had recently heard about one, maybe it was in the news. Is this controlled by you? No, these are events completely out of your control. Maybe you were weighing up between two countries and went with the preferred country; here we have the most heightened sensation of having free will. But why did you end up choosing the country that you picked. You are in no position to know this, maybe you can come up with a story, as suggested above from the news. Even this, why did you remember the story, why did it sway you to choose the country? Again, we find the regress. A person can’t choose to choose.


‘You are free to do as you please as long as you like what you do’. The Compatibilist rejection of arguments against free will in essence asserts that as long as the person is happy enough with the things that they are doing, then it must be of their own free will. This does not redeem any sense of free will, it rather just skirts around the issue.


“My brain made me do it”, has issues extending far into the law and order system and the ways in which justice is dealt .I propose a level playing field. Accept free will as an illusion and all people can be punished on the merits of their crimes. Either everyone has it, or no one has it. This is the fairest way forward. How can one man be deemed insane enough to not be responsible for his actions, where another man who is slightly less insane be made to face the consequences. Who decides upon such matters, and how do we know that we are getting consistency. The arguments presented here, lead me to think that a man like Cy Walsh has no more (or less) control over his actions than a person with a brain tumour affecting the decision making part of the brain or for that matter any other human being. The difference is that Walsh has the brain and personality of a violent murderer, can we blame him for this? No, and the corollary is that we can’t truly take credit for us not being like him. It turns out that we are in some sense, simply lucky to have been dealt the cards that we have. The combination of genes and experiences that make us good people, could very easily have been sufficiently different to make us psychopaths. Removing the blame from Walsh, allows us to see clearly the path of a just sentence. This man should not be excused of his actions, and neither should any other. All men should be treated equal in the courts and sentenced to the appropriate degree for the crimes which they have committed. Free will is an illusion and the concept of moral responsibility, as it is generally understood, is incompatible with the latest research in neuroscience and cognitive science.















Dennett, D. (1984). Elbow room. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Eagleman, D. (2015). The Brain: The story of you. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd.

Harris, S. (2010). Free Will. New York: Free Press, pp.1-5.

Libet, B. (1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8(04), p.529.

Nahmias, E. (2012). Free will and responsibility. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 3(4), pp.439-449.

Adelaidenow.com.au. (2015). Phil Walsh murder: What next for ‘mentally incompetent’ son?. [online] Available at: http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/phil-walsh-murder-case-will-following-longstanding-sa-court-process-on-mental-illness-cases-says-sean-fewster/news-story/a9c416571aebe67202631dc307c1d3f1 [Accessed 17 Jun. 2016].




One thought on ““My brain made me do it”: Is moral responsibility compatible with the latest research in neuroscience and cognitive science?

  1. “Free will” refers to a person deciding for themselves what they “will” do, “free” of coercion or other undue influence. Coercion is someone forcing their choice upon you, against your will. Undue influences include things like hypnosis, brain tumors, authoritative command, and so forth.

    The distinction is important for correction. If a criminal hijacks your car, and forces you at gunpoint to assist in his getaway, then he is responsible for you actions. The only thing required to correct your behavior is to remove the gun from your head. On the other hand, if you were part of a gang that decided to rob a bank for some quick cash, and you volunteered to be the driver, then correcting your future choices will be a bit more complicated and less reliable, probably involving some prison time and rehabilitation programs.

    Neuroscience has offered nothing that removes the need for this distinction. The fact that your gang discussed the robbery in advance and deliberated as to who would hold the gun and who would sit in the car keeping the motor running, is sufficient to prove it was a deliberate decision. How much of this decision was calculated unconsciously before it reached your conscious awareness is irrelevant. All of your decision was a product of your own brain. And your brain is you.

    We humans call this deterministic process of evaluation and choosing, where you are free to make the choice for yourself, a “freely formed will”, or just “free will”, because the choice is your “will” at that moment.

    The fact that this event was the inevitable result of prior events, inevitable from any prior point in eternity, is an interesting, but totally useless fact, because this is always true of every event.

    The only facts that are meaningful and relevant are those that tell us about the specific causes that we can practically address. And the most meaningful and relevant cause, and the final prior cause of any deliberate act, is the brain’s choice to commit that act according to its own purpose and reasons. And everyone calls such deliberate choices of a normal mind a choice of one’s own free will.


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