- ‘Addicted’? To ‘Love’?
Love, addiction, crime of passion, relationships
Earp et al. (2017) offer a very interesting summary of, and ethical commentary on, recent multidisciplinary research suggesting that at least some cases of what we call ‘romantic love’ involve phenomena that physically and/or psychologically resemble cases of what we call ‘addiction.’ They draw a conceptual distinction between what they call ‘narrow’ and ‘broad’ concepts of addiction. On the narrow conception, only extreme, harmful, or abnormal cases of love would count as addiction. On the broad conception, even ordinary or normal cases of love could qualify.
After distinguishing the two conceptions over the course of the first half of their paper, the authors argue that for labelling and treatment purposes it does not actually matter which we settle on, because:
regardless of whether we understand the love-related phenomenon to be the result of abnormal brain processes, or simply the manifestation of a strong appetitive desire, the key determinant for labelling and treatment should be the degree to which the individual is harmed by the love through its deleterious impact on her well-being.(Earp et al., 2017, p. 86)
It is difficult to disagree with the conclusion that treatment decisions, in particular, should be grounded in considerations of harm and well-being. Earp et al. are clearly right to focus ethical attention in that direction.
In this commentary, I will provide some additional perspective on the question of how to define ‘addiction,’ and consider how this relates to another definitional question: how to define ‘love.’ My aim will be to show how both these matters of definition point towards substantive philosophical issues, which reveal some challenges to the way the debate around ‘love addiction’ is currently being framed.
Assuming Earp et al. (2017) are right that conceptual analysis and the semantics of ‘addiction’ are not where the action is when it comes to intervention or treatment, why does so much ink get spilled in the literature over what is an ‘addiction’ and what is not? Plausibly, the answer has something to do with the ideological power of the word ‘addiction’: the rhetorical cocktail of cognitive connotations and emotive associations that a word like this brings to any conversation in which it is deployed.
If that is right, then it is salutary to think carefully and critically about what role these cognitive and emotive factors should have in any scientific, ethical, or pragmatic investigation of addiction in general, and of ‘love addiction’ in particular. The power of the word ‘addiction’ to influence perceptions of certain behaviours—and consequently to influence the likelihood of people engaging in those behaviours—floats at least somewhat free [End Page 93] of questions about how treatment decisions are (and should be) made, and how practitioners label cases.
To pick up on just one aspect of this broader significance that language has, let’s consider the idea of a ‘crime of passion,’ about which Earp et al. say the following:
If addictive love is nothing more than a symptom of abnormal brain processes (i.e., the narrow view), then the choices and behaviors it elicits might be considered to be inauthentic or in some sense non-autonomous reflexes of those deviant processes. Hence, proponents of the narrow view of substance addiction have frequently argued that addicts lack control over their actions and are not fully autonomous. … This idea is also reflected in the common concept of “crimes of passion”— and indeed the law has traditionally taken such passion into account in sentencing decisions.(Earp et al., 2017, p. 84)
In fact, I do not think this effect is limited to those who cleave to the narrow view. The word ‘addiction’ can trigger connotations of reduced autonomy quite generally, regardless of whether it is used and/or heard by people who are philosophically rigorous or conceptually sophisticated enough for it to make sense to interpret them as having a narrow view of addiction. And in legal contexts, connotations of reduced autonomy can have life-changing significance.
For a bit of perspective on this, we might note that legal defenses based on the idea of a ‘crime of passion’—formalized in...