November 03, 2009
Judge Rules Genetic Mutation Partial Defense Against Murder

A murderer in Italy got a lighter sentence due to a judge's view that the murderer had a genetically impaired ability to resist violent impulses.

A judge's decision to reduce a killer's sentence because he has genetic mutations linked to violence raises a thorny question – can your genes ever absolve you of responsibility for a particular act?

Regards the idea of genes absolving someone of responsibility: If they do then I think the genes reduce a person's rights at the same time. If a person has genes that compel him to violate the rights of others then that person lacks attributes needed to make that person into a full rights-possessing being.

In my view human rights do not come about as a result of our having spirits or souls. We do not have rights because we all just up and decided we had rights either. A rights-based system requires that the rights-possessing conscious intelligent beings have the capacity to act as moral agents. Someone who is compelled to murder or steal lacks attributes needed in a rights-possessing being. The ability to reason is not by itself sufficient to make a being have the attributes needed to possess rights.

Cutting the sentence of a genetically driven killer by a year is nuts. If someone really can't prevent themselves from carrying out murder then that person needs to be permanently removed from civilized society.

In 2007, Abdelmalek Bayout admitted to stabbing and killing a man and received a sentenced of 9 years and 2 months. Last week, Nature reported that Pier Valerio Reinotti, an appeal court judge in Trieste, Italy, cut Bayout's sentence by a year after finding out he has gene variants linked to aggression. Leaving aside the question of whether this link is well enough understood to justify Reinotti's decision, should genes ever be considered a legitimate defence?

If a lion or tiger kills a human we do not consider it a murderer because we do not view lions and tigers and bears (oh my) as moral agents. I expect genetic research and neuroscience to continue to produce results that leave less room for free will as the agent for decision-making in humans. To the extent that compulsions and drives pull people toward engaging in behaviors those people become less rights-deserving.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 November 03 10:25 PM  Bioethics Free Will


Comments
Mthson said at November 4, 2009 12:48 AM:

Human biodiversity complications:

"One problem is that the effects of the MAOA gene are known to vary between different ethnic groups, Moffit says. A 2006 study in the United States found that former victims of child abuse with high levels of MAOA were less likely to commit violent crimes — but only if they were white. The effect was not evident in non-white children." http://www.nature.com/news/2009/091030/full/news.2009.1050.html

Brett Bellmore said at November 4, 2009 3:14 AM:

The judge decided that the defendant was genetically predisposed to attack people around him, and thus reasoned he ought to be released SOONER because of this? Good thing the fellow wasn't predisposed to be a violent maniac, attacking everyone on sight without delay; The judge might have, on that reasoning, sentenced him to time served.

Anonymous said at November 4, 2009 7:54 AM:

Assuming we accept the genetic argument - which seems reasonable - wouldn't this then be an argument for long-term...well, not incarceration, and maybe not institutionalization in the traditional sense. Remote monitoring? House arrest? Forced medication? Honestly I'm not sure *what* to advocate here policy-wise. Certainly saying "you can't help killing people, therefore we'll turn you loose earlier" seems just absolutely crazy from a public safety perspective.

random said at November 4, 2009 7:58 AM:

Some only view prison as a punishment for the guilty, but it also needs to be seen as a protection for the innocent. There are people in this world that are so dangerous to society that they need to be removed. This genetic argument seems dubious, and if anything it should add additional probation and monitoring to the end of a normal sentencing.

Lono said at November 4, 2009 8:32 AM:

Judge is a Densan.

John said at November 4, 2009 10:09 AM:

This was a Law and Order episode, years ago. But instead of a genetic mutation, it was brain damage that led to sexual abuse. I'm pretty sure he got convicted. :)

Trent Telenko said at November 4, 2009 12:31 PM:

Randall,

Steve Sailor made the point not long ago that the SCOTUS ruling on preventing execution low IQ felons effectively removed 20% of the American black criminal class from death sentance considerations.

IQ is heritable, so the US courts got there before Italy's.

Fat Man said at November 4, 2009 2:01 PM:

Relax, it was a judge in Italy. Italian judges have more limited power than American Judges. The ruling is not binding anywhere other than that courtroom for that defendant.

rob said at November 4, 2009 5:07 PM:

I have vague recollections of a Law & Order episode from back when the XYY karyotype was associated with violence where it was used in by the defense, I don't remember the decision.

I don't know how the Italian criminal justice system works. Perhaps he gets out of prison earlier and goes to involuntary mental hospitalization, like we do sometimes with sex offenders. That general outcome, possibly less punitive than prison, but with the main of isolating the criminals from everyone else will become more common.

Randall Parker said at November 4, 2009 5:50 PM:

Anonymous,

Come up with a unique pseudonym or I'll delete future comments.

Institutionalized: I think something cheaper makes more sense: Set aside islands for the genetically violent. They won't have to live in jails. We won't have to pay for guards.

random gets it right:

Some only view prison as a punishment for the guilty, but it also needs to be seen as a protection for the innocent.

I think jail's primary purpose should be protection of the innocent. I very seriously doubt that most inmates are rehabilitated by the experience. Recidivism rates are high.

rob,

If someone gets out of prison and gets put in a mental hospital for the violent then that mental hospital needs to be about as severe in restricting movements as the prison. Otherwise violent people will kill the hospital workers and fellow inmates/patients.

I say stick the violent people on Aleutian islands. Drop food and other supplies off periodically.

Fat Man said at November 4, 2009 6:16 PM:

"I say stick the violent people on Aleutian islands. Drop food and other supplies off periodically."

Robert Heinlein wrote a story about your idea, "Coventry" in 1940.

rob said at November 4, 2009 9:16 PM:

Randall, I don't know, but I've never heard of anyone escaping an institution for the criminally insane.

Brett Bellmore said at November 5, 2009 3:30 AM:

That's because you don't "escape" a mental institution, you "wander off". Different terminology, same thing. ;)

mabirch said at November 5, 2009 9:07 AM:

Randall, you said
>>In my view human rights do not come about as a result of our having spirits or souls. We do not have rights because we all just up and decided we had rights either. A rights-based system requires that the rights-possessing conscious intelligent beings have the capacity to act as moral agents. Someone who is compelled to murder or steal lacks attributes needed in a rights-possessing being. The ability to reason is not by itself sufficient to make a being have the attributes needed to possess rights.”

What you have failed to do in the above paragraph is to state your view. You have stated what your view is not. Specifically, if there are no “inalienable” rights granted, as is stated in the Declaration of Independence, by a Creator, or, as you have stated here, as a result of our having spirits or souls, then how does a human being come to possess rights? If someone who is “compelled to murder or steal” lacks attributes needed in a “rights-possessing being”, what are the attributes needed to be a “rights-possessing being”?

kurt9 said at November 5, 2009 9:21 AM:

what are the attributes needed to be a “rights-possessing being”?

The ability to enter into and abide by contractual relationships.

Bob Badour said at November 5, 2009 10:28 AM:

To amplify what kurt9 wrote, the ability has to include the ability to enter into and abide by (often unwritten) social contracts. As Randall has said many times in the past, to possess rights one must have the ability and willingness to respect the rights of others.

I have pointed out to him many times that this is already enshrined in "due process" with the assumption that humans have that ability and willingness until proved otherwise. The question then becomes: What constitutes due process?

JP Straley said at November 5, 2009 12:37 PM:

Clip his balls off. It damn sure works on mean dogs.

JP Straley

Kralizec said at November 7, 2009 5:17 PM:

Leniency based on a presumed genetic predisposition seems dysgenic.

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