The ancients on will and addiction

Socrates 469 BC - 2011 AD
Socrates 469 BC – 2011 AD (Photo credit: nerosunero)

It took me a few reads, but Alan Brody suggests that addiction is a combination of impaired will and impaired evaluative faculties that lead to poor choices in how to exert our will. Then again, I’m not sure I know where he stands. He guides through some philosophical musings about addiction and will.

He presents Socrates’ view:

When faced with a choice, Socrates tells us, human nature means we want to do what we think is best. So, he argues, if we believe we know what the good (the best) thing to do is, and it is accessible to us, we will do the good. However, says Socrates, things which tempt us can have the power to alter our perception or understanding of their value, making them deceptively appear to be what is best. Consequently, we choose the temptation as the best thing to do. The experience of going along with temptation is not, Socrates argues, one in which the person protests or fights against its unreasonableness while being dragged along into gratifying it. For Socrates, ‘yielding to temptation’ is not being unwillingly overpowered, but is the experience of being a willing participant choosing what is at that moment wrongly thought to be best.

Aristotle offers another take:

Aristotle thought that by asserting that when we gratify our desires for what tempts we are still doing what we think best, Socrates was denying the existence of akrasia – ‘weakness of will’, or a failure of self-restraint. The denial of both compulsivity and of weakness of will in explaining addiction has resulted in a willingness model commonly referred to as the moral model of addiction. On this view, what the addict does can be explained in terms of Socrates’ willingness model and an addict’s immoral character: ie, they want to do it, and care more about satisfying their addiction than the consequences of doing so. The addict’s moral deficits reside in their motivations, as illustrated in the accusation: “If you cared more about peoples’ safety than drinking, you wouldn’t drink and drive.” Here, the individual is judged to be morally deficient for not prioritizing peoples’ safety over their own desire to drink.

He rebuts the willingness model with this story:

One day in Hell the Devil approached a man who loved the drinking parties there. The Devil told the man that as long as he was willing to quit drinking he could immediately go to Heaven, where he would forever have a better time. The man replied that although Hell wasn’t so bad, and the parties were great, he preferred Heaven, and was willing to go there right now. The Devil told him that if he wanted he could have a great send-off party now, and go to Heaven tomorrow. The man thought it seemed a good idea to have the best of both worlds, so he accepted the deal. The next day the man was reminiscing about how great the send-off party was when the Devil approached him and said he could have another terrific party right then, and go to Heaven the next day. Of course the man accepted. Each day the Devil made the same offer, and each day the man accepted the party, replying, “I’ll quit drinking tomorrow.” Well, the Devil knew that the man didn’t have what it takes to ever refuse a great party.

In order for our well-being not to be undermined, we need to be able to be motivated by certain preferences. The protagonist of our story would prefer to get out of Hell, but he also needs the ability to be motivated by that preference – and he doesn’t have what it takes to do that. His desire to drink trumps his preference to do what he would prefer to be able to do, thereby undermining the kind of self-regulation he would prefer to have. The willingness model fails to capture the presence, nature, and significance of these kinds of self-regulatory failures, but this kind of dynamic is what addiction is built upon. … This is called ‘clear-eyed akrasia (failure of self-restraint).

He also meanders back to Socrates teachings on “self-mastery”, which is rooted in self-knowledge and offers these thoughts:

Addiction is not just a condition made up of a bunch of weak-willed acts. Addiction undermines the person’s self-regulation, true. But it also undermines their ability to accurately assess their problem’s seriousness as it repetitively generates a willingness or motivation for acting in violation of their most important preferences, even knowingly. Moreover, those who follow addiction’s callings do not simply act from their own sanctioned desires; they have become the enchanted followers of yearnings arising from a metastasized love. The ability to recover often has to develop as a result of experiencing addiction’s deep hardships. Addicts often talk about how it took a lot of destructiveness, danger and ‘craziness’ before they could realize how ‘insane’ they had become.

When thinking how misfortune has deprived someone of what is needed for doing better, we sometimes respond compassionately by communicating that the person would have done better at controlling their over-eating/smoking/alcoholism/other temptations if they could have. When we realize that luck is required to put into place what was needed in order to have what would have enabled us to have done better, more compassion might arise towards ourselves and others, as we see how the trouble we bring about is also what fortune sets up for us.

My problem is that, while rebutting these moral models, it feels like he never strays very far from talking about a flaw in character. This is why, to me, the hijacked brain metaphor is so helpful.

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