The Sunday Magazine

Taking responsibility

When does diminished mental capacity become an excuse - even an exoneration - for a criminal act? And if chemical intervention can cure or even enhance a damaged brain, what are the implications? Philosopher Nicole Vincent studies the complex landscape of the human brain, and its relationship to moral and legal responsibility.
Nicole Vincent talking about cognitive enhancement drugs and responsibility at TED Talk in Sydney, Australia on April 26, 2014 (Credit: Jean-Jacques Halans)

In 1979, the state of Arkansas found Charles Laverne Singleton guilty of murder, and sentenced him to execution. While on death row, he began to show signs of schizophrenia. That led to a stay of execution, as the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that executing the mentally insane was unconstitutional because they could not understand the reality of, or reason for, their punishment. The decision was made to medicate Singleton, restoring him to "sanity" and thereby making him competent to be killed. He was finally executed by lethal injection in 2004.

In 2008, Vince Li stabbed and beheaded 22-year-old Tim McLean, who had been sitting next to him on a bus in Winnipeg. Li was diagnosed with schizophrenia and found NCR - not criminally responsible. Medication has been controlling his illness, and in February, his psychiatrist recommended that he be transferred to a hospital, with a view to eventually re-integrating into the community.
Vince Li was found not criminally responsible for the murder of Tim McLean.

These cases and others like them, fascinate scholars who look at the relationship between responsibility and mental capacity. It is a field of law that is evolving rapidly, as research on the brain accumulates.

"Diminishment of mental capacity", is why we don't expect a person with a brain injury, a senior with dementia, or a person with intellectual disabilities, to be fully responsible for their behaviour. But if that capacity is restored does that then make the person responsible again? Also, drugs that affect the brain are being used not just as treatments for disorders, but also for "cognitive enhancement" - to make people "smarter". Would they make people even MORE responsible for their behaviour?

Nicole Vincent has been "obsessed" - her word - with the idea of responsibility for fifteen years. She is associate professor of philosophy, law and neuroscience at Georgia State University. For four years, she was chief investigator on a research project called "Enhancing Responsibility: the effects of cognitive enhancement on moral and legal responsibility", at Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands. She is the editor most recently of  Neuroscience and Legal Responsibility, a collection of scholarly essays published by Oxford University Press.  

To hear a Ted Talk given by Nicole Vincent on cognitive enhancing drugs and responsibility click here.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?