3.18.2010

Provocative thoughts on the science of addiction

In a new book, a scientific mind analyzes the assertion that addiction qualifies as a disease...and his findings compel him to argue to the contrary:

"The implication is that as we learn more about a disorder,” he writes, “the more likely it is to be thought of as a disease"—and, consequently, as a condition whose course cannot be modified by its foreseeable consequences. Indeed, reconciling advances in brain science with their meaning for personal, legal, and civic notions of agency and responsibility will be one of our next major cultural projects.

It's really a provocative point, one that stands to upend a great deal of left-leaning policies based on the now widely held assumption that addicts should be treated like victims of disease:

Heyman mounts a devastating assault on the brain-based model of addiction. Not that he views addiction as independent of the brain—no serious person could even entertain such a claim. What he rejects, however, is the notion that excessive drug or alcohol consumption is an irresistible act wholly beyond the user’s control, as the term “addiction,” commonly understood, implies.

I'm very much interested in the intersection of the developing science of the brain and society's philosophical underpinnings relative to what makes up a citizen as far as rational free will is concerned.  How much control does an individual have over his or her actions?  It's a deep question from which much of our approach to life - certainly our law and public policy - flows.

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Last semester, one of my colleagues spoke out during a large lecture on legal ethics.  When asked how to deal with a business associate with an alcohol problem, the classmate noted that, at the outset, he didn't consider alcohol addiction a disease.  The questioner seemed stunned...and the lecture hall murmured a bit.  But I thought he had a legitimate point.

I tend to believe that individuals have the capacity for much greater control over their lives and behavior than they realize.  It's not perfect control - there's certainly an irrational aspect to human beings.  But it's there.  And I think society is better off when it demands its members tap into and engage each other via their rational aspects, their potential for personal responsibility.

I might have to add Heyman's book to my reading list.