A research team from Vanderbilt University has released the findings of a new study which seems to indicate that humans are pre-programmed to recognize unfair, unjust situations and are prone toward a finding of guilt and punishment of the perpetrators. (They should have enough material to draw upon. Some archaeologists in England announced this week that they found the oldest preserved human brain ever – roughly 2,000 years old.) The Vanderbilt scientists conclude that the legal systems which have evolved among human societies across the globe may be no accident.
Fairness is more than just a dogma, it’’s an emotion hard-wired in the human brain, claims a new study, which has shown that the brain uses different biological mechanisms for judging a crime and determining its punishment.
The research team led by Owen Jones, a professor of law and biology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee has found that brain assesses guilt and determines punishment through various neural mechanisms in the brain.
Those decisions involve parts of the brain associated with rational thought and emotions.
“It suggests that ancient and modern criminal justice systems may otherwise be built on a much more primitive, pre-existing machinery for recognizing unfairness to you,” New Scientist quoted Jones as saying.
The obvious problem with this is that our decisions may not be as impartial and considered as the legal theory of the jury system would suggest.
Co-researcher Rene Marois suggests that the findings might weaken the central tenet of justice.
“The whole concept that the law represents an uninvolved, decisive, third-party perspective on judging transgression may not be as distinct as perhaps our legal system would like it to be,” said Marois.
In one of his many wonderful novels, Jonathan Letham once noted that we learn far more from sick and injured brains than we do from the observation of healthy ones, and that certainly has the ring of truth. The medical profession has been able to observe the results of traumatic brain injuries in survivors and determine what goes wrong when certain portions are injured or removed. Of course, even in the most questionable medical facilities, it’s considered unsportsmanlike to intentionally damage the healthy brains of patients and then wait to see if they remember to turn on the wipers when the rain starts.
The point is, it’s still very difficult to conduct such studies and come up with predictions as detailed as the one posited in the study above. General trends may be found, but people are funny beasts, as they say, so there will always be exceptions to every rule. I wouldn’t worry too much about our legal system collapsing in the near future just because our brains seem to be hard wired for justice. On the other hand, it may be a somewhat comforting thought that our species’ default position is to recognize and punish unfair behavior.