One of the central claims of modern medical ethics is that patients have a right to refuse medical treatment, and that to impose a non-consensual medical treatment on an individual would violate their autonomy. With this in mind, it might be claimed that neuro-interventions aimed at preventing recidivism amongst criminal offenders (henceforth, ‘neuro-correctives’) should only be carried out with the valid consent of the criminal offender.
However, one problem with this approach to the problem of neuro-correctives is that we already impose non-consensual constraints on criminal offenders that it would not be permissible to impose on non-offenders. Most obviously, for instance, we incarcerate criminal offenders for long periods of time, depriving them of their freedom of movement and association. Alternatively, the criminal justice system might impose financial sanctions, community service orders, or even require that a criminal offender undergo cognitive behavioural therapy. Presumably, part of the reason that we believe that it is permissible to impose these kinds of non-consensual penal sanctions is that criminal offenders have made themselves morally liable to these kinds of intervention by virtue of their criminal offence.
In view of this, a central question in this area is whether there are any significant moral differences between the imposition of the various sanctions that we already impose on criminal offenders without their consent, and the potential non-consensual use of neuro-correctives. Of course, an obvious descriptive difference between neuro-correctives and traditional criminal sanctions is that neuro-correctives would be physically invasive. However, Tom Douglas has argued that it is not clear that this difference itself carries any moral significance – it is not clear that the right to bodily integrity should be conceived as carrying greater weight than the rights to freedom of movement and association that non-consensual incarceration violates for instance.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.