William & Mary Law Professor Peter Alces Publishes Book on the Moral Conflict of Law and Neuroscience

  • Peter A. Alces
    Peter A. Alces  is the Rita Anne Rollins Professor of Law and Cabell Research Professor of Law at William & Mary Law School. His newest book is entitled The Moral Conflict of Law and Neuroscience (University of Chicago Press).  Photo by David F. Morrill
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For a Q&A with Professor Alces about this book, please click here.

Relying on a conception of human agency, the law has always maintained that humans are capable of making their own choices and are morally responsible for the consequences.

But what if that isn’t the case? What if we are a product of forces that are often beyond our control?

A new book by Peter A. Alces asks these very questions, and looks to neuroscience forLaw and Neuroscience answers.

In The Moral Conflict of Law and Neuroscience (University of Chicago Press, 377 pages), Alces, the Rita Anne Rollins Professor of Law and Cabell Research Professor of Law at William & Mary Law School, considers where and how the law currently fails to appreciate the neuroscientific revelation that humans may in key ways lack normative free will—and therefore moral responsibility.

“We don’t look at bumps on people’s heads any more, but neuroscience allows us to look at malformations in different portions of their brains,” Alces said. “We can recognize there are some kind of lesions or neural insults that may manifest in particular behavior and intellectual deficiencies, which changes our understanding of what we can want the law to do.”

Such new understanding will affect not only the criminal justice domain—where people with congenital or acquired cognitive defects are treated inconsistently—but also areas such as torts and contracts.

One of the nation’s leading commercial law scholars, Alces is known for his in-depth research of a wide range of complex legal issues, from commercial law to the philosophical foundations of contract law, about which he has written influential articles and a book. He excels at teaching diverse law courses, earning praise from students for his energetic teaching style and passion for the material.

And then there is his growing interest in science and the law.

“To my knowledge, no such scholar has ever presented so clearly and convincingly a fatal incompatibilism—neuroscience is disassembling the folk psychological notion of human agency on which criminal justice rests,” says Robert Sapolsky, author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (Penguin, 2017). “And in the end, Alces convicts the justice system, asserting that the notion of moral responsibility which justifies retribution is itself ultimately immoral.”

According to Bruce Waller, author of Against Moral Responsibility (MIT Press, 2011), conflict between the legal system and rapidly emerging neuropsychological research is not new, but Alces’s book plumbs new depths of understanding.

“Rather than warning of potential future problems, Alces combines meticulous legal analysis with impressive knowledge of psychological research to pose immediate challenges to some of our most basic assumptions,” Waller says.

Calling it “a work of remarkable originality—provocative, challenging, and sweeping in scope,” Owen D. Jones of Vanderbilt University praises Alces’s command of criminal law, torts and contracts, as well as the key neuroscientific accomplishments that bear on his analyses.

“The book is bound to be a major landmark in the law and neuroscience landscape,” Jones said.

To order the book, please visit Amazon.com.

About William & Mary Law School

Thomas Jefferson founded William & Mary Law School in 1779 to train leaders for the new nation.  Now in its third century, America's oldest law school continues its historic mission of educating citizen lawyers who are prepared both to lead and to serve.