Personal Autonomy, Addiction and Mental Disorder (completed)

This project aims to examine how addiction impacts the autonomous agency and mental health of addicts. It will improve our understanding of the ethical issues raised by public policies, practices and treatments in the field of addiction and improve what we know of the factors contributing to addiction as well as to recovery.

About the project

The normative thinking about addiction has traditionally been divided between, on the one hand, a medical model which sees addiction as a mental disorder characterized by compulsive and relapsing drug use over which the addict has little or no control and, on the other, a moral model which sees it as a moral weakness characterized by (wrongful) intentional behavior largely under the control of the addict. Although there are different views of, precisely, what make some condition a mental disorder, one common feature of many of these views is the claim that a necessary requirement is that the condition is characterized by a certain sort of impairment of "normal" autonomy. In this project our aim is to examine how addiction impacts on the autonomous agency and mental health of addicts.

Our hypothesis is that drug addiction is characterized by an impairment of normal autonomy and that it should be counted a mental disorder. However, we believe it is time to break down the divide between the medical and moral thinking about addiction: even if addiction is a disorder that involves compulsive patterns of behavior, this does not mean that addicts have little or no control over their addictive drug use. Using philosophical analysis in combination with data from our own empirical study, as well as other sources of evidence, we wish to develop a new conceptual model to study autonomous agency and the effects addiction has on such agency. Our working hypothesis is that personal autonomy includes a capacity for relatedness, to form close personal relationships, understanding others feelings and responding to normative pressures placed on one by other persons, where a necessary condition for this capacity is a certain sort of reciprocal interaction of one's own behavior, environments responsiveness to one's behavior, and self-appraisal of one's performance. We want to investigate whether the involuntary impairment of such capacity might be what diminishes addicts' autonomy.


  • To examine how drug addiction impacts on the autonomous agency and mental health of drug addicts.
  • To develop a new conceptual model to study autonomous agency and the effects drug addiction has on such agency.
  • To determine whether drug addiction should count as a mental disorder (or illness).
  • To investigate how we can help drug addicts become more autonomous.
  • To assess whether heroin addicts are sufficiently autonomous to consent to the medical prescription of heroin as part of treatment.
  • To make recommendations for ethical and effective policies and practices in the addiction field in the light of our findings.


The project is financed by Research Council of Norway and University of Oslo. 


The project is carried out in cooperation with SIRUS, Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences and Frischsenteret.


Published Apr. 25, 2013 11:31 AM - Last modified Nov. 7, 2016 10:38 AM


Project leader

Edmund Henden

Tel.: 22 45 50 33