Heading into Battle: Addiction, the Will, and the Fight for Autonomy

Throughout life, we are constantly faced with conflicts between what we should do and what we are innately inclined to do, what we desire and what we want to desire, the mistakes we’ve committed and the guilt of being unable to take them back. An inevitable consequence of living in a modern world with a stone-age mind, these struggles define what it means to be human in a world which we shape and evolve at a much more rapid rate than we ourselves can evolve. As a result, we find ourselves unable to make productive and beneficial choices much of the time, falling prone to the immediate compulsions our brain cells urge our minds to choose. In extreme cases, addiction results, but it’s no accident how casually the term is thrown around. People quip about being addicted to chocolate, Netflix, love, etc. as a figure of speech. However, there really is little about the ways in which addiction impairs agency that allows us to distinguish it from other natural appetites such as sugars or emotional attachment. To draw more defined conclusions regarding addiction, this essay will focus on clinical drug and alcohol addiction as opposed to less common and diagnosable addictions such as food or technology addiction. However, some of our deductions may also apply to these sources of temptation simply because they stem from similar roots.

Considering the universality of the struggle for self-control and mind-body equilibrium, the question of whether we can ever consider the will to be distinctly diseased persists. And knowing the vulnerability of the will under addiction, we may also speculate whether it is right to hold addicts responsible for their addiction and any wrongs they may commit under its influence. Adapting arguments which view addiction as a disease or a philosophical impasse, we arrive at the conclusion that addiction results in significant impairment of free will and reason, trapping addicts in a mechanistic state of compulsive behavior and clinically disordered mode of functioning. Though they should be held responsible for their behavior for the sake of rehabilitation, protection of their status as human beings, and protection of society, they should not always be blamed in the context of moral criticism. Their will and decision-making become impaired in a way that makes it fiercely difficult to make the right choices. Such conflict is not necessarily a reflection of one’s true morals but rather a reflection of morals warped under duress.

Addiction is commonly perceived as a disease, but rather than focusing on issues of the will itself, this perspective often stems from the idea of bodily cravings overpowering the intellectual will.  No one embarks on drug usage intending to become addicted but rather in pursuit of positive affect, which drugs provide by increasing dopamine in brain reward regions, activating them (Volkow). Especially when under stress, drugs can become a dangerous crutch to temper the intensity of negative emotion or provide mental stimulation for someone with low arousal levels.  However, with repeated usage, the addict becomes dependent and experiences extreme hunger, thirst, pain, anger, sleepiness, and sexual desire in the absence of the drug, amounting to intense cravings (Watson 326). Due to drugs’ damaging effects on dopamine pathways in the brain, he will also develop a tolerance, needing greater amounts of the drug to experience the same intensity of reward over time (Cummins). The burnout of dopamine firing can eventually lead the brain to misrepresent the true reward value of the drug, resulting in a potentially inescapable kind of self-deception (Levy 13).

The compulsion to continue consuming the drug is a combination of desire, unconscious expectation, and habit that totals to a force often described as “irresistible.” After all, less than 10% of drug addicts recover in the long-term due to the dominating pull of relapse (Radoilska 14). Even after years of sobriety, encountering a setting in which drugs were often consumed can trigger the whole drug response over again as the body expects and prepares for a drug that it should not even need for equilibrium (Elste 66). This vulnerability of the psyche demonstrates that although we are used to the idea that having two options before us (e.g. ingest a drug or do not) designates a decision we have the power to make, we can be rendered helpless under the authority of chemical imbalance, evolutionary draw toward positive stimulation, and gravity of habit. Is this enough to defend the addict’s behavior as “powerless”? If one’s utmost efforts do not overcome, then one is powerless against an irresistible force. However, there is arguably no way to know what “one’s utmost effort” is—one can never know whether he could have tried harder because it is debatable whether we are endowed with unlimited willpower.

Jean-Paul Sartre would likely have something to say regarding this debate. His argument of mauvaise foi, or bad faith, may describe the addict’s plight as a lie to himself. Sartre contends that often, man knows what he ought to do and has the freedom to make the right choice but deceives himself into thinking he lacks this freedom (Sartre 370). Applying this philosophy to addiction, the addict who deems himself powerless against his drug cravings is a man of bad faith because he rejects the possibility that he can choose recovery. In this case, “The liar is more or less the victim of his lie” (Sartre 371). If it is true that the addict has the ability to refrain from drug usage, he is limiting his life and potential by convincing himself that he has no choice in the matter. Another principle descriptive of this conflict is Sartre’s claim that, “Man is condemned to be free…condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does” (Sartre 5). From this perspective, addicts who believe themselves powerless over their own addiction are merely protecting themselves from guilt and avoiding responsibility for a condition they regret entering. Perhaps it is easier for addicts to relinquish the idea of self-control than it is to constantly fight drug cravings and come to terms with the ways they may have damaged their quality of life, relationships, and self-actualization in their pursuit of drugs. Though this belief may be convincing, it remains difficult to blame addicts for the situation they are in. Even if Sartre speaks the truth and they are feigning incapacity to themselves, this in itself would be evidence of distorted will and reason. Though self-deception may be self-defeating, it is a means of satisfying basic needs such as self-esteem.

Sartre’s man of bad faith is comparable to the sub-man described in Simone de-Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity. It could be said that addiction depresses man into the sub-man. She describes, “They have eyes and ears, but…they make themselves blind and deaf, without love and without desire…the sub-man rejects this ‘passion’ which is his human condition” (de Beauvoir 42). Addiction often causes people to relinquish purpose in their life because their main object of attention becomes drug acquisition. Additionally, withdrawal effects may cause them to experience depression and irritability and retreat from the outside. Like Sartre, de Beauvoir considers the sub-man responsible for his condition because she believes he has made an active choice to disengage from society. However, the addict’s situation can make it extremely challenging to participate in society. Though he is typically physically able to work or interact with friends, doing so becomes much more difficult for him than it is for the average person. Thus, engagement should still be expected from those struggling with addiction, but they should not be held to the same standards as a healthy person.

The common argument against the addict seems to be that he is weak-willed—too lazy and uncaring to dig himself a hole he has created for himself. However, in all the stress of fighting for control over their urges, many addicts commit suicide in a literal fight to the death with themselves. Clearly, something about the argument does not line up. In seeking to understand addiction, we must look to not only the scientist or the philosopher but to the addict himself. It is difficult to accuse the addict of being entirely complicit in his addiction when one hears the condition described in his own voice. William Burroughs writes about addiction in his novel Junky, saying, “A junky runs on junk time. When the junk is cut off, the clock runs down and stops. All he can do is hang on and wait for non-junky time to start. A sick junky has no escape from external time, no place to go. He can only wait” (Burroughs 97). He conveys the urgency and absoluteness with which drugs take over the life of an addict, expressing that there seems to be no escape for the junky other than the temporary relief of receiving his drug.


Fig. 1. Untitled (Fire-man). Johnny Hoglund. 2015. Oil on canvas. Saatchi Art. Web. 7 December 2015.



Burroughs also challenges the accusation that addicts are the offenders behind their own captivity because they almost always become addicted by voluntary behavior. He writes, “Most addicts did not start using drugs for any reason they can remember. They just drifted along until they got hooked…You don’t decide to be an addict. One morning you wake up sick and you’re an addict” (Burroughs 4). Though the addict makes the initial choice to begin using drugs and continues the use because of its initial pleasant effects, Burroughs reminds us that we cannot always be in the aware, enlightened state Sartre and de Beauvoir praise. Often, life stressors cloud thinking and induce people to seek the positive stimulation of drugs. People also often embark on this path without sufficient understanding of the potential consequences. These notions are supported by the finding that risk factors for drug addiction include poverty, unstable relationships, high incidence of mental disorders, and dropping out of school (Wages 25). All of these factors potentially contribute to unstable and stressful lifestyles, and adolescence is a time when judgment skills are poorly developed, making certain people especially vulnerable to addiction.

Manifestly, many addicts make decisions under stress, or as Aristotle may clarify, “duress.” In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, he distinguishes between three possible conflicts that may cause one to do harm: literal force, having to choose among two evils, and duress, which drug addiction may fall under. In situations of duress, one chooses wrongly, but the circumstances are such that choosing the right thing is too difficult to expect of one another for the burden it would incur is too great (Aristotle 115). The compulsive desire that accompanies addiction cannot be considered a literal force because it is not independent of the will, but in many cases, it creates circumstances of duress under which even the resolute are liable. In their book Addition and Responsibility, Poland and Graham suggest that while addicts’ abilities do not differ from those of healthy beings, their opportunities do (121). Addicts lack the opportunity to comply with certain norms without suffering unique burdens such as withdrawal or sacrificing their autonomy. Thus, though the addict and the non-addict share the same abilities, they come from different contexts and as such should not be held to the same standard.

This argument can lead to a catch-22, however. The goal of course is for the addict to regain a sense of control over his life without stigmatization and inculpation. Asserting that he should not be held to the same norms as non-addicts implies that he is less able and may cause him to adopt a self-defeating view. On the other hand, asserting that he should be held to the same norms is also unfair because the burdens weighing on his decision-making and his immediate impulses are greater than those of someone not under the influence of drugs. Holding addicts to universal norms often leads to their ostracism and makes others less sympathetic and responsive toward them. We cannot strip addicts of their responsibilities as members of society because to do so would be dehumanizing, but perhaps holding addicts to a certain level of responsibility would reconcile their status as cognizant human beings with their need for additional help and self-exertion.

A possible form this responsibility could take is that of complying with norms as long as the addict can maintain autonomous control while doing so. In support of this stance, Poland and Graham propose the example of a soldier who suffers extreme panic, clouded thinking, and desire to flee in violent situations. As a soldier, the appropriate thing to do would be to stay and fight with his comrades. However, his instinctive reaction of fear is so powerful that the only way to assure that he would not flee in battle would be to defer his autonomy to someone else, committing himself to follow a superior who he knows will not flee (Poland & Graham 124). It could be said that the act of deferring autonomy is itself an act of autonomy, but only if the agent does so without being influenced by external pressure. So, do we accept the soldier heading into battle with only his will to sustain him, even if he is likely to fail himself? Or do we expect him to give up his autonomy to fulfill his responsibility? Conceivably, “The soldier who has agreed to be a soldier can be expected to give up his autonomy as he would need to in order to comply with the norm, but he cannot be expected to do so merely because he is expected to comply with the norm he violated” (Poland & Graham 125). The difference between these two conditions is that the former is without external coercion. The influence of societal expectation encroaches on human private freedom when society expects its citizens to relinquish autonomy. The soldier should be able to fight his battle even if it will end in his defeat and cowardice, and the addict should be able to make his own decisions, so long as they do not infringe on the public freedom. For instance, an alcoholic who decides to drive under the influence should be held accountable because such an action endangers the wellbeing of others in the public realm. However, an alcoholic acting in the private realm, who endangers himself by drinking unhealthy amounts and cannot act otherwise without giving up his autonomy (e.g. asking someone to forcibly restrict his access to alcohol), should not be thoughtlessly shamed. It is profoundly difficult to allow others to be one’s decision-makers because it means not only admitting weakness but admitting to a weakness so great that one lacks the power to ameliorate it himself. Rather than being shamed, the addict would benefit from being guided and emotionally supported in the duress of his predicament.

When I think of the addict’s weakness, I think of fear, and when I think of fear, I think of Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey. She writes, “As desire is wanting and fear is not-wanting, they become inexorably linked” (113). Although the addict is generally thought to be plagued by desire, he seems taken by despair as well, compulsively repeating an action under an inexplicable fear that something awful will happen if he doesn’t. Maybe it’s impossible to reason how much we can expect of ourselves considering the push and pull of constant wanting and not-wanting, but we cannot wander blindly either. In the addict’s case, recognizing the burdens weighing his decision-making, we must be understanding of his struggles but expectant of his efforts. Speaking more broadly, coddling our species would be an insult to our human potential, but invalidating our own feelings and vulnerabilities would be an insult to our humanity itself. Bukowski voices the universal struggle of emotion-bearing in his poem, Soirée:

I drink and cough like some idiot at a symphony,

sunlight and maddened birds are everywhere,

the phone rings gamboling its sound

against the odds of the crooked sea;

I drink deeply and evenly now,

I drink to paradise

and death

and the lie of love. (“Soirée” 8-15)

This stanza is full of contradictions—the harmonics of the symphony and discordance of the cough, the warmth of sunlight and chaos of the birds, paradise and death, lies and love. The alcoholic who is at at odds with himself seems emblematic of an increasingly artificial world at odds with human nature. Life is hard, and beautiful, and unknowable, but it may be of comfort to understand that to some degree, we are each caught between desire and fear. We would do well to realize that the addict is not so far off from ourselves.


Fig. 2. Hand. Daniele Buetti. 2001-2002. Lightbox. Aeroplastics. Web. 7 December 2015.


Works Cited

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Terence Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999. Print.

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Kensington, 1948. Print.

Bukowski, Charles. The Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems. Boston: Black Sparrow, 1989. Print.

Burroughs, William S. Junky. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977. Print.

Cummins, Denise. “The Myth and Reality of Free Will: The Case of Addiction.” Psychology Today 9 Feb. 2014: n. pag. Web. 3 Dec. 2015. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/good-thinking/201402/the-myth-and-reality-free-will-the-case-addiction&gt;.

Elste, Jon. Strong Feelings: Emotion, Addiction, and Human Behavior. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1999. Print.

Levy, Neil. “Addiction and Self-Control: Perspectives from Philosophy, Psychology, and Neuroscience.” Addiction and Self-Control: Perspectives from Philosophy, Psychology, and Neuroscience.: Oxford University Press, 2013-11-29. Oxford Scholarship Online. 2014-01-23. Date Accessed 7 Dec. 2015 <http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199862580.001.0001/acprof-9780199862580-chapter-1&gt;.

Poland, Jeffrey, and George Graham, eds. Addiction and Responsibility. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2011. Print.

Radoilska, Lubomira. Addiction and Weakness of Will. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.

Ruefle, Mary. Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures. Seattle: Wave, 2012. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. Print.

Volkow, Nora. Dr. Nora Volkow on Addiction: A Disease of Free Will. Youtube. National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1 July 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1AEvkWxbLE&gt;.

Wages, Michele. Culture, Poverty, and Education: What’s Happening in Today’s Schools? Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Print.

Watson, Gary. Agency and Answerability. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.