Justifications for Non-­Consensual Medical Intervention: From Infectious Disease Control to Criminal Rehabilitation

Criminal Justice Ethics 35 (3):205-229 (2016)
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A central tenet of medical ethics holds that it is permissible to perform a medical intervention on a competent individual only if that individual has given informed consent to the intervention. However, in some circumstances it is tempting to say that the moral reason to obtain informed consent prior to administering a medical intervention is outweighed. For example, if an individual’s refusal to undergo a medical intervention would lead to the transmission of a dangerous infectious disease to other members of the community, one might claim that it would be morally permissible to administer the intervention even in the absence of consent. Indeed, as we shall discuss below, there are a number of examples of public health authorities implementing compulsory or coercive measures for the purposes of infectious disease control (IDC). The plausibility of the thought that non-consensual medical interventions might be justified when performed for the purpose of IDC raises the question of whether such interventions might permissibly be used to realize other public goods. In this article we focus on one possibility: whether it could be permissible to non-consensually impose certain interventions that alter brain states or processes through chemical or physical means on serious criminal offenders. We shall suggest that some such interventions might be permissible if they safely and effectively serve to facilitate the offender’s rehabilitation and thereby prevent criminal recidivism.

Author Profiles

Thomas Douglas
University of Oxford
Jonathan Pugh
University of Oxford


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