Addiction, Responsibility, and Neuroscience
110 Pages Posted: 1 Apr 2019 Last revised: 25 Apr 2019
Date Written: March 29, 2019
The article addresses the question whether substance addiction should be a moral excuse and legal defense for crimes done by addicts when those crimes are related to their addiction (typically the behaviors in question are use and acquisition of drugs). The conclusion is a qualified "no," with room for that answer to be modified by future research in neuroscience. The article proceeds in five parts. First, the legal doctrines denying addiction as an defense are briefly described. Second, the question of how addiction should be conceptualized is raised, with attention being devoted to the methodological question of whether the law can and should use the medical conceptualization of addiction. Third, the question of why addicts use drugs is examined. Willing addicts (for whom drug use is rational) are distinguished from unwilling addicts (for whom it is not); it is unwilling addicts that are of interest because their "unwillingness" exhibits numerous but distinct defects of rationality that explain why addicts continue to do something so harmful to their interests despite their knowledge that that is what they are doing. The conclusion reached here is that the explanations of addicted behavior are diverse and different for different addicts on different occasions of their use, precluding any general, across the board explanation applicable to all acts by unwilling addicts. Fourth, the moral question is then raised as to whether any of the explanations of the behavior of unwilling addicts excuses them from responsibility for such of that behavior as is wrongful and criminal. The conclusion reached is generally in the negative, but given the diversity of motivations for why addicts continue to use drugs, that conclusion is not universal: some addicts do deserve to be excused. Fifth, two generations of research in the neuroscience of addiction are surveyed and the findings of that research plumbed to see whether the explanatory and moral conclusions discussed above need to be changed. Many have argued that neuroscience has shown that addiction should be a general excuse; grounds are given to reject all such claims. Still, the possibility is held open that future neuroscientific research on specific issues and in specific directions might yet show that addiction excuses more generally than is currently recognized.
Keywords: addiction, excuse, compulsion, responsibility
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation