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Prof. Morse argues that mental states should remain central to determinations of culpability and responsibility

April 13, 2021

In a recent article, the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Ferdinand Wakeman Hubbell Professor of Law Stephen J. Morse argues that mental states should remain “central to the ascriptions of culpability and responsibility more generally” despite recent internal and external challenges.

“[W]e are in a condition of unprecedented internal challenges to the importance of mental states in the context of abnormalities and of external challenges to personhood and agency based on the new behavioral neuroscience and genetics,” writes Morse in “Internal and External Challenges to Culpability.” The analysis of this issue must always begin, he argues, “with the law’s conception of the person as a folk psychological agent who can potentially be guided by reason.”

Regarding internal challenges, Morse focuses on three recent United States Supreme Court decisions – Montana v. Egelhoff, Clark v. Arizona, and Kahler v. Kansas – that allow restrictions on the extent to which defendants may introduce evidence of mental abnormalities to avoid conviction. He argues that these opinions are “misguided” and should not be adopted legislatively or judicially. Instead, Morse argues, they should be rolled back legislatively whenever possible.

Morse then turns to the “newer, broader challenges to personhood, agency, and responsibility that are fueled by alleged advances in behavioral neuroscience and genetics.” Morse maintains that without any conceptual or empirical reason to believe these sometimes “quite radical” propositions are true, there is no reason to abandon notions of criminal responsibility, which have been developing for centuries, in favor of adopting “the proposed, radical conception of justice.”

Morse’s article was presented at “Guilty Minds: A Virtual Conference on Mens Rea and Criminal Justice Reform” at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and is forthcoming in Arizona State Law Journal.

Judge Morris Hoffman co-authored the original mens rea material from which the article is derived, and Professor Richard Bonnie of the University of Virginia School of Law co-authored the original insanity defense material from which the article is derived. Morse and Bonnie also co-authored the amicus brief of behalf of 290 law professors in the Kahler case.

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

In his research, Morse 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.

He is working on a new book, Desert and Disease: Responsibility and Social Control. Morse was Co-Director of the MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project.

Morse is 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.