Addiction and moral responsibility

Addiction comes in many forms and most of us suffer in some way. I’m hopelessly addicted to AFL football and spicy food. Many people suffer from alcohol, gambling, shopping, smoking and other drug addictions that cause harm to self and to others.

What is the moral responsibility for engaging in addictive behaviour? This is not an easy question to answer. We have to first consider our moral responsibility for actions and their consequences.

If we accept a general rule of moral responsibility for our actions we should agree on at least two exceptions. The first exception is if we are completely and reasonably unaware of the consequences of our action. Consider the example where I stop at a traffic light turning from orange to red, however, the driver in the car behind who is unprepared and not wearing a seatbelt is injured. This injury is not reasonably blamed on my act of stopping.

A second exception to moral responsibility is where an action is caused by an uncontrollable force such as brainwashing, psychological intimidation; or maybe a freakish gust of wind catches a beach umbrella and injures somebody. If the umbrella was reasonably secured we would excuse its owner of responsibility for the unfortunate consequence.

From these exceptions we can conclude we are responsible for actions where we can reasonably expect the consequences, and the action is unforced as we act with free intent.

A related question is whether moral responsibility for consequences of actions requires the existence of alternative possibilities? Take the example of a doctor euthanasing a critically ill person who only has hours to live and is suffering in extreme pain. Can the doctor relinquish moral responsibility as the consequence (imminent death) is unavoidable? Does the doctor relinquish moral responsibility because they reduced the patient’s suffering?

Alternatively if we see a child drowning and we rescue them with no risk to our own safety is this considered a morally praiseworthy action? The force to save the child would be irresistible and to act otherwise would be impossible for any sane, rational person. This act comes under the moral exception of force.

Let’s take the example of alcohol addiction and its link to domestic violence. Person A is an alcoholic. They have physically abused person B whilst drunk on previous occasions. Can person A use the exception of force to escape moral responsibility for getting drunk?

We would consider violence against person B to be a universally known consequence of getting drunk, which person A must be aware of. Morally, person A is expected to fix the problem at the source (eg check-in to rehab) or at least remove themselves from the situation that endangers person B (stay away from person B and maybe other people when drinking).

That is to say we can treat the action of getting drunk as addictive behaviour which requires time and treatment to fix, whereas the known consequence (violence) requires immediate action to alleviate, otherwise person A will be held morally and criminally liable for any violent act.

How should we judge addictive behaviour which causes only self harm? Fundamental moral principles include compassion and helping others as much as we can, and it’s these principles which underpin efforts to rehabilitate and heal those suffering from their addictions.

Similarly we need to conjure a way to alleviate one of the most threatening of all addictions: excessive consumption by a privileged minority in a world where resources are limited. Greed is a powerful force but it doesn’t exempt moral responsibility.

Geoff Lamberton is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at Southern Cross University.

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