Ethics of Behavioural Influence and Prediction

Professor Thomas Douglas

PI:  Dr Thomas Douglas

The Programme on the Ethics of Behavioural Influence and Prediction (EBIP) is based in the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. It investigates the moral permissibility and desirability of (i) predicting how people will behave, for example, on the basis of data about their past behaviour, demographic characteristics, and neurobiology, and (ii) influencing how people will behave, for example, through the use of nudges, incentives, psychological interventions, and psychopharmaceuticals.

Questions of interest include:

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of algorithmic forms of behaviour prediction (as compared to discretionary approaches based on clinical/judicial judgement)?
  • What would an ideally fair behaviour prediction algorithm look like?
  • What sorts of data may permissibly be used as an input in to behaviour prediction algorithms? Demographic variables? Past behaviour? ‘Big data’? Biological factors?
  • Do machine learning approaches to behaviour prediction raise new ethical issues?
  • What are the ethical similarities and differences between biological and environmental forms of behavioural influence?
  • What are the ethically salient categories of behavioural influence? How useful, for ethical discussion, are the categories of nudging and manipulation?
  • Are there always reasons to prefer rationality-engaging over rationality-bypassing forms of behavioural influence?
  • Is there a right against nonconsensual behavioural influence (of certain kinds)?

Please see below for information regarding our funded research projects

Protecting Minds

Protecting Minds: The Right to Mental Integrity and the Ethics of Arational Influence

Unlike most traditional forms of behavioural influence, such as rational persuasion, incentivisation and coercion, many novel forms of behavioural influence operate at a subrational level, bypassing the targeted individual’s capacity to respond to reasons. Examples include bottomless newsfeeds, randomised rewards, and other ‘persuasive’ technologies employed by online platforms and computer game designers. They also include biological interventions, such as the use of drugs, nutritional supplements or non-invasive brain stimulation to facilitate criminal rehabilitation. The ethical acceptability of such arational influence depends crucially on whether we possess a moral right to mental integrity, and, if so, what kinds of mental interference it rules out. Unfortunately, these questions are yet to be addressed.

Though the right to bodily integrity is well-established, the possibility of a right to mental integrity has attracted little philosophical scrutiny. The purposes of this project, funded by a European Research Council Consolidator Award, are to (1) determine whether and how a moral right to mental integrity can be established; (2) develop an account of its scope, weight, and robustness, and (3) determine what forms of arational influence infringe it, and whether and when these might nevertheless be justified. The analysis will be applied to controversial novel forms of arational influence including persuasive digital technologies, salience-based nudges, treatments for childhood behavioural disorders, and biological interventions in criminal rehabilitation.


Neurointerventions in Crime Prevention: An Ethical Analysis

Interventions that act directly on the brain, or ‘neurointerventions’, are increasingly being used or advocated for crime prevention. For instance, drugs that attenuate sexual desire are sometimes used to prevent recidivism in sex offenders, while drug-based treatments for substance abuse have been used to reduce addiction-related offending. Recent scientific developments suggest that the range of neurointerventions capable of preventing criminal offending may eventually expand to include, for example, drugs capable of reducing aggression or enhancing empathy.

In this Wellcome Trust-funded project, we are investigating ethical questions raised by the use of such interventions to prevent criminal offending, focusing particularly on cases where they are imposed on convicted offenders as part of a criminal sentence or as a condition of parole. On the one hand, there seems to be at least some reason to support the use of neurointerventions in this way, since there is a clear need for new means of preventing crime.  Traditional means of crime prevention, such as incarceration, are frequently ineffective and can have serious negative side-effects; neurointervention may increasingly seem, and sometimes be, a more effective and humane alternative.

On the other hand, neurointerventions can be highly intrusive and may threaten fundamental human values, such as bodily integrity and freedom of thought. In addition, humanity has a track record of misguided and unwarrantedly coercive use of psychosurgery and other neurotechnological 'solutions' to criminality.

We are deploying philosophical methods and recent thinking on autonomy, coercion, mental integrity and moral liability to answer two over-arching questions

  • When, if ever, may the state force neurointerventions on criminal offenders?
  • When, if ever, may the state offer neurointerventions to criminal offenders?

We plan also to examine how our answers to these questions bear on the use of neurointerventions to prevent offending in individuals who have not previously offended, but are thought to be at high risk of doing so.

Core Publications

Related/relevant Publications



Policy and Advice

Ballantyne A, Card R, Clarke S, Devolder K, Douglas T, Giubilini A, Kennett J, Milnes S, Minerva F, Mori M, Munthe C, Oakley J, Persson I, Savulescu J, Wilkinson D, Consensus Statement on Conscientious Objection in HealthcarePractical Ethics: Ethics in the News 2016.

YouTube, Media, Blogs, Podcasts

Neurointerventions in Crime Preventions: Should we chemically castrate sex offenders?

Would offering chemical castration to sex offenders be coercive? If so would that make it wrong? In this interview with Katrien Devolder, Dr Tom Douglas introduces us to the ethical challenges raised by neurointerventions to prevent crime (1 May 2017). Click the video below to watch or listen on YouTube.

Watch on YouTube

Should we chemically castrate sex offenders to prevent reoffending?

The minister of justice in the UK wants to dramatically  increase the use of chemical castration in sex offenders to reduce their risk of reoffending. Philosopher Dr Tom Douglas (University of Oxford) argues that this option might be better than current practices to prevent sex offenders from reoffending (e.g. incarceration), and responds to concerns about coercion and interfering in sex offenders' mental states (e.g. by changing their desires) (24 April 2018). Click the video below to watch/listen on YouTube.

Watch on YouTube

Neurointerventions, Crime and Punishment: How to prevent crime?

Professor Jesper Ryberg considers whether we should use neurotechnologies that affect emotional regulation, empathy and moral judgment to prevent offenders from re-offending (13 September 2019). Click the video below to watch/listen on YouTube.

Watch on YouTube

Douglas T, ‘Biased algorithms: here’s a more radical approach to creating fairness’, The Conversation, 21 January 2019 (blog/media article)

Zohny H, ‘My Brain Made Me Carry Out a Ponzi Scheme’, Slate, 23 May 2018 (blog/media article)

Douglas T, Douglas T, ‘Should a rapist get Viagra or a robber get a cataracts op?’, Aeon, 7 July 2017 (blog/media article).

Douglas T, ‘It’s not always wrong to pay people for their organs’, The Conversation, 8 June 2017, . Reprinted in The Independent 12 July 2017 (blog/media article)

Pugh J, Why Is Chemical Castration Being Used on Sex Offenders in Some Countries?, The Conversation, 16 June 2016 (blog/media article)

Douglas T, Taking drugs to help others, Practical Ethics: Ethics in the News 2011 (blog)

Douglas T, Compulsory chemical castration for sex offenders, Practical Ethics: Ethics in the News 2008 (blog)

Douglas T, Interviewed on the ethics of neurointerventions in crime prevention, ‘Nine to Noon’, Radio New Zealand National, aired 19 January 2015 (radio)

Douglas T, ‘The Ethics of Morality Altering Drugs’, Radio Interview, CBC Radio (Canada), 21 April 2011 (radio)

Douglas T, Refusing to Treat Sexual Dysfunction in Sex Offenders, podcast from the Conscience and Conscientious Objection in Healthcare Conference, 24 November 2015 (audio recording)

Pugh, J, Justifications for Non-Consensual Medical Treatments: From Infectious Disease Control to Criminal Rehabilitation - St Cross Special Ethics Seminar, 12th November 2015 (audio recording)