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  • Recent Work on Addiction and Responsible Agency
  • Gideon Yaffe (bio)

We tend to sympathize with addicts who behave illegally or immorally in service of their addictive cravings more readily than we do with those who act in exactly the same ways but who are not addicted. The addict who kills for money to buy crack seems less a moral monster than the unaddicted person who coldly plots the same murder for the same purpose. This distinction in our moral sentiments sometimes manifests itself in a distinction in legal and moral treatment: addicts are rarely thought blameless, but they are often taken to be less at fault than their unaddicted counterparts. But is the fact that a person's objectionable conduct springs from an addiction of genuine moral or legal weight? And, if it is, what is it about addiction that produces some form of diminished responsibility? In the last few years, a startling amount of literature relevant to these topics has appeared, produced by theorists in a wide variety of disciplines from jurisprudence, psychology and ethics to economics, political science and neurobiology. This essay critically examines some of the most prominent recent [End Page 178] efforts to explain the impact, if any, of addiction on freedom and rationality, and, in turn, legal and moral responsibility.1

There is something like consensus in the literature, and with good reason, that if addiction does diminish responsibility it is not for the reason that, say, epilepsy diminishes responsibility. The epileptic might do damage when in the fit of a seizure, but she is not responsible for that damage since her spasmodic movements are not motivated. She differs from a person who is thrown to the ground by the wind only in that the "wind" that blows her about springs from a condition within her own brain. But behavior stemming from addiction is not like this. The addict is motivated to get that to which she is addicted. As Gary Watson puts the point, "One who is defeated by appetite is more like a collaborationist than an unsuccessful freedom fighter."2 The first question is how, if at all, the motivational structures involved in addiction differ from those of the unaddicted; the second question is what difference, if any, this makes to responsibility for behavior stemming from addiction. While the bulk of the recent work on addiction is concerned with the first of these questions, the second will be considered here as well.

There is both a legitimate moral and legal basis for distinguishing among (1) those who wholeheartedly and unreservedly pursue illegal or immoral courses of action, (2) those who do wrong out of compulsion, that is, unfreely, and (3) those who do wrong as a result of transitory powerful impulses and thus manifest irrational weakness—crimes of passion, for instance. One approach to understanding the impact of addiction on responsibility places addicts in category (2). To adopt this approach is to say that addicts are subject to irresistible desires or are in some other way compelled to act as they do.3 This is to contrast [End Page 179] behavior stemming from addiction with behavior reflective of an agent's capacity to control what she does. We can imagine a variety of ways of pursuing this strategy differing with respect to their analyses of the freedom necessary for moral responsibility, on the one hand, and addictive behavior, on the other.4 But whatever the details of such accounts, adopting this approach amounts to claiming that addiction is a familiar excusing condition analogous to other conditions, such as insanity, that excuse from responsibility by removing the agent's capacity to engage in legally or morally responsible behavior. Those who take insanity to undermine freedom often argue that insanity removes its victim's capacity to act rationally, and further claim that such a capacity is required for the freedom necessary for moral or legal responsibility. We might adopt a similar position with respect to addiction. Still, to take this approach is to say that addiction undermines responsibility by eliminating freedom.

An alternative to the view that addiction eliminates freedom takes addiction to influence the agent either not to employ, or to misemploy, her capacities...


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pp. 178-221
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2003
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