Addicts, Mythmakers and Philosophers: Plato’s/Socrates’ understanding of habitually bad behavior.
June 11, 2012
Thad held up his right hand and asked “See this?” He showed me gnarled and maimed fingers. Thad told me that while he was flying his plane into Turkey, the Turkish air force forced him to land, having gotten wind that he was running drugs. They jailed him, and in an attempt to extract a confession, his jailers broke his fingers. He didn’t confess.
Thad bribed his way out of jail. Eventually he came to the drug treatment center where I was working, to get help with his drinking problem. (Thad and other patient names are pseudonyms.) After discussing addiction as involving compulsive behavior, we concluded that Thad was suffering from alcoholism. Knowing he would be better off not drinking, Thad committed himself to abstinence. He told me that he didn’t need to go to Alcoholics Anonymous for support, explaining that if he could resist caving in from torture he could certainly resist whatever discomfort he would experience from not drinking. Thad thought that being able to follow through with his resolve was simply a matter of having the ability to resist succumbing to how bad it would feel to not drink.
When Thad came in for his next appointment he looked pained, shocked and confused. He told me that in spite of his decision to remain abstinent, he drank. It happened at the airport while he was waiting for his friend to arrive. Thad couldn’t understand how he would do such a thing, given his ability to handle pain when sticking to a resolution. I explained how a compulsive condition such as alcoholism can change how one evaluates what to do, so that someone who previously decided not to drink can come to temporarily think it’s okay to do so. After I explained how this kind of change of thought could produce a motive for drinking, Thad saw how his ability to endure suffering couldn’t be counted on to guarantee abstinence.
Addicts as Willing Participants
Addiction busts up what matters: the condition is capable of creating urges and motivations which bring about highly significant losses to a person’s well-being in spite of the person’s standing preference not to live like that. It’s possible that an addict is able, at times, to control the urge to use; but the addict also might not be able to prevent an urge to use from spontaneously arising and motivating. Other conditions, for instance bipolar or obsessive-compulsive disorders, can also create self-regulatory failures, so that episodes of self-destructive behavior are willingly engaged in which contravene the person’s general preference not to behave like that. Furthermore an appearance, at times, of control – intentionally cutting down, or temporarily stopping – can mislead the addict and others into believing that the addiction really is under control. The ability of the addict to believe that he/she is addicted also typically becomes compromised.
Well, why not just hold that addicts abandon their resolve to be abstinent simply because they change their minds, and not through some sort of compulsion? It’s common to change one’s mind when faced with temptation. Sometimes the choice to go ahead with the temptation is the result of a cost-benefit evaluation – in other words, it seems worthwhile to do it. At other times a person might gratify their desire or urge without entertaining any qualms or even thoughts about it. So although an addict’s habitual behavior might be atypical, rather than seeing it as a result of a compulsion they’re not strong enough to fight against, why not see their addictive behavior as something done in a willing manner, because the person feels like doing it, and/or they regard it as worth doing?
This willingness model (my terminology) has its roots in the analysis of embracing temptation which is found in Plato’s dialogue Protagoras. Contemporary philosophers such as Herbert Fingarette in Heavy Drinking: The Myth Of Alcoholism As A Disease, and recently, Piers Benn in ‘Can Addicts Help It?’ in Philosophy Now Issue 80, have also argued in support of such a model. I believe that understanding addiction requires appreciating elements of that model, as well as conceiving of addiction as a disorder involving a compulsive process which undermines the ability to regulate one’s behavior.
In the Protagoras, Socrates discusses the nature of, and challenges to, self-mastery (ie self-control). 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. This is also the essence of the willingness model of addictive behavior.
A good way to understand it is by looking at how Homer depicts Odysseus’s mental state after hearing the Sirens. In Homer’s Odyssey, the Sirens’ singing was said to be so beautiful that it would enchant sailors, who would then pilot their ships towards the deadly rocks from which the Sirens sang. Odysseus orders his men to tie him to the ship’s mast so that he can listen to their song while his men row past them with wax blocking their ears. Through the Sirens’ enchantment, Odysseus becomes hooked and orders his men to sail toward them, in spite of having been told of the doom it will bring. Luckily, they ignore the order (probably because they can’t hear it). In the Socratic/Platonic analysis of what we think of as ‘yielding to temptation’, temptation plays the same role as enchantment in the story, in the sense that temptation has a power to deceive someone into willingly choosing it as best thing to do.
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.
Support for the moral and other willingness models has been garnered from the fact that some addicts have stopped or limited their drug use when they have had good enough reason for doing so – that is, when they regard doing so as important. For example, it is not unusual for women to stop smoking while pregnant in order to protect the fetus, but to resume smoking afterwards. Also, addicts will often limit when they engage in their addiction, for instance, not at work, or not around certain people. Addicts might also demonstrate an ability to limit their drug use, e.g., their drinking, just to prove that they can successfully control their habit. Some addicts may decide that their addiction no longer works for them, and stop using completely. Furthermore, it is often claimed, that even if there are genetic or biological factors causing an addict to have strong urges, control over them still depend on what the addict thinks it is worthwhile to do, even when the urges are intense. Urges “incline but do not necessitate,” to use an expression of Leibniz’s…