Many people who do bad things, from petty crime to serial killing, are found to have neurological and biological dispositions for their immorality – in others words, they can’t help it. Can we truly call such people evil? Surely, their actions and intentions are evil. But are they themselves evil, given that they are innately incapable of feeling empathy or telling right from wrong (albeit to varying degrees)?
What are the implications for our legal and criminal justice system? Compared to other countries, we incarcerate far more people per capita, but also institutionalize far fewer than the average. Does this mean most people we imprison should be receiving psychiatric treatment rather than punishment? Determining who merits which approach certainly won’t be easy, nor will changing entrenched socio-cultural attitudes towards criminality and delinquency (especially towards the more serious moral transgressions).
But the criminal justice system has come a long way, so a gradual paradigm shift is not inconceivable, though it’ll certainly take generations – and more widespread scientific and ethical literacy.