The Philosophy of Addiction and Responsibility

Department: Philosophy

Instructor: Cami Koepke
Instructor Email:
Prerequisites: None

Course Description

This course will focus on addiction and its implications for moral and legal responsibility. Thought this course is above all a course in philosophy, the topic lies at the intersection of science, bio-ethics, and the law, and students will get an understanding of all of these fields as they bear on questions about addiction. Students will first learn about current findings and methods in scientific research relevant to understanding addiction. Second, students will learn about current theories of moral and legal responsibility. Finally, drawing from the theories of addiction and responsibility, students will consider and assess current policies in place related to addiction. This course does not require students to have prior experience in any of the fields of study covered in the course.

Course Goals / Learning Objectives

The first main goal of this course is for students to understand what addiction is and how the condition bears on questions of responsibility, both in everyday life and the law. The second main goal is for students to learn how to critically assess approaches to addiction and responsibility. Upon finishing the course, students will be able to explain and defend views on what addiction is and whether addiction can mitigate responsibility for moral or legal wrongdoing.

Our first step will be to understand what addiction is by looking at influential current findings in neuroscience and psychology. With the empirical findings in mind, we’ll turn to consider how facts and values both play a role in developing the concept of addiction. Drawing on a paradigm-based view of psychological conditions, students will work together to develop what they think is the best conception of addiction.

Our second step will be to understand theories of responsibility, both in terms of everyday informal interactions as well as in terms of U.S. criminal law. After surveying current influential theories of moral responsibility, students will critically defend their preferred theory and its verdict about addiction and responsibility. Students will then turn to consider the legal notions of excuse and justification in the criminal law. They will consider and analyze views of responsibility in legal theory, and examine how the law currently deals with addicts who break the criminal law.

Our third step will be to look at contemporary societal issues related to addiction. We’ll look into the history of drug use and some of the current social and policy debates related to defining, combating, and treating addiction. We’ll draw upon the theoretical work from steps one and two to offer our own policy recommendations.

In light of the course goals to both understand and critically contribute to the on-going discussion on addiction, course assignments will focus on encouraging both the understanding of the material and the development of the ability to critically assess the various philosophical and scientific views. To accomplish these goals, assessment of learning will be accomplished in 1) daily short analysis-based writing assignments, 2) group research project and presentation, 3) two essay exams, 4) daily reading comprehension quizzes, and 5) one long essay (1,000 words).

Extra Credit

Students will have an opportunity to earn extra credit by researching, reading, and writing on news articles related to the current opioid addiction crisis in the US.

Topical Outline

Part I: What Addiction Is (Week I)

  1. The Science of Addiction
    • dopamine and the brain's reward system
    • brain-based models of addiction
  2. Drugs and the Brain
    • how drugs act (differently) on the brain
    • withdrawal and tolerance
  3. Behaviors and Addiction
    • food
    • gambling
  4. Defining Psychological Disorders
    • psychiatric concepts
    • bodily illness versus psychological illness
    • DSM-V
  5. Review of Week

Part II: Blameworthiness, Moral Responsibility, and the Law (Week II)

  1. General Introduction to Theories of Blameworthiness and Responsibility
    • the difference between blame and blameworthiness
    • attributive versus accountability
    • who can be blamed and why
  2. Control-Based Theories of Responsibility
    • Fair Opportunity to Avoid Wrongdoing
    • mechanisms of Control
    • weakness of will and rationality
  3. Deep-Self Theories of Responsibility
    • responsibility for desires
    • responsibility for evaluative judgments
    • responsibility for character
  4. Addiction, the Law, and Excuses
    • legal theory of responsibility and excuse for wrongdoing
    • the law, mental illness, and addiction
  5. Review of Week

Part III: Addiction and Controversies (Week III)

  1. The Political Battle Over the Definition of Addiction
    • the moral history of addiction in the U.S.
    • choice versus disease
    • National Institute on Drug Abuse
  2. Addiction and Punishment
    • court cases of addicts being held responsibile for their addiction
    • scheduling of drugs
    • addicts and prison
  3. Addiction, Policy, and Social Services
    • social resources for addicts
    • addiction as a compromiser of care
    • addiction and homelessness
  4. Addiction and clinical care
    • clinical approaches to treating addiction
    • in-patient versus out-patient care
  5. Review of Week

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