Understanding Addiction -- An Objectivist View
by Michael Stuart Kelly
(NOTE FROM MSK: Please see the note at the end regarding the title.)
Addiction is neither a mind thing nor a body thing. Pigeonholing it as one or the other is a vestige of the mystic mentality that looks at reality in terms of mind-body dichotomy. Addiction is far more complex, as you will see below.
I am addressing Objectivists who wish to understand addiction, but people from other viewpoints open to rational ideas can find this article useful. Whom I do not address are those with preconceptions or axes to grind. If you already have all the answers, then this work is not for you. Also, I am not endorsing any particular method of recovery. Most of all, for those who are afraid that their pleasures will be under attack here, you can rest easy. I have no desire to take anybody’s candy away. Enjoy. My issues concern morality and diseases of mental faculties.
Unfortunately, recovery from addiction has been almost an exclusive realm of religion for many years. Recently a medical interest has arisen, but I have observed a predominant idea of treating all sorts of addictions with prescription drugs. Sometimes they might be needed and even useful (like a highly effective blood transfusion technique with a chemical “cocktail” included for heroin addiction I once read about), or a drug like Antabuse for certain types of alcoholism, but mostly I believe they are not. Maybe they are of some peripheral value. Pop therapy has arisen, but I find little of value in most of what I have seen.
I have been very frustrated with the minimal -- almost nonexistent -- success Objectivism has had in dealing with addiction. Many Objectivists have loved ones who are addicts, and other Objectivists get addicted like I did. They look in vain through Objectivist literature in order to find out what to do about it. What they find is exhortations to be responsible, to exercise free will, some finger-pointing, a few comments, but nothing of any practical use.
This is extremely ironic. Objectivism is a philosophy for living on earth, the best one devised so far in my opinion, yet when a serious problem involving living on earth arises -- needing clear principles to deal with it -- Objectivists must turn to religion or other places because there is nothing -- simply nothing useful available from an Objectivist perspective that works.
Obviously, I do not hold that addiction is merely a choice by addicts, and all you can do is punish them when they are bad and wait until they change their minds. There is much that can be done. The first thing is to understand.
I have learned in life that any person -- rich, poor, smart, dumb, sad, happy, sickly, healthy, rational, mystic -- anyone in practically any situation can become addicted -- there is no target group nor any group that is immune.
I will limit this discussion to alcohol and drugs, although addictions to sex, gambling, tobacco and many other pleasures with short-term payoffs certainly exist -- and there are many similarities. But the term “addiction” in this article means drug addiction and alcoholism. The reason for this is that the bulk of the evidence here relies on my own first hand observations from dealing with -- and recovering from -- both addictions. I wish to report what is “out there” for those who do not know, much in the same manner as a voyager telling of what the land is like from a trip. I will leave comparisons of different schools of thought, recovery techniques, and whatnot for later works.
Once some of the principles become clear, it will also become clear that there are several types of addiction (even to the same substance), not just one. The term “addiction” is much like “heart disease.” All that term tells you is that some abnormal condition exists that does not let the heart function properly. It tells you nothing about causes or cures. For that, you need to look at specific heart diseases like coronary artery disease, atherosclerosis, arrhythmia, mitral valve prolapse, aortic stenosis, mitral valve insufficiency, congenital defects, cardiomyopathy, pericarditis, Marfan syndrome, etc.
Addiction similarly tells you that a person has an irrationally-repeated behavior of excessive use of a substance that alters his state of mind and provides short-term pleasure. Why this occurs and what to do about it will become clear only when the fundamentals of addiction are understood and the different types of addiction are identified. Only then can specific treatments be designed that will be highly effective. The focus below is a discussion of such fundamentals based on Objectivist epistemology. Specific types of addiction and ideas for treatment are dealt with in passing and reserved for later work.
I want to stress that this approach has nothing to do with the superficial pop “therapy culture” that is seen in today’s society, with buzzwords like “empowering” and whatnot, where problems like addiction are presented on television and in other media more for entertainment value than for finding cures.
What addiction feels like
To start with, do you have any idea of what addiction feels like to an addict? This seems like one of those things where “for those who know, no explanation is necessary and for those who don’t, none is possible.” Notice that one addict usually can say something to another and make an impression while a non-addict can say the same thing, but get nowhere. That is because both addicts know what each other have gone through while the non-addict is speculating -- and the addicts know it.
It is nearly impossible to communicate what addiction feels like by words alone. Still, for those of you who are curious, here goes my best shot.
Have you ever tried to read something with construction going on outside your window -- hammering, loud machine noises, scraping or drilling? Or maybe with loud music or the TV blaring or a child crying nonstop? For as much as you want to concentrate, these noise stimuli constantly cut into your focus. The more you want to concentrate and cannot, the more they irritate you.
Now let’s move this to inside your mind only. Have you ever had a silly tune that goes through your mind, and you can’t get rid of it? Regardless of what you say or do, it keeps coming back of its own accord and you are almost helpless to keep it from returning. The only thing you can do is wait until it stops doing that and goes away all by itself.
Now let’s move this to the emotional level. Have you ever been so angry you can’t think straight? When you need to focus on something but the anger keeps welling up? For example, you have to read a certain paragraph over six or seven times, and even then you still don’t have a clear idea of what you read? Or a person says something to you, you see the lips moving, but you are so angry you have no idea of what he said?
If you add these three things together, sense stimuli, mental event, and emotion, you can get a pretty good idea of what addictive craving feels like. You can’t focus on anything and you can’t get rid of the overpowering thoughts and drives that keep coming back of their own accord. Then imagine something that magically makes it all go away -- and that something is within your reach and feels good too. But it only lasts a short time.
Now simply imagine that this whole process never stops, it goes on all day, every day, day after day, week after week, month after month and so on, with very short periods of relief. There you have it. Addiction for the non-addict.
Here is an experiment for the more masochistic, but one that gives an even closer feeling. Try going without drinking any liquid or eating any food whatsoever for about eight or ten hours. Nothing. Then try to read a book or watch a TV program -- or do anything at all. For as much as you want to concentrate, you automatically start dreaming about getting a drink of water. You can block it, go back to concentrating, but soon afterwards here comes the thought about water again. You can go into a trance, but after a while here the thought comes back again. And it will keep coming back until you get that drink of water.
I do not recommend this experiment for everyone. But for those of you who want to understand addiction in more depth than a mere description, and do not want to run a risk with addictive substances, this is a pretty good way. If you sincerely try to get your mind around these images, you can start to be able to talk to an addict and be heard.
The biological nature of consciousness
One thing stands out in all of Ayn Rand’s writings. She constantly attacks the mind-body dichotomy. Her position is extremely clear: human consciousness is a part of the human body, not separate from it. There is no existential separation between consciousness and brain, although there are concepts to represent each particular focus. The only thing a consciousness apart from a physical brain in reality can be called is a spirit or ectoplasm. Objectivist literature rejects these concepts as separate existents when a living being is conscious.
So if consciousness is in a body, then it is biological -- it is one part of a living organism. All living organisms, and their parts, have certain things in common. They are born. They grow, mature, age and die. All of them are subject to being physically overwhelmed, like being crushed, mutilated and killed, and all of them are subject to disease and recovery as existential possibilities.
There is no reason on earth to exclude any of these conditions from any biological organ, not even one like conceptual consciousness inside a brain. In terms of disease, I am going beyond brain diseases like cancer. I am talking about illnesses specific to consciousness. Notice that different organs have different natures -- what a liver is and does is completely different from an eye, but all share the basic biological conditions listed above. As conceptual consciousness has its own special nature, different from heart, lungs and so forth, so it is completely reasonable to presume that any disease of consciousness would attack its specific nature.
There is a further interaction between consciousness and physical diseases that is seen often. Any doctor will tell you that a person with a happy disposition and strong will to live will have a much better chance of beating cancer anywhere in the body than a defeatist and depressive person will have. However, this is a side issue -- merely one more indication that the mind-body dichotomy is absolutely false and that consciousness does have organic interaction with disease.
People err when they think disease is only something like cancer or cirrhosis of the liver. Here is a definition of disease from The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition:
“An abnormal condition of an organism or part, especially as a consequence
of infection, inherent weakness, or environmental stress, that impairs normal
Normal physiological functioning? Consciousness? Let’s see the definition of physiology (same dictionary):
“The biological science of essential and characteristic life processes,
activities and functions.”
So does consciousness have normal physiological functioning? Well it certainly has “life processes, activities and functions.” Can there be an abnormal condition that impairs these things? Of course there can, especially environmental stress like addictive substances that cause physical craving. But there is more.
It is up to philosophy and science to discover the nature of such things. There is one point, however, that needs to be stressed for Objectivists, one point above all if understanding addiction is ever to progress in Objectivist work: to deny that a consciousness can get ill, to claim that it is existentially immune from disease, that its biological nature is somehow unique, is to deny its status as a part of a living organism and adopt the mind-body dichotomy of mysticism.
The parts of the mind vulnerable to addiction
Human consciousness, according to Objectivist epistemology, is made up of three basic components:
(1) A concept integration and storage faculty based on five senses;
(2) A faculty of volition; and
(3) A subconscious (from whence emotions stem and basic premises are “programmed”
and stored -- including sense of life, sense of identity and other automatic mental
events and activities).
Addiction does not affect the concept integration and storage faculty until later stages, where the brain physically deteriorates. It hijacks it while under the influence of the addictive substance, but it does not affect it as a disease. Addiction does pathologically affect both the faculty of volition and the subconscious, however.
Ethics is the philosophical field used to discipline the faculty of volition (just like epistemology is for sensory evidence and concept formation). Using a conceptual faculty to make choices means making them based on value judgments. (I am speaking here of a healthy context, i.e., sense of identity and sense of life premises of survival, thriving and so forth with a fully functioning conceptual awareness).
However, using ethics to make such choices presupposes that the faculty of volition is working properly. If it is not -- if a person’s choosing and evaluating mechanism is short-circuited -- then ethics has little bearing on the choices he makes. The choices are simply made at whim. He is literally tossed about by hormones, sudden desires, environment, and whatever pops up at the time. He does not make bad choices. He hardly makes any choices at all. His decision-making capacity is impaired.
Ayn Rand stressed that there are premises in the subconscious that are programmable by good thinking. Such premises generate a sense of life and are in line with the root of emotions, which she defines as subconscious value judgments. It stands to reason that if they can be programmed by good thinking, they also can be programmed by bad thinking and even by other factors. One such factor, disease specific to consciousness, is where addiction fits in.
The subconscious and sense of identity
There is one major part of the subconscious that is affected by addiction. It is almost a sense of life issue, but runs parallel to it -- a merging of the addictive substance with the person’s sense of identity. According to Rand (“Philosophy and a Sense of Life,” in The Romantic Manifesto), a sense of life is “a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and existence.” A sense of identity is similar, but it is a pre-conceptual equivalent of the axiom of identity at the personal level, an emotional subconsciously integrated appraisal of who and what a person is in relation to life and existence. I know I just coined this term, but the basic conceptual idea is Ayn Rand’s. These levels are about the deepest ones where a mental event can be perceived.
To illustrate, let us go back to what addiction feels like, the thirst experiment. Thirst is much more than an emotion; it is a basic survival drive. When a living organism needs liquid, thirst arises and lets the mind know about it so that water will be sought. It sets an immediate survival goal. That is how this drive generates an emotion at a very basic level for all conscious beings. For humans, regardless of what a person is doing, regardless of how high-level the conceptual activity is, the “I’m uncomfortable -- must seek water” emotion butts in.
When a person reflects on his nature in terms of sense of identity, he finds it inconceivable to live a lifetime without consuming liquids. Drinking liquids is an essential part of who he is.
This sense of identity level is where the idea of an addictive substance gets lodged into the subconscious. For this to happen in this manner, a substance must be used that causes a short-term pleasure and a physical craving through chemical reaction. Whether it is a drug or alcohol, use must cause pleasure, then discomfort which can be relieved by more use (in the case of alcohol, the discomfort agent appears to be acetaldehyde, which some people process better than others).
A physical craving for an addictive substance is similar to a survival drive like thirst. The payoff in immediate pleasure is similar to the relief of satisfying the drive, and it constantly resurges over time, and so constantly must be repeated. This is how it is possible for a craving to “fool” the subconscious and generate a similar but false premise and emotion in the sense of identity, essentially contaminating it.
An addict cannot conceive of a future without that addictive substance being a part of his life. The thought of eliminating the substance gives him a panic on a fundamental level that few other values are able to do. The automatic, non-chosen, part of the sense of identity exists to prompt the organism’s survival and general health actions. Any nonessential drive lodged there is an “abnormal condition” and interferes with other organic drives. Not one addictive substance is essential to survival or health, so a need for it has no business being down there.
The subconscious literally gets sick -- the automatic premise/emotion part of sense of identity gets contaminated -- and it needs to be cured. Only then will ethics to be able to be used to prioritize values. If this is not cured, ethics might become adopted on a conscious level, but values will always be betrayed when the abnormal premise (the illness) manifests itself, which it will do when the craving surges up.
If you are one who is worried about whether or not a pleasure is becoming a potential problem, try this. Reflect on the future. Imagine spending a whole week without that pleasure, then a whole month, then a whole year, then a lifetime. Really try to imagine that. If you start to feel panic, then that is a strong warning sign. If you merely feel a wistful kind of sadness, even irritation, but general indifference (since you know that other pleasures are available), live it up. You have no problem whatsoever. This test takes a great deal of self-honesty to be useful, though.
The hardest part of curing a sense of identity is that mere good thinking doesn’t change it. A sense of identity premise/emotion requires a great deal of time and specifically directed effort to be excised. Simply realizing and saying that it needs to change is not enough. It constantly returns and pops up in the most varied mental places, causing the most varied rationalizations (after all, it is a premise). Such “specifically directed effort” over a period of time is one of the things I call medical treatment.
A sense of identity is somewhat akin to a sense of life, but it has its own nature. A sense of identity tells you who you are in relation to everything else. Many premises and emotions -- like thirst, for instance -- are not chosen. They automatically occur with the fact of being alive and being human. However, many can be programmed by choice. I believe that this is part of what Ayn Rand talked about when she claimed you could program your subconscious. As an example, a person who chooses a career he loves ends up putting a sense of identity premise in place by choice. Once it is in place, he cannot conceive of his own existence any longer without that activity. As another example, self-honesty, a concept from ethics, can be chosen and inserted over time.
The fact that a sense of identity premise can be chosen also means that a bad one can be removed by choice and effort. To say that it is only choice, however, is misleading. It is sort of like saying that a person gets well from cancer by choice, because he chose to go to the doctor. Addiction is an abnormality -- a disease -- of the sense of identity.
The faculty of volition
The faculty of volition itself is another part of the mind that shorts out and gets sick with addiction. In discussing the subconscious above, I discussed sense of identity. Here I want to talk about the valuing and choosing faculty itself. Of course, using sense of identity and sense of life premises and emotions is one of the ways volition works, but there also is a time element and consciously chosen ethics.
When an evaluation is made, it is made according to a short, medium or long term time frame. The short term (“I want it now!”) is the closest to a small child’s view. It is also the time frame where ethics have the least influence and impact. Part of growing up is learning to put off immediate gratification in exchange for medium to long-term goals that are much more important -- those which cannot be had if short-term wants are constantly satisfied.
Ethics are chosen and adopted by a faculty of volition to guide its choices by consciously evaluating values. Evaluation is not merely rational, however. It must fall in line with sense of life and/or sense of identity. In order for a value to become important, it must generate an emotion. If a person is completely indifferent to something, it is of no value to him whatsoever. He must want to get it and/or keep it. That “want” is what is disciplined into a longer time frame by ethics.
When a sense of identity premise based on medium and long-term considerations is placed by choice (career activity, for instance), the faculty of volition has to deal with the short term automatic survival/health emotions that arise. An example of this is toilet training. A person learns to hold the need to eliminate until a proper hygienic place can be found. This is the short term (“I want it now!”) interacting with the medium term (poor hygiene causes illness) and long term (doing something important, from a career standpoint, that cannot be interrupted).
The faculty of volition develops so as to distinguish these things automatically. For an addict, however, this is where the monkey-wrench gets thrown into the works. The short-term craving is incorrectly identified by the conceptual part of the mind as essential, and this drive asserts itself when medium/long term values are being dealt with. As time goes on, medium/long-term values lose all emotional impact, and thus lose importance, and the craving becomes all powerful. This is due to two things.
The first is an essential part of the nature of addictive substances and living organisms. The body adapts to addictive substances. Tolerance builds up. As doses are repeated, a higher dose of the substance is needed to satisfy the intensity of the initial craving. To the extent that the intensity of the craving is not satisfied, it gets worse -- it gets more intense over time.
The second is that all addictive substances dealt with here interfere with the normal functioning of the conceptual part of the mind, including conscious instructions sent to different parts of the body like muscle movements. (Think about slurred speech, weaving, dropping and spilling things, etc.) The mind, while under the influence, simply does not think straight in conceptual (rational) terms, and has difficulty controlling the body. As the altered state becomes more and more commonplace in the life of an addict, he gradually loses his capacity to use his conceptual mind properly, simply because he is in an altered state more often then he is lucid. The conceptual part does not become diseased. It becomes hijacked for awhile. Notice that during lucid moments, both proper conceptual (rational) capacity and coordination return.
Another aspect is that, with impairment of conceptual activity, emotions run rampant and all kinds of crazy behavior results. Each substance brings out a different set of emotions, some extremely passive and others highly agitated, so there is no one-size-fits-all characterization for this. It varies according to the substance used.
One thing is common, however. The faculty of volition becomes blocked. It loses its medium and long-term functions and becomes reduced to short term. It needs the conceptual part of the mind and it needs the subconscious premises and emotions in order to evaluate and choose. As the rational part becomes ineffective and the subconscious becomes contaminated, the faculty of volition literally atrophies from lack of use.
Notice that an addict does not demonstrate consistently evil behavior. His behavior is completely erratic. One moment he does something brilliant and good and another something totally destructive. Highs and lows, anything goes. As stated above, he does not make bad choices. He hardly makes any choices at all. He runs increasingly on short-term values based on a sense of identity that has been corrupted.
Thus addiction is an abnormality -- a disease -- of the decision-making mechanism, the faculty of volition, by atrophy.
A bit about treatment
One bit of good news about addiction is that the disease is not all-debilitating. If that occurs, then the person simply dies. Look at what happens when a person gives up in life (abandons his mind and valuing, essentially). It usually does not take long for him to pass on.
With addiction, the sense of identity is contaminated and the faculty of volition is atrophied, but both still have parts that function properly. As with the recovery of any part of a living organism from illness, i.e., its return to health, the healthy part is used both to attack the disease and to strengthen the debilitated organ. Outside agents are used when the healthy part is not strong enough to do the job alone.
These outside agents are called, collectively, medical treatment. It does not matter whether such medical treatment is self-applied or administered by a specialist or by a therapy group. What does matter is that it be used when needed. If not, the disease will probably get worse until it becomes fatal. But like all diseases, sometimes it can clear up almost automatically. All these different facets of treatment cause much confusion about what to do.
Treatment-wise, it does not matter what is done specifically for sense of identity contamination. What does matter is that the false premise needs to be removed and the intensity of the craving needs to weaken and finally go away.
I know only one way to eliminate the craving for an addictive substance 100 percent. That is abstinence. Since the craving is chemical and the body adapts to what you put in it, the lack of such chemical will weaken the need for it over time, and finally, it will not be missed at all, since the chemical reactions will cease. The memory of it will still be there, but then even that gets weaker over time. Sometimes limited use of a substance is possible after the addiction has healed. But even a small quantity taken by another will cause a complete relapse. This is one more proof that the type of addiction needs to be identified and specific treatment designed, not one-size-fits-all. So, for the sake of safety, abstinence is probably the best overall option at this stage, since it does work.
Removing the false sense of identity premise is much trickier, especially while the craving persists -- in abatement or otherwise -- and even once it recedes altogether. The false premise needs to be challenged on a fundamental level. As a sense of identity is both automatic and chosen, the premise -- that the addictive substance is an essential part of the person -- first needs to be accepted as a chosen premise, and not an automatic one.
This is one of the things that twelve-step programs get right. They all use the same first step -- the addict must admit that he has lost control of his life due to the addiction. With what is left of his debilitated mental faculties, he identifies an “essential” part of himself as not essential -- as an issue he can do something about -- as a premise that can be changed by choice.
Those who have not made that step, who have not needed to, really have no idea of the profound impact it has on your emotions. You simply challenge a self-evident truth that has been your motor for years. The effect can be blinding and the emotional outpouring can get quite sappy, melodramatic, incoherent and even beside-the-point to onlookers. That is why privacy (either being alone or among specialists only, including closed therapy groups) is usually a good idea at this stage.
Just because this step is taken, though, does not mean that it will effect a permanent change. This is one of the reasons good therapy groups are so effective for addiction, when they work. They keep hammering at the sense of identity level of the addict and the people in the group physically get in the way by talking when a malignant premise emerges. Group meetings can be seen like a cast for broken bone. The new idea is in place, but it must be supported while it grows stronger.
The dynamic is both active and passive, i.e., a person is told things directly, but he also identifies with what another says about his own experiences. Ideally, therapy groups are not needed after the addiction has healed. Maybe they could be used for a periodic check-up, just like going to a doctor, after recovering. One strong and proper criticism that is levied against twelve-step groups is that they become cults or micro societies, with power dynamics and social hierarchy, long after they are no longer needed for the treatment of addiction.
Another treatment I have found that helps greatly with premise removal is to find an equally important sense of identity premise that is incompatible with the addictive substance and hammer it home with all the emotion that can be generated. The incompatibility makes it easier to give up the addictive substance as a premise.
I gave one example from my own life already with my article, Letter to Madalena ... An Homage to the Value of Valuing. One thin strand of self-respect would not let me sleep under a bridge like a bum one night. One small part of my sense of identity screamed out, “No!” I realized that continued use of the drug would lead me there. The two premises were incompatible: becoming a tramp, which I knew was very real on the sense of identity level because I literally saw myself under a bridge; and the drug, which I could not imagine giving up at that time. On a much lighter level, I gave up cigarettes once, fairly easily, when I started to take bel canto singing lessons, which I really wanted badly because I am a composer -- pure sense of identity premises. The two were completely incompatible at the time and the cigarettes became history in short order.
For atrophy of the faculty of volition, I have a few ideas about treatment. As I stated above, I am only touching on the surface here.
Believe it or not, one thing that helps a great deal in twelve step programs is surrendering your will (your faculty of volition) to a higher power. But the effect is not due to the miracle-like Christian based thinking this concept came from. It is due to the fact that such higher power is not perceived by the five senses -- essentially it does not exist in reality. An addictive substance most definitely does. So replacing one premise (substance) with the other (higher power) replaces the physical with something that has no physical form. In plain language, it is better to merge your identity with an idea of something that doesn’t exist than with something real that is killing you. No actual good is ever achieved with the unreal, but at least in this case, a real physical problem is attacked and “replaced.” I am not suggesting that this higher power approach should be blindly continued. Faking reality is not good philosophy, but in that context, it often works as good therapy. Looking at why it works may prove extremely useful in designing an Objectivist approach, one not based on faking reality.
I came up with a routine that helped me greatly through detox that was triggered by the higher power concept. Whenever a bout of craving came on (and it was devastating), I would stop and channel all my emotional energies in a blast of gratitude for being alive. This is an emotion that comes easily to one who has been near his own death as much as I have. I sent the emotion “up there” to whatever there was up there. It didn’t matter what it was. As time went on, the craving became less intense and the gratitude blast reinforced the removal of the bad sense of identity premise, since it communicated at an emotional level (which is what is generated down in the premises). The fact that this “higher power” is not evident in reality made no difference whatsoever. The emotional blast made all the difference in the world.
How this helped the faculty of volition is that I was able to engage in medium-term activities and had a practical way of dealing with the short-term assaults of craving. It would slow me down at the moment (I had to stop and go off to the side and be by myself for a bit), but I was able to regain my focus after awhile and return to the activity. Over time, my faculty of volition became stronger and longer-term values were able to be adopted.
Another part is morality. Finally we get to free will. There is an inescapable condition here. As volition is the faculty for exercising free will, the basic choice to use it must be made by an addict, even if he has to use it at the start to cure it. He has to choose to choose. This is sort of like using a bum leg to help the leg get better, but it has to be done. No one can make this decision for him, either. If he feels the urge to get better (and practically all addicts do at one time or another, from my experience), he must decide that he needs to use his own power to evaluate and make decisions as his proper manner of finding out what went wrong and how to fix it. This is exercising what is left of his atrophied faculty of volition. That does not defeat the disease, though. There is a long road ahead after that choice. Just sticking with that choice involves constantly choosing.
Have you ever heard the term, “Just for today”? This means, “I will not use the addictive substance just for today. Tomorrow I will decide again.” This is exercising the faculty of volition by small daily decisions, and it does strengthen it.
The study of essential moral principles is an absolute requirement for the recovery of the faculty of volition. You choose to start studying, but keeping to that choice when your attention span has atrophied to the short term is extremely difficult. You can do it by yourself, but getting help at the beginning is really a good idea. Unfortunately, the morality that is usually offered to recovering addicts in today’s culture is Christianity. Still, in that context, some notion of right and wrong is better than no notion at all.
During this kind of study -- reexamination of moral principles, usually -- free will starts taking on more and more importance. This is where other people come in (sometimes art and literature can substitute for “other people”). There is a principle of psychological visibility identified by Nathaniel Branden in The Psychology of Self Esteem (the Muttnik Principle). Ayn Rand called it "responding to a sense of life" in her theory of art. Whatever you want to call it, seeing a person using his capacity for free will, while relearning how to use yours, helps a great deal in strengthening it. “Spiritual fuel,” Rand called it.
Healing the disease of addiction does not mean making a hero out of a bum, although that can happen. There is no guarantee that once an addict has healed, he will use his mind for the best purpose. How many non-addicts use their mind for the best purpose in life anyway? That is what ethics are for. The healed addict will have a context of normal mental health to fully implement his chosen ethics, whereas before he was handicapped by a disease that constantly interfered. That is not to say that ethics have no part in recovery. They do, but they tell you how to use your faculty of volition, not what to do when your ability to use it has failed or is impaired.
Anyone can make a decision based on whim, and calling whim “free will” is a mistake. An addict needs to relearn how to choose medium to long-term values and choose and carry out the actions needed to obtain and/or keep them. He also needs to learn how to fit short term value surges into his daily life in a manner that they do not interfere with his medium and long term values.
As his faculty of volition gets stronger, more and more conceptually based decisions can be made, and finally the prioritization of values starts to have meaning again. Whim based dreams start becoming projected goals to strive toward. Notice that he is not merely making better decisions; he is using the decision-making part of his mind better.
Two other things have helped me strengthen my own faculty of volition during recovery. The first was to make amends for a lot of the crazy stuff I did while I was actively addicted. I made what amends I could, when I could, without falling risk to serious drawbacks, based on the morality I was starting to implement in my life again. This is nothing more than putting principles into action by cleaning up some of the mess. It is a great exercise and many possibilities are usually easily at hand for a recovering addict. He can use them to exercise his adherence to the newly embraced moral principles -- in practice, not just in theory.
The second was to pass on the help I received from others to those who are afflicted. I know of no way to repay those strangers who helped me when I needed it. They don’t accept any kind of payment anyway. But from an Objectivist viewpoint, I did receive value without giving anything in return. A debt, so to speak, was created. I return that debt by passing on the support and help, similar to what I received, in the same manner that I received them. That is why I counsel addicts from time to time.
That is also why I do not hide the fact that I have had these problems. On the contrary, I state it out loud without apology or fanfare. I admit that this is advertising to some extent, but it is not to create a public image. It is to send a message to those who do have a problem (as they are usually in hiding) -- to let them know that there is a way out. It is not a ploy for pity. It is settling a debt in the only manner I know how.
To wind up, this discussion has been merely an introduction to addiction. It now should be clear why there are many kinds of addiction. Some come from biochemical propensities, others from reacting poorly to psychological traumas, others from playing with fire and not paying attention ... there are many motives. Also, the nature and intensity of craving and emotions operate differently in different people. There is a real need for serious work here in identifying the different types and aspects of addiction and designing specific treatments for all of them.
Eventually, Objectivism could become incredibly useful for this. (It will, if I have anything to say about it.) If correct principles and their applications are identified based on biological reality and rational epistemology and egocentric ethics, very sick people can be prompted to rise to health on their own two feet from the ashes of a broken life and strive to become heroes.
The universal aspect of all addictions, however, is that the sense of identity has been contaminated and the faculty of volition has atrophied. In the case of drugs and alcohol, there is a chemically induced craving. These are the parts of the mind and body that need to get better. Then the rest will follow.
(NOTE FROM MSK: The date of this note is December 3, 2012. The original published title of this work is "Understanding Addiction -- One Objectivist's View." I have changed it to MY original title "Understanding Addiction -- An Objectivist View." It's time for this irritation to cease in my life.
This article was first published on SOLOHQ (now defunct). It is currently published on the derivative Solo Passion and Rebirth of Reason sites as a SOLOHQ archive. So I cannot change the title at those places.
My original title was changed by Lindsay Perigo at the time--back in 2005. He told me he was running SOLOHQ as an "Objectivist leader" and if I said, "an Objectivist view" in the title, this implied I was speaking for the Objectivist philosophy like he does. And he would not want anyone to think he was preaching what was in my article. I have the emails to back this up.
At any rate, as I stated back then offline, my title does not imply I am preaching Objectivism. It is only intended to convey that I am looking at addiction through the lens of Objectivism as I had learned it added to my own experience, observations and conclusions. Anyone who knows the philosophy can see this clearly in the article.
Were I to write this article today, I would change the framing of--and expand on--a few things based on recent my studies, however I am proud of this early effort. And I might not even use the term "Objectivist," or if I did, the title would indicate the lens idea better. But I restored the title because that's the way I wrote it. Now my article is no longer contaminated by the petty and vain concerns of another and it feels awfully good to say goodbye to the subconscious nag.)