Some thoughts on reparations

Consider the following case. Imagine you inherit a fortune from your parents. With that money, you buy a luxurious house and you pay to get a good education, which later allows you to find a job where you earn a decent salary. Many years later, you find out that your parents made their fortune through a very bad act—say, defrauding someone. You also find out that the scammed person and his family lived an underprivileged life from that moment on.

What do you think you would need to do to fulfill your moral obligations?

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1 in 4 women: How the latest sexual assault statistics were turned into click bait by the New York Times

by Brian D. Earp / (@briandavidearp)

* Note: this article was originally published at the Huffington Post.


As someone who has worked on college campuses to educate men and women about sexual assault and consent, I have seen the barriers to raising awareness and changing attitudes. Chief among them, in my experience, is a sense of skepticism–especially among college-aged men–that sexual assault is even all that dire of a problem to begin with.

“1 in 4? 1 in 5? Come on, it can’t be that high. That’s just feminist propaganda!”

A lot of the statistics that get thrown around in this area (they seem to think) have more to do with politics and ideology than with careful, dispassionate science. So they often wave away the issue of sexual assault–and won’t engage on issues like affirmative consent.

In my view, these are the men we really need to reach.

A new statistic

So enter the headline from last week’s New York Times coverage of the latest college campus sexual assault survey:

1 in 4 Women Experience Sex Assault on Campus.”

But that’s not what the survey showed. And you don’t have to read all 288 pages of the published report to figure this out (although I did that today just to be sure). The executive summary is all you need.

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Guest Post: Mental Health Disorders in Prison: Neuroethical and Societal Issues

 Guest post by Barbara Sahakian,

FMedSci, DSc, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge,

and president of the International Neuroethics Society.

This article was originally published on the Dana Foundation Blog, and can be read here: http://danablog.org/2015/07/28/mental-health-disorders-in-prison-neuroethical-and-societal-issues/

More than half of all prison and jail inmates have a mental health problem.[i] In addition, according to a 2010 report released by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Association,[ii] more mentally ill persons are in jails and prisons than in hospitals, and many of those remain untreated. Those in prison have a higher risk of substance abuse, and suicide rates are four to five times higher than within the general population.[iii] Deaths are also increased upon release, with the most common reasons being drug overdose, cardiovascular disease, homicide, and suicide.[iv]

Many people in prison have lower than average IQs, and it is well-established that lower IQ is a known risk factor for mental health problems.[v] Rates of problems for children in the youth justice system are at least three times higher than within the general population, and are highest amongst children in custody.[vi] Almost a quarter of children who offend have very low IQs of less than 70.[vii]

At the International Neuroethics Society Annual Meeting 2015 in Chicago (Oct. 15-16), there will be a panel entitled, “Mental health disorders in prison: Neuroethical and societal issues,” which will consider vulnerabilities to mental health problems of those in prison, and whether there are inequalities in access to psychiatrists, psychologists, and other professionals for diagnosis and treatment. This panel will also reflect on what steps, in terms of improving cognition, functionality, and wellbeing, society should be taking to ensure better life trajectories when inmates with mental health problems are released.

For example, suicide mortality is reduced by antidepressant treatment,[viii] and there is evidence that for at least some disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), treatment leads to a significant reduction in criminality rates in men (Lichtenstein et al, 2012).[ix] Effective treatment of neuropsychiatric disorders and education, including skill training in prisons, could help to increase cognitive reserve and resilience, helping prisoners successfully address the many challenges encountered on release.[x]

The highly distinguished panel includes Dr. James Blair, Dr. Laurie R. Garduque, and Professor Hank Greely. The panel’s moderator, Dr. Alan Leshner, has been director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, deputy director and acting director of the National Institute of Mental Health, and chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was one of the first to highlight the neuroscientific evidence of brain changes in addiction.

[i] James DJ, Glaze LE (2006) Mental health problems of prison and jail inmates. Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 213600

[ii] Torrey E, Kennard A, Eslinger D, Lamb R, Pavle J (2010) More Mentally Ill Persons are in Jails and Prisons than Hospitals: A Survey of the States. Treatment Advocacy Center.

[iii] Fazel S, Grann M, Kling B, Hawton K (2011) Prison suicide in 12 countries: An ecological study of 861 suicides during 2003–2007. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol, 46, 191-195.

[iv] Binswanger IA, Stern MF, Deyo RA, Heagerty PJ, Cheadle A, Elmore JG, Koepsell TD (2007) Release from prison: A high risk of death for former inmates. New England Journal of Medicine, 356, 157-165.

[v] Barnett JH, Salmond CH, Jones PB, Sahakian BJ (2006) Cognitive reserve in neuropsychiatry. Psychological Medicine, 36, 1053-1064.

[vi] Hagell A (2002) The mental health needs of young offenders—a report commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation MHF: London.

[vii] Harrington R, Bailey S (2005) Mental health needs and effectiveness of provision for young offenders in custody and in the community YJB: London.

[viii] Morgan OWC, Griffiths C, Majeed A (2004) Association between mortality from suicide in England and antidepressant prescribing: an ecological study. BMC Public Health, 4.

[ix] Lictenstein P, Halldner L, Zetterqvist J, Sjolander A, Serlachius E, Fazel S, Langstrom N, Larsson H (2012) Medication for attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and criminality. The New England Journal of Medicine, 367.

[x] Beddington J, Cooper CL, Field J, Goswami U, Huppert FA, Jenkins R, Jones HS, Kirkwood TB, Sahakian BJ, Thomas SM (2008) The mental wealth of nations. Nature, 23, 1057-1060.

Stopping the innocent from pleading guilty

Written by Dr John Danaher.

Dr Danaher is a Lecturer in Law at NUI Galway. His research interests include neuroscience and law, human enhancement, and the ethics of artificial intelligence.

A version of this post was previously published here.

Somebody recently sent me a link to an article by Jed Radoff entitled “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty”. Radoff’s article is an indictment of the plea-bargaining system currently in operation in the US. Unsurprisingly given its title, it argues that the current system of plea bargaining encourages innocent people to plead guilty, and that something must be done to prevent this from happening.

I recently published a paper addressing the same problem. The gist of its argument is that I think that it may be possible to use a certain type of brain-based lie detection — the P300 Concealed Information Test (P300 CIT) — to rectify some of the problems inherent in systems of plea bargaining. The word “possible” is important here. I don’t believe that the technology is currently ready to be used in this way – I think further field testing needs to take place – but I don’t think the technology is as far away as some people might believe either.

What I find interesting is that, despite this, there is considerable resistance to the use of the P300 CIT in academic and legal circles. Some of that resistance stems from unwarranted fealty to the status quo, and some stems from legitimate concerns about potential abuses of the technology (miscarriages of justice etc.). I try to overcome some of this resistance by suggesting that the P300 CIT might be better than other proposed methods for resolving existing abuses of power within the system. Hence my focus on plea-bargaining and the innocence problem.

Anyway, in what follows I’ll try to give a basic outline of my argument. As ever, for the detail, you’ll have to read the original paper. Continue reading

McMahan’s Hazardous (and Irrelevant) Thought Experiment

Written by Professor Allen Buchanan and Professor Lance K. Stell  


This is a response to an earlier post, by Jeff McMahan, about the right to carry guns, http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2015/04/a-challenge-to-gun-rights.

Before we criticize McMahan’s argument, it is important to ascertain its implications: Assuming that, as McMahan thinks, there is no moral right to gun ownership, what follows, practically speaking? One might think that, given the number of gun deaths, it follows that there should be a legal ban on gun ownership. As we shall show, however, that conclusion does not follow.  Whether or not gun ownership should be banned is independent of whether there is a moral right to gun ownership. We will show that McMahan has not established that there is no moral right to gun ownership, but that even if he had, he would not have thereby shown that there should be a ban on gun ownership. Continue reading

Born this way? How high-tech conversion therapy could undermine gay rights

By Andrew Vierra, Georgia State University and Brian D Earp, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the 
original article.


Following the death of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen who committed suicide after forced “conversion therapy,” President Barack Obama called for a nationwide ban on psychotherapy aimed at changing sexual orientation or gender identity. The administration argued that because conversion therapy causes substantial psychological harm to minors, it is neither medically nor ethically appropriate.

We fully agree with the President and believe that this is a step in the right direction. Of course, in addition to being unsafe as well as ethically unsound, current conversion therapy approaches aren’t actually effective at doing what they claim to do – changing sexual orientation.

But we also worry that this may be a short-term legislative solution to what is really a conceptual problem.

The question we ought to be asking is “what will happen if and when scientists do end up developing safe and effective technologies that can alter sexual orientation?”

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A Challenge to Gun Rights

Written By Professor Jeff McMahan


On this day in the US, around thirty people will be killed with a gun, not including suicides.  Many more will be wounded.  I can safely predict this number because that is the average number of homicides committed with a gun in the US each day.  Such killings have become so routine that they are barely noticed even in the local news.  Only when a significant number of people are murdered, particularly when they include children or are killed randomly, is the event considered newsworthy.


Yet efforts to regulate the possession of guns in the US are consistently defeated. Continue reading

Returning Looted Artworks

Written by Cecile Fabre, April 2015


In 1999, Maria Altman, who had fled Austria in 1938 following the Anschluss with Germany, filed a lawsuit against the Austrian government. Her claim was that five paintings by Gustav Klimt, had been looted by the Nazis from her uncle before falling into the possession of the Austrian authorities, and that these ought to be returned to her as the rightful heir. Two of the paintings included portraits of her aunt. The Austrians initially refused to take her request seriously but eventually gave in after several dramatic legal twists and turns.[1]

This story is now on our cinema screens under the title A Woman in Gold, with Helen Mirren in the starring role. The ending is clearly meant to be regarded as a happy one: after all, Altman does get the painting back. And, generally, many think that stolen or plundered works of art ought to be returned to those from whom they were taken, or their heirs. Continue reading

On the supposed distinction between culture and religion: A brief comment on Sir James Munby’s decision in the matter of B and G (children)

On the supposed distinction between culture and religion: A brief comment on Sir James Munby’s decision in the matter of B and G (children)

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)


What is the difference between ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ … ? From a legal standpoint, this question is important: practices which may be described as being ‘religious’ in nature are typically afforded much greater protection from interference by the state than those that are understood as being ‘merely’ cultural. One key area in which this distinction is commonly drawn is with respect to the non-therapeutic alterations of children’s genitals. When such alteration is done to female children, it is often said to be a ‘cultural’ practice that does not deserve legal protection; whereas, when it is done to male children, it is commonly said to be a ‘religious’ practice – at least for some groups – and must therefore not be restricted (much less forbidden) by law.

Is this a valid distinction?

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The Indignity of Imprisonment

            Do we need to radically rethink the practice of imprisonment of criminals – not in the direction of novel forms of punishment, but rather in the form of vastly reducing punitive imprisonment altogether?  While prisons are integral to modern criminal justice system, a report from the British Academy earlier this month puts serious pressure on the institution.  Their overall argument is that we should move away from current levels of incarceration and focus on alternative responses to criminality like fines, rehabilitation programs and restorative justice.  Part of the report rehashes familiar empirical, consequentialist arguments for prison reform: prisons are expensive, they have deleterious effects on society, they have unclear deterrent effects, and so on.   Those arguments are relevant and important, but in this post I’d like to focus on the more theoretical, non-consequentialist arguments for prison reform.  The British Academy report argues that, in essence, current imprisonment practices are incompatible with the values of liberal democracy.  This is roughly in line with a growing body of philosophical literature militating against mass incarceration and other forms of punishment.  Here, I’ll go through some of the report’s arguments (and one of its weaknesses), as well as introduce an alternative account I’m developing that links up the imprisonment debate with the torture debate and emphasizes a respect for dignity and humanity. Continue reading