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At Criminal Law and Philosophy, Prof. Stephen Morse explores the question: Is executive function the universal acid?

March 22, 2022

Morse’s persuasive essay is in response to  Responsible Brains, a book authored by William Hirstein, Katrina L. Sifferd, and Tyler K. Fagan of Elmhurst College.

In a recently published article at Criminal Law and Philosophy, the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Ferdinand Wakeman Hubbell Professor of Law Stephen J. Morse challenges the characterization of executive function as a guiding mechanism that supports both responsible agency and the necessity for some excuses.

Executive function is the umbrella term psychologists use to include abilities that enable purposive, goal-oriented, successful behavior. These include the capacities to initiate and plan behavior, to focus attention, and to self-monitor and self-regulate, including inhibition of inappropriate desires and actions. In response to Responsible Brains, a book authored by William Hirstein, Katrina L. Sifferd, and Tyler K. Fagan of Elmhurst College, Morse writes that executive function is “not the universal acid and that neuroscience at present contributes almost nothing to the necessary psychological level of explanation and analysis.”

In “Is Executive Function the Universal Acid?” Morse explores what executive function is and what neuroscience can add to our understanding of it.

“To the extent neuroscience can be useful,” he writes, “it is virtually entirely dependent on well-validated psychology to correlate with the neuroscientific variables under investigation.”

Morse then discusses what moral and legal responsibility mean generally, touching on the specific doctrines that apply to each of these concepts. Morse concludes that executive function – far from being the universal acid – “is seldom found to be the most perspicuous approach to any of the general or specific moral and legal questions.” Moreover, he claims that the neuroscience used to support the book’s claim does no real work beyond the psychology with which it is correlated.

Morse is also Professor of Psychology and Law in Psychiatry and Associate Director of Penn’s Center for Neuroscience and Society.

In his research, he works on problems of individual responsibility and agency. He has published numerous interdisciplinary articles and chapters and has co-edited collections, including (with A. Roskies) A Primer on Criminal Law and Neuroscience and (with L. Katz & M. Moore) Foundations of Criminal Law. He was a contributing author (with L. Alexander and K. Ferzan) to Crime and Culpability: A Theory of Criminal Law.

Morse is working on two new books: An Advanced Introduction to Substantive Criminal Law and Desert and Disease: Responsibility and Social Control.

He was Co-Director of the MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project.

Morse is also a Diplomate in Forensic Psychology of the American Board of Professional Psychology, a past president of Division 41 of the American Psychological Association, a recipient of the American Academy of Forensic Psychology’s Distinguished Contribution Award, a recipient of the American Psychiatric Association’s Isaac Ray Award for distinguished contributions to forensic psychiatry and the psychiatric aspects of jurisprudence, a member of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Mental Health and Law, and a trustee of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law (1995-2016).

Read more Law School faculty papers and publications.