Image of addiction from anti-marijuana propaganda film “Reefer Madness” (1939).
Peter Hitchens has published, in First Things, an excellent essay attacking the notion of addiction, the preternatural ability of certain morally disreputable substances to offer temptations so powerful as to overwhelm completely the free will of any normal human being. The late Thomas Szasz was attacking the same generally accepted delusion decades ago.
The chief difficulty with the word â€œaddictionâ€ is the idea that it describes a power greater than the will. If it exists in the way we use it and in the way our legal and medical systems assume it exists, then free will has been abolished. I know there are people who think and argue this is so. But this is not one of those things that can be demonstrated by falsifiable experiment. In the end, the idea that humans do not really have free will is a contentious opinion, not an objective fact.
So to use the word â€œaddictionâ€ is to embrace one side in one of those ancient unresolved debates that cannot be settled this side of the grave. To decline to use it, by contrast, is to accept that all kinds of influences, inheritances, and misfortunes may well operate on us, and propel us towards mistaken, foolish, wrong, and dangerous actions or habits. It is to leave open the question whether we can resist these forces. I am convinced that declining the word â€œaddictionâ€ is both the only honest thing to do, and the only kind and wise thing to do, when we are faced with fellow creatures struggling with harmful habits and desires. It is all very well to relieve someone of the responsibility for such actions, by telling him his body is to blame. But what is that solace worth if he takes it as permission to carry on as before? Once or twice I have managed to explain to a few of my critics that this is what I am saying. But generally they are too furious, or astonished by my sheer nerve, to listen.
So let us approach it another way. The English language belongs to no state or government. It is not ruled by academies or even defined by dictionaries, however good. It operates on a sort of linguistic version of common law, by usage and precedent. And the expression â€œaddictionâ€ is very widely and variously used. There are people who claim, seriously, to be â€œaddictedâ€ to sex or to gambling.
It is now impolite to refer to habitual drunkards. They are â€œalcoholics,â€ supposedly suffering from a complaint that is not their fault. The curious variable ambiguity of Alcoholics Anonymous on this point has added to the confusion. AA, to begin with, asked its adherents to admit they had no control over themselves, as a preliminary to giving that power to God. Somehow I suspect that God plays less of a part in modern AA doctrine, but the idea of powerlessness remains. Members of the organization quietly moved from calling alcoholism an â€œillnessâ€ or a â€œmaladyâ€ to describing it as a â€œdisease,â€ round about the time that the medical profession began to do the same thing.
We are ceaselessly told that cigarettes are â€œaddictive.â€ Most powerfully, most of us believe that the abusers of the illegal drug heroin are â€œaddictedâ€ to it. Once again, the public, the government, and the legal and medical systems are more or less ordered to believe that users of these things are involuntary sufferers. A British celebrity and alleged comedian, Russell Brand, wrote recently, â€œThe mentality and behaviour of drug addicts and alcoholics is wholly irrational until you understand that they are completely powerless [my emphasis] over their addiction and, unless they have structured help, they have no hope.â€
Brand is a former heroin abuser who has by now rather famously given up the drug. But how can that be, if what he says about addiction is true? The phrase â€œwholly irrationalâ€ simply cannot withstand the facts of Brandâ€™s own life. It will have to be replaced by something much less emphaticâ€”let us say, â€œpartly irrational.â€ The same thing happens to the phrase â€œcompletely powerless.â€ Neither the adverb nor the adjective can survive. Nor can the word â€œaddictionâ€ itself, which is visibly evaporating. We have to say â€œthey struggle over their compulsion.â€
Or you might turn to this definition of addiction from the American Society of Addiction Medicine:
Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.
This definition prompted one writer at Alternet, an influential pro-addiction website, to say:
If you think addiction is all about booze, drugs, sex, gambling, food and other irresistible vices, think again. And if you believe that a person has a choice whether or not to indulge in an addictive behavior, get over it. . . . Fundamental impairment in the experience of pleasure literally compels the addict to chase the chemical highs produced by substances like drugs and alcohol and obsessive behaviors like sex, food and gambling.
In other words, conscious choice plays little or no role in the actual state of addiction; as a result, a person cannot choose not to be addicted. The most an addict can do is choose not to use the substance or engage in the behavior that reinforces the entire self-destructive reward-circuitry loop. So even if the supposed â€œaddictâ€ ceases (as many do) to be â€œaddictedâ€ in practice to the addictive substance or activity, he remains â€œaddictedâ€ in some spiritual, subjective way, which cannot actually be seen in his behavior.
The defender of the concept of â€œaddiction,â€ confronted with evidence that many â€œaddictsâ€ cease to be â€œaddicted,â€ will say that of course he didnâ€™t mean to suggest the phenomenon was wholly irresistible and could not be mastered by will. Oh no, he will say, reasonable people quite understand that it is not like that at all. In any normal argument, this would be the end of the matter. Anyone who confesses to using a word in one sense when it suits him, and in a wholly contradictory sense when it also suits him, has expelled himself from the company of all reasonable people and admitted that he respects neither truth nor logic.
In reality, everything pleasurable is “addictive” in the sense that one naturally desires to repeat the experience. The notion that certain unholy pleasures are so powerful that they must inevitably come to dominate those foolish enough to dare to encounter them is really just an imaginatively compelling literary narrative that has been widely accepted as factual.