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30 Philosophy and Public Affairs 178 (2001)


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 efforts to explain the impact, if any, of addiction on freedom and rationality, and, in turn, legal and moral responsibility.

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