Must Read: Professor Amanda Pustilnik’s “Pain as Fact and Heuristic: How Pain Neuroimaging Illuminates Moral Dimensions of Law”
At Jotwell, Professor Angela Harris has a spot-on review of my colleague Amanda Pustilnik’s superb article Pain as Fact and Heuristic: How Pain Neuroimaging Illuminates Moral Dimensions of Law, 97 Cornell L. Rev. 801 (2012). In “The Pain of Others,” Professor Harris writes:
As Pustilnik explains, advances in neuroimaging techniques, including the fMRI and the positron emission tomography (PET) scan, have made pain objective, rendering obsolete Elaine Scarry’s famous declaration that pain is simultaneously the thing most existentially real (to the sufferer) and most existentially in doubt (to the observer). Observers can now look at the various areas of the brain activated by acute pain and tell, with relative certainty, whether the subject is experiencing pain or not. If fMRI measurements are repeated over time with various levels of stimulus, it should also be possible to tell what degree of pain the subject is experiencing.
These developments could, in theory, revolutionize a number of areas of law and policy. Pustilnik discusses two. First, in many states, homicide by means of “torture” – usually defined as the intentional infliction of “extreme” pain — is one basis for a first-degree murder charge. Could a defense attorney someday submit evidence that the pain caused the victim was not “extreme” enough to constitute torture? Could a prosecutor respond with fMRI evidence about the kind of pain experienced by the average (reasonable?) person in the defendant’s situation?
Second, Pustilnik suggests that neuroscientific evidence could be mobilized in order to draw the line between permissible and impermissible interrogation techniques. Many efforts to define torture in international conventions – as well as, Pustilnik notes, the infamous Bybee Memo justifying torture by U.S. officials in the detention center in Guantanamo Bay – turn on degrees of pain inflicted. Could science help set an objective standard for nations and their interrogators to abide by?
Ethicists fearing future unemployment will breathe a sigh of relief that Pustilnik’s answer is “no.” What’s so satisfying about her argument, however, is not her conclusion that ethics still matter, but the way in which Pustilnik uses these neuroscientific advances as a way to explore the moral import of pain and, more generally, the significance of the body to moral and ethical judgments. . . .
In recent years, neuroscience and cognitive science have appeared to be laying siege to substantive criminal law. New developments in science and technology are poised to help lawyers and their experts predict wrongdoing, assess the responsibility of juveniles, assess culpability, distinguish lies from truth on the witness stand, and decode memories – not to mention helping the police detect illegal activity from afar. At the same time, Stephen Morse has noted in a droll formulation, the excitement generated by new scientific discoveries can lead to “Brain Overclaim Syndrome.” Rather than seeing a competition between science and ethics or technology and law and weighing in on one side or the other, Pustilnik uses our increasing ability to see and manipulate the workings of the body as an occasion to deepen our insight into the links between body and mind, objective and subjective. The dimensions of the physical and the social, she shows, are the double strands of morality’s DNA. Criminal law necessarily must grapple with both.