International Center for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities (IZEW)

Ruben von der Heydt


Ruben von der HeydtDoing Away with Criminal Law? – Investigating the philosophical basis of legal sanctions in the light of neurological research

The modern idea of individual self-legislation forms the central philosophical basis of the continental European legal outlook: the individual wants to see his decisions and actions not as imposed from outside, but as caused by himself. This is so because only an individual that is personally responsible for his actions can also be held accountable, within the framework of court proceedings, for culpable behaviour. In a court of law, factors are taken into consideration over which the person in question had no influence and which encroach upon his autonomy as sentence-reducing, guilt-mitigating or exonerating circumstances. In this connection, scientific explanations of behaviour are an accepted component of the court proceedings only to the extent to which they can diagnose a lack, or an impairment of the normal presumption of free will.

Presently, the German criminal justice system, facing the right-wing demands of prominent neurobiologists, is considering expanding the acceptance of scientific explanatory patterns not only on an exceptional basis, but as applicable to all criminals. The consequence of this is that the extent of free will will no longer be examined on a case by case basis; rather, it will do away with free will completely. The demands currently under discussion call into question the validity of responsibility and guilt as decisive motivation-theoretical terms of criminal law and seek to replace criminal law with sentencing guidelines.

Therefore, in light of the current debate about the legal ramifications of neurological research, the science of criminal law has to preserve its basic principles. In doing so, it can draw upon the theoretical competence of philosophy as a contemplative discipline.
Thematically, this dissertation project touches on philosophy, jurisprudence, and neurological science. The goal is to develop a basic model, centred on the distinction between various epistemological viewpoints and perspectives, and its application of this concept to the field of criminal law. To be addressed is the question of, which philosophically grounded scientific perspectives might criminal law draw upon in the future in the face of the „neurobiological challenge“, and whether recourse to normative-ethical terms currently still serving as a basis, can continue to be considered legitimate.

Personal data

Study of philosophy, law, political science, sociology, German literature, linguistics and medieval studies, pedagogy and pedagogical psychology, as well as German as a foreign language at Humboldt University in Berlin, the University of Rostock and the University of Granada (in Spain). 2007 first state teachers examination to instruct in secondary schools in philosophy, and social science – concentration in law and German. Employment at the University of Rostock in the Political Theory and History of Ideas Department, the Germanic Medieval Studies Department, and, in the summer semester of 2007, as a graduate assistant and instructor in the Practical Philosophy Department.
Since winter semester 2007/2008, participation in the “Bioethics“ DFG lecture series at the University of Tübingen.