Addiction and Voluntary Action

Does an addicted person act freely and is the engagement in addictive behavior a voluntary act? As noted earlier, addicted persons feel a strong urge to engage a particular behavior. These persons find it difficult to resist the urge and consequently feel obliged to fulfil it in order to curb the pain that follows from not fulfilling it.

For the medicinal perspective of addiction, this struggle and failure to resist indicates a form of compulsive disorder that ultimately is some sort of dysfunction in the brain pattern. As a result, an individual is not herself but is compelled to act in a particular manner by the disease.

On the contrary, the psychological perspective holds that addicted persons act voluntarily. In this section, we argue that addicted persons act voluntarily in the minimalist sense. That is to say, the disruption of the reward system in the brain acts as a major hindrance for the psyche to put into action decisions produced under the normal deliberative process.

Aristotle’s conception of akrasia, or weakness of the will, gives us an intermediary interpretation on the cause and process of addiction. This compromising position between the medicinal perspective and psychological perspective assumes both physical and mental impairment of an individual as the cause of addiction.

One characteristic of akrasia, which seems to be the driving point of the two perspectives, concerns freewill and intentionality. This characteristic, as noted by Mele, is that incontinent action is “free, intentional action contrary to the agent’s better judgment.” However, not all intentional actions against one’s better judgement may be considered as akratic.

For Mele, some actions are compelled. This is the main point employed by the medicinal perspective in explaining drug addiction.

The medicinal perspective claims that addicts are compelled. Though they act intentionally against their better judgement, they are compelled to act such by the disease in them. For the psychological model, this compulsion in addiction does not determine action; thus, it is not a necessary cause of action.

Now, how is it possible to act voluntarily against one’s own better judgment?

For Aristotle, the weak-willed know in so far as the relevant facts are available to them. As Sarah Broadie and Christopher Rowe note, these individuals “are not unconscious or hypnotized,” and they see no need to check if they have made the right decision. On the other hand, their knowledge seems not to be making any difference to their choices. Thus, “it is not on active duty when it ought to be, or not fully so (for it might be making them ashamed even as they act)”.

The knowledge that these individuals have is not practically realized because it is not impacting them or making any difference in them. Aristotle is a man of action. For Aristotle, the actual point of knowledge or being aware of what one should be doing is to do it, and not to contrast it with what one thought would have been done and feeling ashamed.

The weak-willed demonstrate a failure to translate universals into particulars and use them in their present situation. As pointed out earlier, this failure is due to lack of discipline. For Aristotle, proper training and character building is fundamental in making the mind the right motivator of human action.

Now, are addicts free or do they engage in addictive behavior voluntarily? Addiction may be understood as a case of weak-will. As noted in Aristotle, it may well be categorized as a battle of the mind and body/desires. What is central at this point is the power of deliberation and its ability to motivate action.

The soul, despite being influenced by physical processes of the body, retains its agency and ability to influence the body. An influential approach on motivation of action is what Wallace calls the hydraulic conception of desire. This position is inclined towards Hume’s conception of passion as the motivating factor of action. Desires are thought as vectors of causal force to which we as agents are subject and which determine the actions we end up performing.

This approach seems inadequate because it deprives an individual of her self-determination and the agent is depicted as subject to forces which are irresistible in that situation. This conception goes against phenomenological evidence of human agency and self-determination.

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