Addiction, responsibility, and neuroscience

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


This Article examines the basic issue of whether addiction is a moral excuse for those otherwise wrongful behaviors done by addicts. Addiction is currently not a legal defense in Anglo-American criminal law, so this moral issue is important because if addiction is a moral excuse then it should provide such a legal defense. Answering the basic issue is pursued in four steps. First, the question is raised as to how addiction should be defined. The definition of addiction used in medicine is taken as a starting point, although the so-called "disease model of addiction" is rejected because it mistakenly attempts to build attributes of excuse into the definition of addiction. Second, a complex mix of psychological explanations of the puzzling behaviors of addicts is examined, the common conclusion being that addicts' acts of use and acquisition of drugs is irrational in a variety of senses of that word. Third, each of the explanations of the behaviors of addicts is probed as to its potential of providing moral excuse for such behaviors. Generally, no such excuse is discovered, although occasionally the irrationalities of addictive behavior does provide partial mitigation from responsibility. In reaching this generally negative conclusion about excuse, no reliance is placed on the responsibility of addicts for becoming addicts in the first place; while addicts have such responsibility, it is no substitute for the responsibility for wrongful acts done as addicts. Fourth, two generations of neuroscience research into addiction is examined for its potential to alter the prior conclusions about how addiction should be conceptualized, explained, or evaluated. Although the first generation of such research- that cast in terms of opioid drugs hijacking the pleasure center of the brain-had the potential to enlarge the excusing potential of addiction, that research was not confirmed in its essential premises. The jury is still out on the potential of the second generation of such research to deepen the excusing potential of addiction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)375-470
Number of pages96
JournalUniversity of Illinois Law Review
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Law


Dive into the research topics of 'Addiction, responsibility, and neuroscience'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this