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.



Douglas, T., (2024), 'On the Relative Intrusiveness of Physical and Chemical Restraints', AJOB Neuroscience, Vol: 15(1) [open access commentary]


De Marco, G. and Douglas, T., (2023), 'Nudge Transparency Is Not Required for Nudge Resistibility', Ergo, Vol: 10 (Article 5) [open access]

De Marco, G., (2023), 'Historical moral responsibility and manipulation via deletion', Erkenntnis, Vol: 88: 1429-1446 [PMC10030393]

De Marco, G., (2023), 'Manipulation, Machine Induction, and Bypassing', Philosophical Studies Vol: 180: 487–507 [open access]

Ligthart, S., Tesink, V., Douglas, T., Forsberg, L. and Meynen, G., (2023), 'The Normative Evaluation of Neurointerventions in Criminal Justice: From Invasiveness to Human Rights', AJOB Neuroscience, Vol: 14(1): 23-25

Tesink, V., Douglas, T., Forsberg, L., Ligthart, S. and Meynen, G., (2023), 'Neurointerventions in Criminal Justice: On the Scope of the Moral Right to Bodily Integrity', Neuroethics, Vol: 16(26) 


Davies, B. and Douglas, T., (2022), 'Learning to Discriminate: The Perfect Proxy Problem in Artificially Intelligent Criminal Sentencing'. in Roberts, J. and Ryberg, J., (Eds.)  Sentencing and Artificial Intelligence. (OUP)  [Link to record in Oxford Research Archives]

De Marco, G., (2022), 'Nonconsensual neurocorrectives, bypassing, and free action', Philosophical Studies, Vol: 179: 1953-1972 [PMC9237002]

De Marco, G. and Douglas, T., (2022), 'The Expressivist Objection to Nonconsensual Neurocorrectives', Criminal Law and Philosophy, Vol: 16: 373–393 [PMC9209385]

Douglas, T., (2022), 'The Mere Substitution Defence of Nudging Works for Neurointerventions Too', Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol: 39(3), pp. 407-420 [PMC9828860]

Douglas, T., (2022), 'If Nudges Treat their Targets as Rational Agents, Nonconsensual Neurointerventions Can Too', Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Vol: 25: 369-384 [open access]

Forsberg, L. and Douglas, T., (2022), 'What is criminal rehabilitation? ', Criminal Law and Philosophy, Vol: 16(1): 103–126 [PMC9034978]

Ligthart, S., Bublitz, C., Douglas, T., Forsberg, L. and Meynen, G., (2022), 'Rethinking the Right to Freedom of Thought: A Multidisciplinary Perspective', Human Rights Law Review Vol: 22(4) [Link to paper in Oxford Research Archives]


Birks D, (2021), ‘Paternalism as Punishment’, Utilitas, Vol: 33(1): 35-52  [PMC7611215]

De Marco, G. and Douglas, T., (2021), 'Technology to Prevent Criminal Behaviour'. in D. Edmonds, (Ed.) Future Morality. (Oxford University Press) [author preprint]

De Marco, G., Douglas, T. and Savulescu, J., (2021), 'Healthcare, Responsibility and Golden Opportunities', Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Vol: 24: 817–831

Douglas, T., (2022), 'A Pragmatic Argument for an Acceptance-Refusal Asymmetry in Competence Requirements', Journal of Medical Ethics, Vol: 48(11)

Douglas, T., Forsberg, L. and Pugh, J., (2021), 'Compulsory medical intervention versus external constraint in pandemic control', Journal of Medical Ethics, Vol: 47(12) [PMC8639959]

Douglas, T. and Forsberg, L., (2021), 'Three Rationales for a Legal Right to Mental Integrity'. in Douglas, T., Ligthart, S., Kooijmans, T. and Meynen, G., (Eds.) Neurolaw: Ways forward for Neuroscience, Justice & Security. (Palgrave Macmillan). Freely available in OAPEN Library.

Forsberg, L., (2021), 'Anti-libidinal Interventions and Human Rights', Human Rights Law Review, Vol: 21(2): 384–408 [PMC8655647]

Ligthart, S., Douglas, T., Bublitz C, Kooijmans, T. and Meynen, G., (2021), 'Forensic brain-reading and mental privacy in European human rights law: Foundations and challenges', Neuroethics, Vol: 14: 191–203 [PMC7612400]

Ligthart, S., Kooijmans, T., Douglas, T. and Meynen, G., (2021), 'Closed-Loop Brain Devices in Offender Rehabilitation: Autonomy, Human Rights, and Accountability', Cambridge Quarterly of Health Care Ethics, Vol: 30(4): 669-680 [PMC8549003]

Ligthart, S., Meynen, G. and Douglas, T., (2022), 'Persuasive technologies and the right to mental liberty: The ‘smart’ rehabilitation of criminal offenders'. in Ienca, M., Pollicino, O., Liguori, L., Andorno, R. and Stefanini, E., (Eds.) Cambridge Handbook of Life Science, Information Technology and Human Rights. (Cambridge University Press) [NBK592241]


De Marco G, ‘Brain Interventions, Moral Responsibility, and Control over One’s Mental Life’, Neuroethics, available online, forthcoming in print.

Douglas, T., (2020), 'Infection Control for Third-Party Benefit: Lessons from Criminal Justice', Monash Bioethics Review, Vol: 38(1): 17-31 [PMC7749867]

Douglas T, From Bodily Rights to Personal Rights, in A von Arnauld, K von der Decken, and M Susi (eds) The Cambridge Handbook of New Human Rights: Recognition, Novelty, Rhetoric (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Ligthart S, Kooijmans T, Douglas T, and Meynen G, (2021), Closed-Loop Brain Devices in Offender Rehabilitation: Autonomy, Human Rights, and Accountability, Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics; Vol: 30(4): 669-680 [PMC8549003]

Ligthart S, Douglas T, Bublitz C, Kooijmans T and Meynen, G, Forensic brain-reading and mental privacy in European human rights law: Foundations and challenges forthcoming in Neuroethics. (online first June 2020)


De Marco G, ‘Review of Gideon Yaffe’s The Age of Culpability: Children and the Nature of Criminal Responsibility’, Metapsychology Online 2019; 23(12).

D'Hotman D, Pugh J, Douglas T, ‘The Case Against Forced Methadone Detox in US Prisons’, Public Health Ethics 2019; 12(1): 89-93.

Douglas T, ‘Is Preventive Detention Morally Worse than Quarantine?’, in JW de Keijser, JV Roberts, and J Ryberg (eds) Predictive Sentencing: Normative and Empirical Perspectives (Hart Publishing, 2019). [publisher website | PubMed]

Douglas T, ‘Punishing Wrongs from the Distant Past’, Law and Philosophy 2019; 38(4): 335-358.

Douglas T, 'Enhancement & Desert', Politics, Philosophy & Economics 2019; 18(1): 3-22.

Ligthart S, Douglas T, Bublitz C, Meynen G, ‘The Future of Neuroethics and the Relevance of the Law', AJOB Neuroscience 2019; 10(3): 120-121. [publisher website]

Pugh J, 'Moral Bio-Enhancement, Freedom, Value and the Parity Principle', Topoi 2019; 38(1): 73-86.

Theofilopoulou A, 'Punishment as Moral Fortification and Non-Consensual Neurointerventions', Law and Philosophy 2019; 38(2): 149-167.

Zohny H, ‘Moral Enhancement and the Good Life’, Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 2019; 22(2): 267-274.

Zohny H, Douglas T, Savulescu J, ‘Biomarkers for the Rich and Dangerous: Why We Ought to Extend Bioprediction and Bioprevention to White-Collar Crime’, Criminal Law and Philosophy 2019; 13(3): 479-497.

Douglas T, ‘Nonconsensual Neurocorrectives and Bodily Integrity: A Reply to Shaw and Barn’, Neuroethics 2019; 12(1): 107-118.


Birks D, 'How Wrong Is Paternalism?', Journal of Moral Philosophy 2018; 15(2): 136-163.

Chew C, Faber N, Douglas T, ‘Biological Interventions for Crime Prevention’, in D Birks and T Douglas (eds.) Treatment for Crime (Oxford University Press, 2018). [publisher website]

D’Hotman D, Pugh J, Douglas T, ‘When Is Coercive Methadone Therapy Justified?’, Bioethics 2018; 32(7): 405-413.

Douglas T, 'Neural and Environmental Modulation of Motivation: What's the Moral Difference?', in D Birks and T Douglas (eds.) Treatment for Crime (Oxford University Press, 2018). [publisher website]

Douglas T, Birks D, 'Introduction', in D Birks and T Douglas (eds.) Treatment for Crime (Oxford University Press, 2018). [publisher website]

Douglas T, Zohny H, ‘The Negative Effects of Neurointerventions: Confusing Constitution and Causation’, AJOB Neuroscience 2018; 9(3): 162-164. [publisher website]


Birks D, Douglas T, ‘Two Ways to Frustrate a Desire’, Journal of Value Inquiry 2017; 51(3): 417-434.

Douglas T, ‘Going Above and Beneath the Call of Duty: The Luck Egalitarian Claims of Healthcare Heroes, and the Accommodation of Professionally-Motivated Treatment-Refusal’, Journal of Medical Ethics 2017; 43(12): 801-802.

Douglas T, ‘Refusing to Treat Sexual Dysfunction in Sex Offenders’, Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 2017; 26(1): 143-158. [journal version]

Douglas T, Pugh J, Singh I, Savulescu J, Fazel S, 'Risk Assessment Tools in Criminal Justice and Forensic Psychiatry: The Need for Better Data', European Psychiatry 2017; 42: 134-137.

Pugh J, Maslen H, "'Drugs That Make You Feel Bad’? Remorse-Based Mitigation and Neurointerventions"Criminal Law and Philosophy 2017; 11(3):499-522. Discussed by The Hon. Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb DBE in the Annual Borderlands Lecture, section 70.


D'Hotman D, Pugh J, Douglas T, ‘Methadone for Prisoners’, The Lancet 2016; 387: 224.

Douglas T, ‘Taking Drugs to Help Others’, in D Edmonds (ed.) Philosophers Take On the World (Oxford University Press, 2016). [publisher website]

Forsberg L, Douglas T, ‘Anti-libidinal intervention in Sex Offenders: Medical or Correctional?’, Medical Law Review 2016; 24(4): 453-473.

Pugh J, Douglas T, ‘Justifications for Non-Consensual Medical Intervention: From Infectious Disease Control to Criminal Rehabilitation’, Criminal Justice Ethics 2016; 35(3): 205-229. [journal version]

Pugh J, Douglas T, ‘Neurointerventions as Criminal Rehabilitation: An Ethical Review’, in J J Jacobs and J Jackson (eds) Routledge Handbook of Criminal Justice (Routledge, 2016). [publisher website]

2013 - 2015

Phillips EA, Rajender A, Brandon AF, Douglas T, Munarriz R, ‘Sex Offenders Seeking Treatment for Sexual Dysfunction—Ethics, Medicine, and the Law’, Journal of Sexual Medicine 2015; 12: 1591–1600.

Douglas T, ‘Criminal Rehabilitation through Medical Intervention: Moral Liability and the Right to Bodily Integrity’, Journal of Ethics 2014; 18(2): 101-122.

Douglas T, Bonte P, Focquaert F, Devolder K, Sterckx S, ‘Coercion, Incarceration and Chemical Castration: An Argument from Autonomy’, Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 2013; 10(3): 395-405.


Douglas T, Forsberg L, and Pugh J, The Covid-19 Response in England: A Conditional, Comparative Argument for Compulsory Medical Intervention, Journal of Medical Ethics, forthcoming.

Douglas, T., (2022), '(When) Is Adblocking Wrongful?'. in Véliz, C., (Ed.) Oxford Handbook of Digital Ethics (Oxford University Press)

Douglas T, The Morality of Moral Neuroenhancement, in J Clausen and N Levy (eds) Handbook of Neuroethics (Springer, 2015): 1227-1249. [publisher website]

Douglas T, Enhancing Moral Conformity and Enhancing Moral WorthNeuroethics 2014; 7(1): 75-91.

Pugh J, Autonomy, Natality and Freedom: A Liberal Re-Examination of Habermas in the Enhancement DebateBioethics 2014; 29(3):145-152.

Douglas T, Enhancement, Biomedical, in H LaFollette (ed.) International Encyclopedia of Ethics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

Pugh J, Kahane J, and Savulescu J, Cohen’s Conservatism and Human EnhancementThe Journal of Ethics 2013; 17(4): 331–54.

Douglas T, Moral EnhancementJournal of Applied Philosophy 2008; 25(3): 228-245. 


Bomann-Larsen L, Voluntary Rehabilitation? On Neurotechnological Behavioural Treatment, Valid Consent and (In)appropriate OffersNeuroethics 2013; 6 (1): 65–77.

Bublitz J C, Merkel R, 2014, Crimes Against Minds: On Mental Manipulations, Harms and a Human Right to Mental Self-DeterminationCriminal Law and Philosophy 2014; 8(1): 51–77.

Bublitz J C, Merkel R, Autonomy and Authenticity of Enhanced Personality TraitsBioethics 2009; 23(6): 360–74.

Caplan A, Ethical Issues Surrounding Forced, Mandated, or Coerced TreatmentJournal of Substance Abuse Treatment 2006; 31(2): 117–20.

Crockett M, Clark L, Hauser M, Robbins T, Serotonin Selectively Influences Moral Judgment and Behavior through Effects on Harm AversionProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2010; 107(40): 17433–38.

Crockett M, Clark L, Tabibnia G, Lieberman M, Robbins T, Serotonin Modulates Behavioral Reactions to UnfairnessScience 2008; 320(5884): 1739–1739.

Greely H, Neuroscience and Criminal Justice: Not Responsibility but TreatmentUniversity of Kansas Law Review 2008; 56(5): 1103–38.

McMillan J, The Kindest Cut? Surgical Castration, Sex Offenders and Coercive OffersJournal of Medical Ethics 2013; 40(9): 583-590. 

Rosati C, A Study of Internal PunishmentWisconsin Law Review 1994; 123: 123-170.

Ryberg J, Is Coercive Treatment of Offenders Morally Acceptable? On the Deficiency of the DebateCriminal Law and Philosophy 2015; 9(4): 619-631.

Ryberg J, Punishment, Pharmacological Treatment, and Early ReleaseInternational Journal of Applied Philosophy 2012; 26(2): 231–44.

Ryberg J, and T Petersen, Neurotechnological Behavioural Treatment of Criminal Offenders—A Comment on Bomann-Larsen, Neuroethics 2013; 6(1): 79–83.

Shaw, E, Direct Brain Interventions and Responsibility EnhancementCriminal Law and Philosophy 2014; 8(1): 1–20.

Vincent N, Restoring Responsibility: Promoting Justice, Therapy and Reform Through Direct Brain InterventionsCriminal Law and Philosophy 2014; 8(1): 21–42.Media

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.

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.

Zohny H, ‘My Brain Made Me Carry Out a Ponzi Scheme’, Slate, 23 May 2018.

Douglas T, Douglas T, ‘Should a rapist get Viagra or a robber get a cataracts op?’, Aeon, 7 July 2017, .

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. 

Pugh J, Why Is Chemical Castration Being Used on Sex Offenders in Some Countries?, The Conversation, 16 June 2016.


Douglas T, Taking drugs to help others, Practical Ethics: Ethics in the News 2011.

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


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

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


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

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