By Frank Pasquale, Professor of Law, University of Maryland Carey School of Law
Many thanks to Amanda for the opportunity to post as a guest in this symposium. I was thinking more about neuroethics half a decade ago, and my scholarly agenda has, since then, focused mainly on algorithms, automation, and health IT. But there is an important common thread: The unintended consequences of technology. With that in mind, I want to discuss a context where the measurement of pain (algometry?) might be further algorithmatized or systematized, and if so, who will be helped, who will be harmed, and what individual and social phenomena we may miss as we focus on new and compelling pictures.
Some hope that better pain measurement will make legal disability or damages determinations more scientific. Identifying a brain-based correlate for pain that otherwise lacks a clearly medically-determinable cause might help deserving claimants win recognition for their suffering as disabling. But the history of “rationalizing” disability and welfare determinations is not encouraging. Such steps have often been used to exclude individuals from entitlements, on flimsy grounds of widespread shirking. In other words, a push toward measurement is more often a cover for putting a suspect class through additional hurdles than it is toward finding and helping those viewed as deserving.
Of Disability, Malingering, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Disutility (read on for more)
A potential difficulty, but also an opportunity, relating to using neuroimaging evidence in legal cases arises from the difficulty brain researchers have in separating emotional and physical pain. We know that pain and emotion are tightly linked. In fact, “emotion” is in the very definition of pain. The IASP definition of pain is: “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” Yet, the legal system deals with “physical” versus “psychiatric” versus “emotional” pain in different ways.
Chronic pain is associated with anxiety, depression, and stress. These factors can exacerbate the pain, and pain can exacerbate them. Pain’s sensory and emotional components connect in a “feed-forward” cycle. It may not be possible to entirely separate the sensory and emotional components of pain, biologically or experientially. But it might be necessary for the purposes of legal cases, as important areas of law create sharp distinctions between physical and emotional, or body and mind.
In the course of my year-long project with Petrie-Flom, I am studying the potential impact of neuroimaging techniques on criminal law. During the course of my research, I found a story of an individual whose case presents difficult questions for our conceptions of criminal guilt and responsibility.  While this may be a bit longer than a normal entry, I want to share this story with you.
In 2000, a 40 year-old man, “Mr. Oft”, found himself developing an increasing, and nearly uncontrollable, interest in child pornography. Mr. Oft began collecting pornographic material, while making efforts to conceal his behavior from his family, and from those who knew him. Collecting pornography gave way to soliciting prostitution at “massage parlors,” and while Mr. Oft at first made careful attempts to conceal his actions, his aberrant behavior continued, and soon Mr. Oft was obsessively collecting and downloading child pornography, both at work and at home. Before long, Mr. Oft began making subtle sexual advances toward his prepubescent stepdaughter. After several weeks, his stepdaughter informed his wife of this behavior, leading to the discovery of his newly collected child pornography.
After his wife reported him, Oft was found guilty of child molestation and was ordered to either undergo inpatient rehabilitation in a 12-step program for sexual addiction or go to jail. Despite Oft’s strong and clear desire to avoid prison, he found himself unable to resist soliciting sexual favors from staff and other clients at the rehabilitation center. The center expelled him, and Mr. Oft prepared to go to jail. However, the night before his sentence was to begin, Oft was admitted to the University of Virginia Hospital emergency department complaining of severe headaches. In the course of his neurological examination, Oft made numerous sexual advances towards the hospital staff, and appeared totally unconcerned after urinating on himself. This behavior, combined with his seemingly unsteady gait, caused doctors to undertake a full neurological evaluation, eventually ordering an MRI scan of his brain.