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?
Dr GARY SLAPPER
The Law programme
The Open University
Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire