Skip to content

The hammer or the nail – are addicts morally responsible?

In a case that is probably echoed daily across this country and many others, an amphetamine addict Michael Hunter was jailed yesterday for attacking a friend with a hammer. The judge noted that

"amphetamine had clearly affected
Hunter’s mental health, but he highlighted the fact that he had been
responsible for two unprovoked attacks using weapons."

The judge alluded to the question of responsibility and the influence of addiction. Are addicts morally responsible? Should drug addiction excuse or mitigate blame for actions taken under their influence?

Is the addict akin to a hammer – responsible for the action that ensues?

Or are they like the nail – driven helplessly by forces out of their control?

Tonight in the Faculty of Philosophy Professor Walter Sinnot-Armstrong from Duke University will give a lecture on Addiction and responsibility – perspectives from philosophy, psychology, neuroscience and the law. 

There will be further posts following Walter's lecture this evening. But here are some preliminary thoughts.

We should distinguish moral responsibility from causal responsibility.

Obviously the hammer wielding addict is causally responsible for injury to his friend's leg. But is he morally responsible?

Possible answers are that

A. He is fully morally responsible (just as he would be in the absence of addiction)

B. He is partly morally responsible (by virtue of addiction)

C. He is not morally responsible for wielding the hammer (by virtue of the addiction)

D. He is not responsible for wielding the hammer, but is fully morally responsible for antecedents to wielding the hammer (for example for the act of taking amphetamines or of becoming addicted)

There is more to say about moral responsibility (and Walter will probably do so tonight), but we can also distinguish between being responsible and being treated as responsible. So even if we held that B or C were correct we might adopt A1 or B1

A1. He should be treated as fully morally responsible (just as he would be in the absence of addiction).

B1. He should be treated as partly morally responsible (by virtue of addiction)

Ultimately, I suspect that your view about A1 depends on your theory of punishment. Is punishment about retribution for past wrongdoing, or is it about preventing and minimising harm through deterrence, education and detention? If the latter – does moral responsibility matter?

Share on