Peter Hitchens has published, in First Things, an excellent essay attacking the notion of addiction, the preternatural ability of certain morally disreputable substances to offer temptations so powerful as to overwhelm completely the free will of any normal human being. The late Thomas Szasz was attacking the same generally accepted delusion decades ago.
The chief difficulty with the word “addiction” is the idea that it describes a power greater than the will. If it exists in the way we use it and in the way our legal and medical systems assume it exists, then free will has been abolished. I know there are people who think and argue this is so. But this is not one of those things that can be demonstrated by falsifiable experiment. In the end, the idea that humans do not really have free will is a contentious opinion, not an objective fact.Read more here.
So to use the word “addiction” is to embrace one side in one of those ancient unresolved debates that cannot be settled this side of the grave. To decline to use it, by contrast, is to accept that all kinds of influences, inheritances, and misfortunes may well operate on us, and propel us towards mistaken, foolish, wrong, and dangerous actions or habits. It is to leave open the question whether we can resist these forces. I am convinced that declining the word “addiction” is both the only honest thing to do, and the only kind and wise thing to do, when we are faced with fellow creatures struggling with harmful habits and desires. It is all very well to relieve someone of the responsibility for such actions, by telling him his body is to blame. But what is that solace worth if he takes it as permission to carry on as before? Once or twice I have managed to explain to a few of my critics that this is what I am saying. But generally they are too furious, or astonished by my sheer nerve, to listen.
So let us approach it another way. The English language belongs to no state or government. It is not ruled by academies or even defined by dictionaries, however good. It operates on a sort of linguistic version of common law, by usage and precedent. And the expression “addiction” is very widely and variously used. There are people who claim, seriously, to be “addicted” to sex or to gambling.
It is now impolite to refer to habitual drunkards. They are “alcoholics,” supposedly suffering from a complaint that is not their fault. The curious variable ambiguity of Alcoholics Anonymous on this point has added to the confusion. AA, to begin with, asked its adherents to admit they had no control over themselves, as a preliminary to giving that power to God. Somehow I suspect that God plays less of a part in modern AA doctrine, but the idea of powerlessness remains. Members of the organization quietly moved from calling alcoholism an “illness” or a “malady” to describing it as a “disease,” round about the time that the medical profession began to do the same thing.
We are ceaselessly told that cigarettes are “addictive.” Most powerfully, most of us believe that the abusers of the illegal drug heroin are “addicted” to it. Once again, the public, the government, and the legal and medical systems are more or less ordered to believe that users of these things are involuntary sufferers. A British celebrity and alleged comedian, Russell Brand, wrote recently, “The mentality and behaviour of drug addicts and alcoholics is wholly irrational until you understand that they are completely powerless [my emphasis] over their addiction and, unless they have structured help, they have no hope.”
Brand is a former heroin abuser who has by now rather famously given up the drug. But how can that be, if what he says about addiction is true? The phrase “wholly irrational” simply cannot withstand the facts of Brand’s own life. It will have to be replaced by something much less emphatic—let us say, “partly irrational.” The same thing happens to the phrase “completely powerless.” Neither the adverb nor the adjective can survive. Nor can the word “addiction” itself, which is visibly evaporating. We have to say “they struggle over their compulsion.”
I apologize for first attributing these quotes to Szasz. They belong to Hitchens!