Addiction is a disease, not a moral failure

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Most of us have been trained to use more forgiving language when talking about addiction. We call it a disease. We say that people with addiction should be helped, not blamed. But deep down, many of us still have trouble avoiding the thought that they could stop using if they just tried harder.

Brendan de Kenessey, A philosopher explains why addiction isn’t a moral failureVox.com (March 5, 2018).

As the father of a child struggling to overcome a serious substance abuse problem, I’ve been forced to confront deeply held personal and societal beliefs about the relationship between addiction and personal responsibility. The above quote, from Brendan de Kenessey’s excellent article, captures how I long thought about the issue. But I’ve come to understand that this deeply held belief is mistaken. Addiction is not a choice.  And because it is not a choice, it is also a mistake to think of addiction as a moral failure.

As our understanding of addiction as a disease continues to grow, it may be necessary to reevaluate one of the most fundamental premises of our legal system:

[A] deterministic view of human conduct . . . is inconsistent with the underlying precepts of our criminal justice system. A “universal and persistent” foundation stone in our system of law, and particularly in our approach to punishment, sentencing, and incarceration, is the “belief in freedom of the human will and a consequent ability and duty of the normal individual to choose between good and evil.”

United States v. Grayson, 438 U.S. 441 (1978).

Whether humans have free will is a great topic to debate over pizza and beer, and a meaningful discussion of that topic is well beyond the scope of this post.  I’m not suggesting that the law shouldn’t hold individuals responsible for their actions.  But in the context of drug addiction, the evidence is overwhelming that addiction is not a choice.  Accordingly, the law shouldn’t punish addicts for having made a “bad choice.”  Nor should society view them as moral failures.  We need to help addicts overcome their disease, not blame them for it.

Dan Klau is an attorney with McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP. His opinions are his own and not those of his law firm. 


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