Diminished-Responsibility art work
Diminished-Responsibility art work

The experts behind two Italian courts’ controversial decisions to reduce a convicted murderer’s jail time because they concluded that his genes predisposed him to commit murder have written a response to my and several other articles critical of the decision and concerned about its implications. Their extensive reply is available here, and I encourage you to give it a reading, to aid in drawing your own conclusions on this extremely important matter.

My response to Prof. Satori follows:

Thanks for this comprehensive response to my article and the others on this issue, Prof. Sartori. I acknowledge that you may have intended your testimony merely as an accurate analysis of the facts before you.

Of course, how one sees the facts is determined by one’s presuppositions, some of which are quite fundamental. Thus, you write, correctly, “To date there is NO indication of any DETERMINISTIC effect, that is, there is no genetic variant that determines abnormally aggressive behavior (no cause-effect relationship).” You later apply this to the specifics of this instance, writing, “Neuroscience methods may, therefore, be used to better picture the ‘disease of mind’ but can say nothing, contrary to what seems attributed to us, about the direct proximal causal link with the crime.”

Yet one cannot help but notice two things in these seemingly cautious statements, both of which are quite important. One, it leaves open the door through which you walk a moment later, the notion that even though claims of a deterministic relationship are not at this point proven, the relationship between the person’s brain chemistry/genetics and the person’s actions is so powerful as to be practically irresistible, thus arguing for a conclusion of diminished capacity.

Thus, although you admit the obvious point that “there is no test in medicine that has a sensitivity nor a specificity of 100%,” you go on to say that “genetic and molecular studies are offering a powerful tool to understand the complex interaction between genetic characteristics and environmental factors in shaping our personality and behavior.” Characterizing these factors as “shaping” people’s behavior is simply a euphemism for what the court ultimately did: using these factors to argue for a reduction in the criminal’s perceived responsibility.

This reduction, moreover, resulted not in acquittal but in a reduced sentence. This is a slippery slope indeed, for if a person can have only a degree of responsibility for a crime so clear-cut and dire as murder, there is little for which ultimately we will be able to hold people responsible, for there will always be genetic and environmental factors that “contribute” to the individual making a decision to commit a crime.

This is inevitable for simply logical reasons: the crime happened; therefore, everything that happened to this individual–including their genetics–led up to it; therefore, everything a is a potential cause and thus potentially exculpatory. All a person’s lawyers need to do is find some suitably sad circumstances–such as a 70 IQ, history of social exclusion, etc., to press the sympathy buttons among judge and/or jury, and the thing is done.

That is exactly the danger that is suggested in the articles you criticize.

And they are clearly correct to do so, as is indicated by the second loophole in your cautious statements cited above. When you write, “To date there is NO indication of any DETERMINISTIC effect, . . . no genetic variant that determines abnormally aggressive behavior (no cause-effect relationship).” It’s quite telling that you use the qualifier “to date.” That strongly suggests that the real caution you are trying to establish is against drawing excessively deterministic conclusions based on the level of current science in the matter.

Thus your qualifier statements are not a matter of acknowledging caution in applying such evidence in itself because it is inherently skewed toward exculpation, but instead simply a matter of advising judges, juries, policymakers, and legislators not to lend too much weight to this type of evidence just yet, until direct, deterministic links between circumstances and human behavior can be identified. That is simply an assertion of deterministic effects for which the causal relationships cannot yet be fully established but which certainly are assumed to exist.

In light of all this, if the titles and some of the rhetoric in the news and opinion articles you cite make this situation sound more calamitous than you take it to be, that is a matter for debate over how disastrous the implications of this case are regarding whether it will be possible to have any kind of a sensible justice system within a liberal society. The alternative, rampant criminality, is no modus operandi for liberty and human happiness. That is why the these articles express such strong concern.

–S. T. Karnick