One can always say ‘no’

An important question in contemporary bioethics concerns the role of genetic and neurobiological determinism in crime. What role do genes and the wiring of one’s brain play in criminal action?

A new study from researchers in the Netherlands offers a first-person perspective on the question. The researchers visited a juvenile detention facility in the country’s south, and asked offenders themselves what they thought. The answers were revealing.

Most of the participants said that they were ‘in control’ when committing their crimes – they had the phenomenal experience of being able to say ‘no’:

“One always can say no, do you understand?”, said one participant.

Another remarked, “you always make the choice yourself. Therefore it is always your own guilt”.

One respondent even discussed the ability of those with inherited ‘criminal’ genes to go and seek help: 

“At the moment that you know that you have inherited it [criminal behaviour, DH], you can go and seek help for it. Then you can make that choice, if you know that you have inherited it and you do not want that yourself, then you can let yourself be treated for it.”

Participants were resistant to characterizing themselves as part of a ‘criminally disposed’ neurobiological group:

One remarked, “I am just a normal boy [. . .] We are also normal humans, you understand, and eh, we both had just a different upbringing.”

Another commented that “[We all] have different brains, everybody chooses his own way and all [. . .] It is just that everybody is different than everybody else. It is not that always everybody is the same.”

The researchers suggested that the participants claimed autonomy to preserve their own dignity: "Own choice could then be an expression of some sense of personal dignity. Even though it may be a wrong choice, at least, it was their own choice."

It may be, however, that some criminals are more in control of their actions than previously thought. 

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | crime, genetic determinism

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