Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken

Insights on Addiction and Philosophy

Addiction Is Not a Failure of Willpower

Does new work on willpower reinscribe old moral beliefs about addicts?

Willpower is a popular subject these days. Channel your willpower in all the right ways and you can transform your life. Or so it seems. In an interesting and provocative book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy Baumeister and John Tierney argue that willpower has a physical basis and functions like a muscle. Willpower can be strengthened and it can be depleted. It is a finite resource, so one ought to expend it wisely. Glucose puts the power in willpower; when levels of glucose are low, willpower diminishes. Raise glucose levels and willpower increases too.

This view of willpower raises interesting questions for addiction. Are some addictive behaviors beyond the control of willpower? Are addicts simply not directing their willpower in the proper directions? Or are we not properly “willpower working out” so that we build strong temptation-resisting muscles while we still can? These questions raise the specter of the old familiar view that addicts are moral failures because we lack self-control to stop our destructive behaviors.

Willpower is equated with self-control and saying no. The picture is that we exert willpower when we resist a temptation. The temptation can be of any sort—that delicious piece of cake, the extra twenty minutes napping on the couch, surfing the web while at work, the twelve pack of Molson in the refrigerator—and willpower is the ability to say no. Part of the problem is that the same reserve of willpower has to resist all temptations; there are not pools of willpower for this sort of temptation and other pools for that sort of temptation.

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Willpower also plays a positive role, and helps us to achieve goals that we have decided are important to us. Willpower motivates us to stick with positive resolutions. But even here, there is still a strong negative function. My eating more healthfully means that I need to say no to the chocolate glazed doughnut that is taunting me from the bakery case.

Saying no to things is exhausting, as Baumeister and Tierney argue. We live in a world of unending temptations, and at times it seems as if we are constantly caught in a deluge of wants and desires. Having said no to 99 things makes it more likely that we cannot when the hundredth temptation crosses our path.

Even though this at first may feel like a defeat, it also feels something of a relief. We seem to believe that if we cannot say no 100 percent of the time, we might as well never say no. Our failure serves as justification for never trying again. Furthermore, we might begin to think that a lack of self-control in one area of our life is proof that we just lack all self-control. This way of thinking is familiar to many addicted people and breeds a sort of fatalism.

I believe there is an implicit formula undergirding this conception of willpower that “inability to resist temptation = addiction.” All parts of the formula—inability, resistance, temptation, and addiction—are worrisome.

Regarding inability: It would seem to follow that the further a person moves down the substance use disorder continuum (mild to severe), the less one is able to exert her self-control to resist the temptation of her drug of choice. A person either loses the ability she once had or develops the inability as she moves along the continuum. But what space is there to explore the conditions under which one loses the ability? This sort of question falls off the table and instead the focus remains on the individual and her failure to exert self-control in the right direction to the right degree.   

Regarding resistance: what does it mean to resist a substance or behavior that is a temptation? It might seem obvious that it means not consuming certain substances or abstaining from an activity such as gambling. But what if a person still orients her life around that substance or behavior or keeps many of the same “using” behaviors in the absence of the substance? There is resistance to the behavior but does there also need to be resistance to the thinking?

Regarding temptation: A deeper worry for me is the way that “temptation” is assumed to be easily identified and defined. The nature and quality varies hugely between different sorts of temptations. Is anything tempting potentially addicting? All temptations are not created equal. Some substances are manufactured to be irresistible temptations. Potato chips, anyone?

Regarding addiction: The formula tends to reduce a very complex set of phenomena to one characteristic, namely the failure of an individual to exert the right amount of self-control. Addictions progress and manifest in many different ways. At the end of the day, I am not convinced that all addictions share one thing in common. More on this in an upcoming post.

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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