Sunday, 18 January 2015

On Addiction: The Philosophical Muser vs. Peter Hitchens

I sometimes have the odd email exchange with Peter Hitchens, and did so again a couple of days ago, this time about the so-called war on drugs. I've blogged about his drug views before (see here), but in our exchange I ended up challenging his peculiar views about addiction by sending him this blog post of mine, on which he wrote the following in the comments section:

(PH) You're going to have to decide whether you accept the concept of 'addiction' or not. You can't simultaneously refer to 'addicts' and say that addiction is a 'life choice'. The key to this is realising that the advocates of this fiction use it to mean different things at different times, an unsustainable inconsistency which would not survive ten minutes, if 'addiction' weren't so valuable to moral revolutionaries who wish to destroy the idea that we have free will.

So in his wisdom Peter Hitchens wants to deny that addiction exists at all, calling it a fiction that can’t survive a moment’s serious analysis. Here's what I responded with:

(JK) I actually can refer to 'addicts' and in the same blog say that addiction is a 'life choice' - the two aren't mutually exclusive, but you must phrase it aright, because I didn't say that addiction is a life choice, I said that humans can make life choices that lead to addiction. It's a big difference.

Most don't choose the addiction, they choose activities that can lead to addiction. That's why I used the sun-tan analogy in the article. Going to the tanning shop is a life choice. The mutations that increase your chances of skin cancer are not a life choice, but they are the results of a life choice to visit the tanning shop. If you want to avoid this risk of skin cancer, don't go to tanning shops or partake in excessive sunbathing.

Similarly, taking drugs like heroin is a free choice. However, the physiological dependencies that occur as a result of this are not a life choice - they are the body's involuntary reaction to the need for more of heroin's constituencies. If you want to avoid the risk of being a heroin addict, don't take heroin. If you choose to take heroin you may become an addict - meaning that you are an 'addict' who made life choices that led to your addiction state, so no inconsistency.

In addition to that, it's often in a very weighted sense that we talk about a life choice to indulge in substances that lead to addiction. That is to say, there is some indication that most drug addicts are addicts for socio-economic and bad personal background reasons weighted against them, more than they are for reasons intrinsically about the drugs. For that reason alone, it's not just the fact that Peter Hitchens is wrong empirically that is his problem (and he is wrong empirically - for example, there is quite good evidence that addictive behaviour is a lot do to with genetic predisposition - as studies exhibit higher rates of addiction among monozygotic [identical] twins rather than dizygotic [fraternal] twins, which clearly suggests genetic factors) - it's that he lacks so much sympathy for people who've ended up on different paths to him - that's got to be the main reason so many people respond in such a negative way to him.

My theory about addiction
I have a theory about addiction; it's that addictive behaviour falls along a similar line to a law know as the principle of least effort, which is that things in nature will, in terms of effort, naturally choose the path of least resistance. Not only are we all potential addicts in any number of areas of life, with our background and experiences being key driving forces; on closer inspection almost all of us are at the extreme end of the addictive spectrum at given times, and are probably periodically addicted to things through genetic weakness and temporary diminution of willpower.

Perhaps the reason so many of us are below the radar is that the principle of least effort is, for many, so transitory that it rarely registers in our social circles. But whether it's not being able to stop eating those chocolate biscuits we started, or curb our enthusiasm for the final two or three glasses of Jack Daniels when we're on a pub night out, or even finding it difficult to resist putting a new song we really love on repeat, our propensity for addiction is there (albeit often unconsciously) in small doses as well as in those extreme cases that stand out more. 

That would also suggest to me that the age-old chicken and egg question - whether they take drugs because they are addictive, or whether they are addictive because they take drugs - is probably based on antecedents that were laid down long before. As a Christian it would be good if Peter Hitchens exemplified a bit more of Christ's character in his appraisal of other people's weaknesses. Then again, he is not alone - too often we could all the same about ourselves.


* Photos courtesy of and