2010-11 Chair Appointments

Owen Jones

New York Alumni Chancellor's Chair in Law
Owen Jones

Owen Jones is exploring a largely uncharted legal landscape: the ways in which recent scientific discoveries about how the human brain works might increase law's efficiency and effectiveness. Realizing that the only way to properly explore this complex and rapidly changing landscape was to form interdisciplinary partnerships among scholars in the fields of neuroscience, biology, psychology and psychiatry, Professor Jones founded an influential interdisciplinary organization, the Society for Evolutionary Analysis in Law, in 1998; it now has more than 400 members worldwide. He also directs the Law and Neuroscience Project, an interdisciplinary initiative supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation based at Vanderbilt University. In addition to his faculty appointment at the law school, he holds a joint appointment in Vanderbilt's Department of Biological Sciences and was named a senior member of Vanderbilt's neuroscience training faculty in 2011.

Using advanced brain-scanning techniques, Jones and several Vanderbilt colleagues discovered the brain activity underlying the decisions whether to punish someone and, if so, how much. Their results appeared in the prestigious neuroscience journal Neuron in 2008, and were covered by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times Magazine and NPR. In a more recent article, "Sorting Guilty Minds" (86 New York University Law Review 2011), Jones and collaborators Frances Shen, a visiting scholar at Vanderbilt Law School, Rene Marois of Vanderbilt's psychology department, Judge Morris Hoffman of Colorado's Second Judicial District Court, and Joshua Greene of Harvard's psychology department explore the culpability architecture of the highly influential Model Penal Code (MPC). "The MPC is 50 years old, yet some of its core assumptions had not previously been robustly tested," Jones said. "Our work finds the good news that many of the critical mens rea assumptions embedded in the code are accurate as a behavioral matter. People often behave as the MPC assumes they will. But the bad news is that our subjects routinely failed to distinguish between 'knowing conduct' and 'reckless conduct.' That result is at odds with MPC assumptions, which can therefore have significant consequences for criminal justice."

Over the course of his career, Jones has published more than 40 articles, reviews and comments in law reviews and peer-reviewed journals in the sciences. His work draws from the fields of law, behavioral biology, economics, evolutionary biology, psychology and neuroscience to address an equally wide range of legally significant topics, including the law's engagement with irrational behavior, the sources and protection of property rights, and the intuitions and rationales underlying the criminal justice system.

Jones was named to the New York Alumni Chancellor's Chair in Law in fall 2010. He had previously held the rotating FedEx Research professorship , a one-year appointment, in 2006-07. He joined Vanderbilt's law faculty in 2004 from Arizona State University College of Law after visiting in fall 2003. At Vanderbilt, he has taught Contracts and regularly teaches the seminars Law, Biology and Human Behavior and Legal Scholarship (for aspiring law professors) as well as the course Law and the Brain.

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