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Letter: Born to be bad?

Sir: Sanjida O'Connell's excellent survey of the debate about biological determinism ("Do we choose to be good?", 11 June) omits any mention of the places where the developing science will be transformed into gripping drama: the law courts.

The criminal law is based on the idea of individual responsibility. Badness is punishable because it results from a free personal choice. At all costs, the law wanted, historically, to avoid giving a defence to people who said they were impelled to commit crimes by social conditions like poverty. Stealing, it said, even goaded by endemic destitution and starvation, was a personal lapse, not a socially prompted wrong.

Now, though, it is no longer social pressures (such as poverty) which can be used to cast doubt on whether the defendant was exercising a free will, but alleged biological compulsions.

The law now properly recognises how certain conditions such as post-natal depression and pre-menstrual tension can affect some people. What, though, when we can identify those who might have inherited a genetic predisposition to a short temper? Shall we punish people for being what they are by nature?


The Law programme

The Open University

Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire