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  • Addiction by Any Other Name
  • Jesse S. Summers (bio)

definitions of addiction, willing addict, akrasia, no-conflict addicts

Why characterize addiction at all? George Graham reasonably points out that a good understanding of addiction should exchange “surface resemblances…[for] real facts about explanatory forces” (Graham 2015, 45). Understanding causes and cures of addiction will indeed help addicts’ lives more than the best characterization could. But we should beware the false dichotomy. Determining “real facts about explanatory forces” is valuable, and so is characterizing “surface resemblances.”

Philosophers’ déformation professionnelle often inclines us to look for essential features of natural phenomena, leading to broad definitions that capture disparate phenomena. But, instead of characterizing addiction in general, why not separately characterize heroin addiction, gambling addiction, and so on? For that matter, why unify types of addiction by the object of the addiction? Is there just one characterization of all alcoholics? The partying alcoholic, the shameful alcoholic, the depressive alcoholic, the self-medicating alcoholic, and the bad-influences alcoholic have different etiologies and patterns of use. These differences are lost in speaking of ‘the alcoholic,’ and even more in speaking of ‘the addict.’

I want to keep three criticisms separate. (1) My characterization in particular may not be the right one; (2) no characterization of addiction may be correct; and (3) there may be no value even in looking for a characterization of addiction. My limited response to (1) and (2) is that my characterization captures the range of addicts, which is some evidence that it is a good characterization—although I doubt there is only one right characterization. This leaves (3), the question of whether any characterization of addiction is valuable.

First, however, does my characterization of addiction actually fit the range of cases? Graham suggests that my characterization may not capture willing, wanton, and resigned addicts. Benjamin R. Lewis, by contrast, doubts that my characterization captures the unwilling, akratic addict.

Graham rightly points out that willing, wanton, and resigned addicts do not fit our stereotypical views of addicts. They are not described by the still-common characterization of addiction as a ‘chronic relapsing disorder,’ nor by talk about addicts’ ‘struggles’ with their addictions. These addicts have no internal struggle over the addiction, do not try to quit, and therefore do not relapse. Call this group ‘no-conflict addicts’: addicts who are not struggling with or even opposed to their own addictions.

My characterization does much better with no-conflict addicts than most alternative characterizations. Consider a good alternative characterization: [End Page 49] the addict cannot quit, even if she (actually or counterfactually) wants to. We may quibble with this characterization, about whether an addict genuinely ‘cannot’ quit, but, regardless, this alternative does not capture the problem with no-conflict addicts. Their problem is that they do not want to, not that they cannot.

The larger problem with this alternative characterization, however, is that it also characterizes non-addictions, which one similarly ‘cannot’ quit. Smokers can more easily quit smoking than sleeping or eating, but that does not make eating a more serious addiction. So, although this alternative characterization is in fact a plausible description of many addictions, it is a description that does not distinguish addictions from passions and appetites.

My characterization makes this distinction explicitly, and thus better captures no-conflict addicts. An evaluative element and an element describing reinforcement are relevant, on my proposal, to characterizing addicts, including no-conflict addicts. These two elements exclude normal patterns of appetitive and passionate activity that otherwise resemble addictions, which helps to characterize the no-conflict addict in a way that distinguishes him from the non-addict.

Consider a hard case: how to distinguish the alcoholic who prefers bourbon from the bourbon connoisseur who drinks the same amount and would also steadfastly refuse to give up his passion, but who is not an alcoholic? The first element of my characterization helps here, because (I assume, arguendo) we will not say of the second person that his underlying motivation is misguided, that he ‘misvalues’ bourbon. Or, to the extent that he does misvalue bourbon, his misvaluation is reinforced differently from the alcoholic’s, as the second part of my characterization...