Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken

Insights on Addiction and Philosophy

Are We All Addicted to Something?

Something bizarre is happening here.

I am hearing more people say about themselves, “Oh, I am addicted to ____.” The list includes: the newest technology, musical groups, television series, brands of chocolate, tabloid magazines, Zumba classes, and yes, even philosophy! Another increasingly common refrain is, “Everyone is addicted to something.”

This is getting downright bizarre.

What exactly are people saying when they claim, “I am addicted to_____” and “Everyone is addicted?” Do people really want to be understood as addicts, or are they saying they have a little excessive or merely quirky behavior in part of their life? I suspect it's usually the latter. In some instances, I imagine people are saying there are things they love to do but feel sheepish about them.

People who say, “I am just addicted to that new television series,” often do so in a quasi-confessional tone. There is an element of embarrassment, as if they are saying, “I just cannot help myself. Please don’t judge this behavior too harshly. And certainly, please don’t judge me too harshly.” 

There is also a move to look for companions in guilt by claiming that everyone else is an addict, too. And there is an element of “this isn’t really me," or "it's only a really small part of me.” The pesky behavior is self-contained; the alleged addiction doesn't attach to the whole person.

Sometimes the confession has a humanizing dimension, showing that our heroes have feet of clay. Our high-powered boss, for example, “just cannot help herself,” and has to read those trashy tabloids in the grocery store checkout aisle. In such cases, the “addiction” might almost seem a charming quirk that levels the playing field, in an odd sort of way. It's a way of showing that someone does not have perfect or absolute self-control. She may have total control in some areas of her life, but not in this one. That knowledge makes the rest of us feel better.

Some people who exercise enormous control in parts of their lives feel as if they should be allowed to have some areas where they do not. Often, we have a sense that we deserve or are entitled to have areas where we are weaker or hold ourselves to a more relaxed standard. We work hard in all these other ways; why shouldn’t we get to coast here? The idea that we are so upstanding and controlled in all these other areas of life, and should get something of a break in one other area, is a familiar line of thinking for addicts.

My point here is that stretching the term “addiction” to such a great degree serves no one well. It pathologizes too many activities and substances. Anything that anyone thinks she should not be doing, or does more than other people, or enjoys too much, or which causes them to feel some guilt becomes an "addiction."

Stretching the term too far and applying it so liberally also reinforces the connection many draw between addiction and lack of self-control. This is not to say self-control plays no role in addiction, but it certainly doesn’t play the role these term-stretchers have it play.

Finally, the term stretching runs the risk of trivializing addiction. Addiction is not a quirk; rather, it's an existential condition that, for many, is a matter of life and death. 

Peg O'Connor, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.

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