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Are addicts addicts?

by Nick Shackel

I think it would be fair to say that, insofar as people think about it at all, most people think that being an addict is a property some people have. Just like people can be tall or friendly or wealthy, people can be addicts. Some people even think that being an addict is an essential property of some people— that is to say, it is a property that they cannot lose without ceasing to be. This seems to be the view of Alcoholics Anonymous, who hold that even though an alcoholic can cease drinking, they can never cease being an alcoholic.

In this way of thinking, being addicted is a real property. To be an addict is to be addicted to something, paradigmatically, to a substance that is ingested and which when ingested has mind and behaviour altering effects. To be addicted to something is, in part, to have a certain obsession with it and a compulsion to engage with it. To engage with it, or to obsessively engage with it, or to engage with it under compulsion, is to be in some way alienated from one’s self by the addiction and is, as a whole, a bad thing, because addicts fail to live the worthwhile life they could and should live. The three views on the table in this discussion amount to denials that there is such a real property.

On Walter’s view, for various practical purposes it is useful to categorize people as addicts, and indeed, it can be useful to categorize one and the same person as an addict for one purpose and not an addict for another. The basis for the categorisation is sufficient compulsion and harm, where sufficiency is relative to the practical purposes of interest, and sufficient sufficiency amounts to a disease.

On Julian’s and Bennett’s view people we call addicts are not self alienated, at least, not by what we call their addiction, and nor is their addiction necessarily a bad thing. It may, it is true, be imprudent, but it might not be. Nor need such addicts be compelled by their addiction, since we have evidence that fairly light incentives can get them to choose not to indulge.

Finally, for Hanna Pickard and Steve Pearce ‘ the use of drugs and alcohol is typically a way of coping with psychological distress’. On this view addiction is far from compulsion. It is an attempt to take control and improve life. It may be an unwise attempt, it may be ineffective, but it is voluntary for all that. Nor need it be to be alienated: it may be an authentic personal expression, albeit of a person who has suffered some damage.

So, are addicts addicts? Is there a common, perhaps complex, feature that all persons properly called addicts share? Or are there just loose collections of features that for various purposes it is useful for us to group together? Is addiction a purely descriptive feature and is it an empirically determinable feature? Does it additionally have normative implications for the quality of someone’s life and for their responsibility for their actions, or is it itself normative feature? If it is normative, can it be disentangled into descriptive and normative components or is it the kind of normatively ‘thick’ feature that cannot be disentangled? These kinds of questions can seem to be a fruitless concern with the meaning words. And sometimes that is right. But I think in this debate we can see that even practical matters can draw us into this kind of analysis, and that some amount of this kind of analysis can be needed in order to advance a practical matter.

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