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Pursuing your dreams when drunk

For a long time I wanted to go to Indonesia on a holiday, to see the rice fields, the buffalo’s and the wayang puppets. But for some reason it took me actually years to realize this. The reason why I didn’t go had nothing to do with practical difficulties: I had money, time, a travel companion, it was more a psychological threshold: the travel seemed so important to me that I felt I couldn’t just book it, I was thinking that people would find it decadent to just book a trip to Indonesia, and there always seemed to be some other travel destination that had more priority. Now this story became very popular in the news and on twitter. Luke Harding, a 19-year-old youngster went clubbing in the UK and woke up in the destination of his dreams, Paris.

Although he has no real memory about how it went, he figured out than when he took a cab home, he found his passport that he uses to identify himself with in his pocket. At that moment, being fairly drunk, he asked the taxi driver to take him to the airport instead, and he went to Paris. He woke up the next morning in a public toilet at the Charles de Gaulle airport, and although puzzled at first, hedecided to enjoy Paris, see the Eiffel Tower and the Arc the Triumph, and he posted happy pictures of himself at these places that he always wanted to visit.

Although the article emphasizes the negative sides of his decision: his mother disapproves of it, and it costs him a lot of money, one can ask oneself if his loss of control didn’t, in a sense, helped him realize his dreams. We are inclined to think that loss of self-control is in itself a bad thing. But is that the case? Harry Levine showed that public drunkenness emerged as a problem in early nineteenth-century America when individual success increasingly started to be depended on self-discipline.  (page 165). But what if individual success is helped by a little bit of drunkenness once in a while? Self-control seemed to have become a virtue in itself, but as Jeanette Kennett has shown, the reason why self-control is important is exactly because it helps us realize our goals and dreams. Kennett calls this normative self-control. (Forthcoming). Self-control is not a value in itself, it is a value because it helps us reach our more important goals. Studies about self-control shouldn’t focus on capacities to control one’s actions, but to what extend people are able to reach their goals. Now let’s shift the case from incidental drunkenness and pursuing one’s dreams to addiction and pursuing one’s dreams. What is normative agency in addiction? What do addicted people value? Are they pursuing or ruining their dreams? Do addicted people value most their substance use, or do they use although it is against their values?

Very interesting research of Joshua Knobe shows that in deciding what someone’s true values or goals are, our own normative framework is leading. Knobe provides the following examples: with someone who is craving for a substance but expresses the desire to quite, we are inclined to think that his desire to quit reflects his true self, while someone who is homosexual, and expresses the desire to undergo treatment for his sexuality, we are inclined to think that his true self is reflected by his homosexuality. This depends however, on whether you think that addiction or homosexuality is accepted. If a drunk youngster would have visited a prostitute while drunk, we would have been inclined to say that he had lost self-control, even if it was his deepest desire to finally loose his virginity. But if the same youngster visits Paris, or finds the courage to approach the woman of his dreams, we would be more inclined to say he didn’t lose self-control.

Research of Jillian Craigie (not published yet, keep an eye on her website) revealed a same normative bias on our judgment of control in anorexia and substance addiction. People with substance abuse often show great control over their actions in pursuing and using the drugs. This form of self-control is often viewed as a sign that addiction is not a disease, but a choice. However, people with anorexia also express great control over their actions, however, here it is viewed exactly as a symptom of the disease.

Our judgement about whether addicted people have normative self-control is highly dependent on our own normative framework: whether we have compassion with addicted people, whether we struggle ourselves to stop smoking or eating chocolate, whether we have self-control ourselves, whether we enjoy a good amount of party drugs in the weekend or not, whether we have a family member who is addicted. Maybe that is why remarkable little research is done to evaluate the norms, values and goals of substance dependent people themselves: we all assume that we know what drives addicted people.

Widdershoven and Abma distinguish five levels in which norms can play a role in research.

1. Internal morality looks at the values within a specific social practice, for example, the values of substance users themselves, how do they value substance use, which value motivates their substance use, and which values conflict, etc.
2. External morality looks at the norms of the broader context of the social practice, for example, how does a certain society judge substance users, is it socially accepted to be drunk, to use cocaine?, etc.
3. The normativity of a research design: the normativity of the design, data processing and the normative orientation of the researchers themselves. Evidence based medicine has a different approach than qualitative research for example.
4. The normativity of the results: results and facts, and the normativity of the institutions that use the results. How the results are interpreted and translated to facts, and how, for example policy makers use these facts.
5. The meta-normativity of scientific disciplines: a classic example are the different approaches to addiction of mental health care and law.

Maybe more research on addiction should start with this kind of normative (self)evaluation, which can be made explicit in the section ‘Declaration of interest’.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. The emphasis here, held forth as the ultimate value, is self-fulfilment, or dream-fulfilment. What if our own happiness were not our highest morality?

    1. Nadia, I think normative self-control is more about living the life we value than about pursuing happiness or dream-fulfilment (although I agree that the examples are more focused on dreams than the underlying values). Mostly the life people value is also a life they consider moral for themselves, although it can deviate from the morals in society.

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