Responsible Brains

Responsible Brains

Neuroscience, Law, and Human Culpability

By William Hirstein, Katrina L. Sifferd and Tyler K. Fagan

An examination of the relationship between the brain and culpability that offers a comprehensive neuroscientific theory of human responsibility.





An examination of the relationship between the brain and culpability that offers a comprehensive neuroscientific theory of human responsibility.

When we praise, blame, punish, or reward people for their actions, we are holding them responsible for what they have done. Common sense tells us that what makes human beings responsible has to do with their minds and, in particular, the relationship between their minds and their actions. Yet the empirical connection is not necessarily obvious. The “guilty mind” is a core concept of criminal law, but if a defendant on trial for murder were found to have serious brain damage, which brain parts or processes would have to be damaged for him to be considered not responsible, or less responsible, for the crime? What mental illnesses would justify legal pleas of insanity? In Responsible Brains, philosophers William Hirstein, Katrina Sifferd, and Tyler Fagan examine recent developments in neuroscience that point to neural mechanisms of responsibility. Drawing on this research, they argue that evidence from neuroscience and cognitive science can illuminate and inform the nature of responsibility and agency. They go on to offer a novel and comprehensive neuroscientific theory of human responsibility.

The authors' core hypothesis is that responsibility is grounded in the brain's prefrontal executive processes, which enable us to make plans, shift attention, inhibit actions, and more. The authors develop the executive theory of responsibility and discuss its implications for criminal law. Their theory neatly bridges the folk-psychological concepts of the law and neuroscientific findings.


$45.00 X ISBN: 9780262038782 304 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 2 color illus., 2 b&w illus.


  • This is a thoroughly engaging and well-written book. The authors survey much of the responsibility literature and provide engaging discussions of the leading positions. Their suggestions for the use of neuroscientific evidence in various contexts (e.g., assessment of minors) is particularly persuasive. This is a book to be read by anyone with an interest in law and neuroscience, responsibility, criminal law, and ethics.

    Juris: JOTWELL


  • “Hirstein, Sifferd, and Fagan bring responsibility into closer contact with neuroscience than ever before. Their bold, original, and provocative theory is backed by forceful philosophical argument combined with detailed knowledge of the brain, and they deploy it to illuminate numerous controversial cases. Everyone interested in these important issues should carefully study this tour de force.”

    Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

    Chauncey Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics, Department of Philosophy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics, Duke University

  • “This is a superb book. It articulates and defends an attractive, scientifically informed theory of responsibility. It instructively applies that theory to such issues as juvenile responsibility, legal insanity, the culpability of psychopaths, and grounds for punishment. And it is written in highly accessible prose. Responsible Brains is a gem that will appeal to a broad audience, including readers primarily concerned with the practical aspects of moral and legal responsibility and those who approach the topic from a largely theoretical perspective.”

    Alfred R. Mele

    William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, Florida State University

  • “Neuroscientists, the general public and some philosophers have worried that neuroscience will show that we cannot be morally responsible for our behavior. In this groundbreaking book, William Hirstein, Katrina Sifferd, and Tyler Fagan present a compelling case for thinking that neuroscience can help to underwrite moral responsibility, as well as to enable us to distinguish responsible agents from those who cannot be held responsible. It is required reading for philosophers, lawyers, and anyone interested in contemporary brain science, agency and what it means to be human.”

    Neil Levy

    Department of Philosophy, Macquarie University, and Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

  • Responsible Brains is necessary reading for anyone interested in the relation between responsibility (moral and legal) and current brain science. Drawing heavily on contemporary empirical research on the brain, the authors defend the view that what matters most is a particular set of psychological functions that can be neurologically identified (so-called "executive function"). While there is much I disagree with in the book, it stakes out a clear and positive position worth engaging with and learning from, and, as far as I know, it is the most comprehensive empirically-informed account of (legal) responsibility currently on offer.”

    Matt King

    Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Alabama at Birmingham