Tuesday, 25 April 2023

What is special about addictive desires?

Today's post is by Federico Burdman, based in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, who summarises his paper entitled "Recalcitrant Desires in Addiction", forthcoming in volume 8 of the Oxford Studies in Agency and Responsibility.

Federico Burdman

This piece of research is on the psychology of addiction. Being addicted to something —say, psychoactive drugs, including alcohol— is not just about enjoying drugs and using them frequently. It is also more than just wanting to use drugs very much. Plainly, not all forms of wanting something very much and doing it a lot amount to addiction. Consider the analogy: a student may be determined and highly motivated to graduate from school, spend long hours studying and training for that purpose, even neglect other activities on that account, and still not be ‘addicted’ to studying in any sensible sense.

One key difference between addiction and other forms of behavior issuing from powerful motivation is given by the particular way in which people suffering from addiction are drawn to use drugs. On most definitions of ‘addiction’, this includes an element of impairment of behavioral control —the sort of thing that is sometimes called a ‘compulsion’. Of course, using drugs is not like experiencing a spasm: it is not something that simply happens to you without you having any say about it. But people suffering from addiction experience a very real difficulty when it comes to controlling their inclination to use drugs.

If we look behind the scenes and turn to the psychology of addictive behavior, there are many different possible explanations about how exactly this difficulty with behavioral control comes about. In this paper, I focus on one particular bit of that story: the one concerning addictive desires —i.e., desires to use drugs in the context of addiction.

Addictive desires are in some ways different from ordinary sorts of desires. One traditional way to picture this difference focuses on desire strength: addictive desires are often assumed to be much stronger than other desires. Roughly put, the story is supposed to go like this: an ordinary sort of desire (say, wanting to have some ice cream right now) may be strong but still leave you enough elbow room to make a deliberate choice concerning whether you should pursue that desire or not. Addictive desires, on the contrary, are often pictured as pushing the person towards some action so strongly that they rob them of the power to make a different choice. On this picture, addictive desires’ strength overwhelms the person’s ability to resist, leading to compulsive behavior.

I argue that this picture is wrong in some ways, and I propose to replace it with an alternative account of what makes addictive desires different from other sorts of desires. On my view, the key feature of addictive desires is that they are much more impervious to the kinds of things that could potentially make you change your mind about what you want —a feature I call recalcitrance. 

There are two main sorts of things that are usually able to exert some degree of influence over desires: what your thoughts and judgements on the matter are, and how good or bad your experiences actually were when satisfying similar desires in the past. Addictive desires, I argue, are relatively impervious to being influenced by such things, much more so than ordinary sorts of desires. Many addicted people happen to be of the opinion that continuing to use drugs is very bad for them, and they may be suffering from serious or even dramatic negative consequences of continuing drug use, and yet this often fails to make any discernible difference on their on-going motivation to use drugs.

Importantly, this is different from the traditional picture of addictive desires which focuses on desire strength. Individual episodes of wanting to use drugs may not be so strong as to overwhelm the capacity for self-control at any particular point in time. But as the tendency to experience these desires is unresponsive to the relevant sorts of influences, these desires keep coming up recurrently and persistently in a way that has a cumulative effect over decision-making capacities. This feature of addictive desires, I argue, contributes to explaining what the ‘compulsion’ to use drugs is all about, even if it only gives us a piece of a broader and more complex puzzle.

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