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

Treatment for Crime Workshop (13th – 14th April) – Overview

Practical ethicists have become increasingly interested in the potential applications of neurointerventions—interventions that exert a direct biological effect on the brain. One application of these interventions that has particularly stimulated moral discussion is the potential use of these interventions to prevent recidivism amongst criminal offenders. To a limited extent, we are already on the path to using what can be described as neuro-interventions in this way. For instance, in certain jurisdictions drug-addicted offenders are required to take medications that are intended to attenuate their addictive desires. Furthermore, sex-offenders in certain jurisdictions may receive testosterone-lowering drugs (sometimes referred to as ‘chemical castration’) as a part of their criminal sentence, or as required by their conditions of parole.

On 13-14th April, a workshop (funded by the Wellcome Trust) focussing on the moral questions raised by the potential use of neuro-interventions to prevent criminal recidivism took place at Kellogg College in Oxford. I lack the space here to adequately explore the nuances of all of the talks in this workshop. Rather, in this post, I shall briefly explain some of the main themes and issues that were raised in the fruitful discussions that took place over the course of the workshop, and attempt to give readers at least a flavour of each of the talks given; I apologise in advance for the fact that I must necessarily gloss over a number of interesting details and arguments. Continue reading

“The Medicalization of Love” – call for peer commentaries – DUE SEPT 1


The paper, “The Medicalization of Love” by Brian D. Earp, Anders Sandberg, and Julian Savulescu, has been accepted for publication at the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. Scholars interested in submitting a short reply paper or peer commentary are encouraged to contact the editor, Tomi Kushner, at

The final deadline for commentaries/ papers is September 1st. The abstract for the paper is below; the accepted manuscript is available at this link. Inquiries to the editor should be sent as soon as possible.


Pharmaceuticals or other emerging technologies could be used to enhance (or diminish) feelings of lust, attraction, and attachment in adult romantic partnerships. While such interventions could conceivably be used to promote individual (and couple) well-being, their widespread development and/or adoption might lead to “medicalization” of human love and heartache—for some, a source of serious concern. In this essay, we argue that the “medicalization of love” need not necessarily be problematic, on balance, but could plausibly be expected to have either good or bad consequences depending upon how it unfolds. By anticipating some of the specific ways in which these technologies could yield unwanted outcomes, bioethicists and others can help direct the course of love’s “medicalization”—should it happen to occur—more toward the “good” side than the “bad.”

Here is the link to the accepted manuscript.

* image from

Emergence’s devil haunts the moral enhancer’s kingdom come

It is 2025. Society has increasingly realised the importance of breaking evolution’s chains and enhancing the human condition. Large grants are awarded for building sci-fi-like laboratories to search for and create the ultimate moral enhancer. After just a few years, humanity believes it has made one of its most major breakthroughs: a pill which will rid our morality of all its faults. Without any side-effects, it vastly increases our ability to cooperate and to think rationally on moral issues, while also enhancing our empathy and our compassion for the whole of humanity. By shifting individuals’ socio-value orientation towards cooperation, this pill will allow us to build safe, efficient and peaceful societies. It will cast a pro-social paradise on earth, the moral enhancer kingdom come.

I believe we better think twice before endeavouring ourselves into this pro-social paradise on the cheap. Not because we will lose “the X factor”, not because it will violate autonomy, and not because such a drug would cause us to exit our own species. Even if all those objections are refuted, even if the drug has no side-effects, even if each and every human being, by miracle, willingly takes the drug without any coercion whatsoever, even then, I contend we could still have trouble.

Continue reading

Could ad hominem arguments sometimes be OK?

By Brian D. Earp

Follow Brian on Twitter by clicking here.

Could ad hominem arguments sometimes be OK? 

You aren’t supposed to make ad hominem arguments in academic papers — maybe not anywhere. To get us on the same page, here’s a quick blurb from Wikipedia:

An ad hominem (Latin for “to the man” or “to the person”), short for argumentum ad hominem, is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Ad hominem reasoning is normally categorized as an informal fallacy, more precisely as a genetic fallacy, a subcategory of fallacies of irrelevance.

Some initial thoughts. First, there are some clear cut cases where an ad hominem argument is plainly worthless and simply distracting: it doesn’t help us understand things better; it doesn’t wend toward truth. Let’s say that a philosopher makes an argument, X, concerning (say) abortion; and her opponent points out that the philosopher is (say) a known tax cheat — an attempt to discredit her character. Useless. But let’s say that a psychologist makes an argument, Y, about race and IQ (i.e., that black people are less “intelligent” than white people), and his opponent points out that he used to be a member of the KKK. Well, it’s still useless in one sense, in that the psychologist’s prior membership in the KKK can’t by itself disprove his argument; but it does seem useful in another sense, in that it might give us at least a plausible reason to be a little bit more cautious in interpreting the psychologist’s results.

Continue reading

Announcement: “Brave New Love” in AJOB:Neuroscience – peer commentaries due October 7

Announcement: “Brave New Love” – peer commentaries due October 7

Dear Practical Ethics readers,

The paper, “Brave new love: the threat of high-tech ‘conversion’ therapy and the bio-oppression of sexual minorities” by Brian D. Earp, Anders Sandberg, and Julian Savulescu has been accepted for publication in the American Journal of Bioethics: NeuroscienceProposals for open peer commentaries are due this Monday October 7th.

The article may be accessed here, or at the following link: Be sure to select AJOB:Neuroscience from the drop-down menu of journals. Here is an abstract of the argument:


Abstract: Our understanding of the neurochemical bases of human love and attachment, as well as of the genetic, epigenetic, hormonal, and experiential factors that conspire to shape an individual’s sexual orientation, is increasing exponentially. This research raises the vexing possibility that we may one day be equipped to modify such variables directly, allowing for the creation of “high-tech” conversion therapies or other suspect interventions. In this paper, we discuss the ethics surrounding such a possibility, and call for the development of legal and procedural safeguards for protecting vulnerable children from the application of such technology. We also consider the more difficult case of voluntary, adult “conversion” and argue that in rare cases, such attempts might be permissible under strict conditions.


Open Peer Commentary articles are typically between 500-1500 words and contain no more than 10 references. A guide to writing an Open Peer Commentary is available under the Resources section “Instructions and Forms” at AJOB:Neuroscience asks that by Monday, October 7, 2013 you submit a short summary of your proposed Open Peer Commentary (no more than 1-2 paragraphs). Please submit your proposal online via the AJOB:Neuroscience Editorial site, following the instructions provided there. They ask that you do not prepare a full commentary yet. Once they have evaluated your proposal, they will contact you via email to let you know whether or not they were able to include you on the final list of those to be asked to submit an Open Peer Commentary.

You will then have until Friday, October 25, 2013 to submit your full Open Peer Commentary.


Podcast:Attention, Action, and Responsibility

On Friday 14 June, Carolyn Dicey Jennings – who is about to take up a post as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of California, Merced — offered a fascinating Uehiro seminar (mp3) paper on whether action or responsibility require attention. Continue reading

Psychosurgery: avoiding old problems, facing new ones

Antonio De Salles, Professor of Neurosurgery – UCLA

Lincoln Frias, postdoct UFMG-Brazil, International Neuroethics Society

Jorge Moll,  D’Or Institute-Brazil, International Neuroethics Society


Psychosurgery has a bad name. The destruction or disconnection of brain tissue to treat mental illness was brought into disrepute by controversial figures of the past, who performed lobotomies with poorly defined clinical indications and without respect to even the most basic surgical practices of asepsis and hemostasis. The procedures were irreversible, unsafe, and often done without adequate informed consent. In many cases the surgeries drastically reduced the patients’ well-being and autonomy. To avoid this, governments put in place stringent regulations on these procedures. Coupled with developments in psychopharmacology, this left psychosurgery only as a last resort for extreme cases. The moral problem is that the stereotypes and stigma evoked by this kind of treatment are largely inadequate given current technology.

Continue reading

Psychopaths should not be punished

Lincoln Frias – member of the International Neuroethics Society, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (CAPES, NEPC-UFMG), Brazil. 

Please focus: now, imagine a cute little child with her curious big eyes, her surprising funny remarks, and out of blue kindness. But now imagine her being kicked in the head to death, blood all over the place, despite her helplessness and her painful screams. If you really imagined this scenario, you probably experienced a revulsive feeling in your guts, tension in the jaw and maybe even a bitter taste in your mouth. Now, change the perspective: now it is you who is kicking her, causing her teeth to break, and all the blood coming out of her little body while she cries with a squeaky voice. This new vision probably brought even more aversive feelings, something similar to disgust, and it is possible that you are frowning right now, maybe even considering stop reading. To make things worse, imagine that your mother saw you doing that. This elicits a powerful feeling composed by anxiety, horror and intrusive thoughts of guilt and inadequacy, leaving you in a submissive state of mind. Continue reading


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