November 2019 Print

Addiction: Giving Words Their Meaning

By Godeleine Lafargue


Dependency, addiction, habitus…there are many terms for dependent behavior developed to an unreasonable extent by some object such as drugs, computers, music, chocolate, tobacco, etc.

Habitus is the term used in moral philosophy. It is taken from scholastic Latin and should not be confused with the word habit, which applies to a behavior made up of mechanical forces. A habitus is the activity of a faculty, whereas in the case of a habit, the subject remains passive. A habit is a physical automatism, whereas a habitus requires an act of the human will.

In philosophical terms, a habitus is defined as a quality that modifies a subject in a stable way. In simpler terms, a man’s behavior is durably modified by a habitus; for example, he becomes generous or learned. This modification cannot be changed easily so long as it is anchored in a man. For this reason, it is difficult for a just person who has acquired the habitus of justice to accomplish an unjust act. It should be noted that the use of the word “quality” in philosophy is not to be taken in the ordinary sense of the word used when we say that someone has many qualities. It is a qualification, an attribute added to a person, as when we say, for example, that someone is white or sick. But let us take this analysis further.

Man possesses multiple faculties and each of his faculties can be perfected or deteriorated by the acts he poses with his will. We ordinarily call these virtues or vices. A man uses his faculties in an ordered or disordered way, thus begetting virtue or vice through the repetition of his acts. When his sensitivity is regularly ordered according to right reason, a person becomes virtuous. Conversely, a man who frequently acts against all reason, following his passions inordinately, forms vices. The question that interests us here is whether addiction can be considered a habitus in the moral sense of the word.

Addiction: A Habitus?

Addiction is a recent concept and it applies to cases of dependencies that are harmful and therefore negative for man. We can therefore consider habitus as a synonym for addiction but only in the negative sense of the word, that is, as a vice. Addiction, in philosophical terms, is therefore a stable quality that disposes the subject in a way out of keeping with his nature. It is essential to know this nature in order to know whether the subject is well disposed or ill disposed. Doctors and psychologists use a new term for a condition that has for decades been known as “vice.” However, if they invented this term, it was surely for a reason. It seems to express a denial of freedom and of the will, in other words, a complete disregard for nature. Present-day psychology tends to be materialistic and no longer considers man as a being possessed of a will, but rather as a being subject to his impulses and dependencies, seeking to balance them with derivatives such as the psychoanalyst’s couch, sports, or art.

The words “will” and “nature” are absent from their vocabulary, since these words remind us that while man is made of flesh, he is also a spiritual being possessed of a very specific nature distinct from that of other animals. Like animals, he does have impulses more correctly known as passions, but in principle, they are supposed to be ordained to his reason. No man is subject to his impulses except voluntarily. And by repeatedly posing acts contrary to the order of human nature, that is to say, that dispose him in a way out of keeping with his nature, a man eventually develops an addiction, as psychologists call it. This dependency is not a physical automatism, it is a behavior chosen at the outset and daily repeated until it became a vice. By repeatedly opening his computer first thing in the morning and returning to it constantly and at any given moment, a man creates a disorder and his computer, that in itself is morally neutral, becomes an object used unreasonably, inordinately, and to the detriment of his family or his duty of state.

An addiction, therefore, is not an exclusively automatic behavior; it is an act of the will. And the more these acts are repeated, the deeper the vice will take root and the harder it will be to correct it, so much so that rehab may become necessary, as for example in the case of drugs or alcohol. Soon we will be seeing specialized institutions for a detox from technology, which, once again, is not evil in itself, but only when used inordinately. Young people today, but also those who are not so young, use their phones constantly, with complete disregard for politeness, courtesy, family relations, etc. And let no one believe that there is nothing to be done because it is an addiction. The will is the means given to our nature to perfect ourselves and therefore correct ourselves. Unfortunately, virtue is not a very popular term nowadays, for it has uncomfortable connotations and implies a definition of the nature of man that is so adamantly attacked by our modern society (think of the ideology hiding behind the “Gender theory”).

Let the Body Obey the Will and the Intelligence

Let us take a few moments to consider some basic concepts that are essential for the understanding of addiction and the ways to fight it.

Man possesses a nature that animals, too, possess; he is a living being with passions that tend towards goods of the senses and he is capable of knowing the world around him on the level of the senses. But he is distinct from other animals in that he possesses an intellective soul capable of desiring not only goods of the senses, but also abstract goods such as justice or goodness. A child will bring his father the newspaper to please him and to do a good deed, whereas a dog will not seek to be good, but will do the same thing for a treat or caress from its master, and that is how it is trained.

Man is also capable of knowing abstract things and conceptualizing. When it comes down to it, intelligence and will are what characterize the nature of man. No natural being possesses these faculties except man. And this makes him the most perfect created being in the natural world. And all the other faculties must be ordained to the intelligence and will because of their perfection. Indeed, it is more perfect to love the goodness of a man than to appreciate a good chocolate cake. St. Thomas explains quite simply that it is natural for the inferior to be subject to the more perfect superior. A working hand is not an engineer; the engineer’s knowledge is more perfect than that of the working hand and in this respect the working hand is inferior to the engineer. This does not in any way imply that the working hand’s task is worthless, but only that order and inequality are natural. Our body is therefore inferior to our spiritual faculties, and it is only right for the body to obey the intelligence and will in order to give the entire human person his proper balance.

Man possesses a nature, and by reason of this nature, he has an end to achieve that will bring him happiness. One of two things, therefore, is inevitable; either a man is well-disposed towards this end, and this condition is known as virtue, or he is ill-disposed towards this end, and this condition is known as vice. It is important to remember that virtue and vice are not immediate. Time and repeated acts transform our personality and make us good or bad men.

Addiction is therefore a vice, that is to say, a negative condition with regards to man’s good. It comes from a regularly repeated behavior that profoundly changes our person, even going so far as to transform it…into an animal. These words are no exaggeration when looking at all those people with their phones, reacting only to the stimuli of their ringtones or games.

Healing an Addiction?

It would be of no use here to develop the notion of vice further. However, healing an addiction is an important aspect of the issue at hand. Aside from the fact that certain very serious addictions can require medical or psychological help, it is important to know that man has a very precious tool: his will. If, in the case of vice, repeating evil acts can change a person, it is also true that repeating good acts can develop virtue. It is enough to want it. And the most competent medical science in the world can do nothing on that level. While a medical treatment for alcoholism can be provided, there comes a point where the person’s good will is essential; all doctors agree on this. And the mistake of our modern world is that it softens our wills. As time goes on, less and less effort is required from children and adults. Everything is done to make things easier and the older generation no longer teach´╗┐ the younger ones the sense of these things. Who still speaks of virtue today? The texts of ancient Greek writers, for example, on virtue, grandeur, and honor are no longer published or even known.

In conclusion, addiction is not, therefore, a simple habit or a simple automatism. It is a denial of the will and of man’s nature. Man is made, says Aristotle, “to live as man,” in other words, to live in conformity with that which is good and true. Modern scholars speak of addiction as an acquired automatism as if we were simple machines. If we look a little deeper, we see that there is a whole underlying philosophy: materialistic existentialism and psychoanalysis among other things.

Existentialism refuses the concept of nature. Man has no nature at birth, he chooses it freely. He creates his nature by means of his freedom. Psychoanalysis considers man as a machine made up of impulses that need to be balanced out by derivatives such as art for example. For Freud, art is nothing more than a sublimation of our libido. But these philosophies have forgotten that man is a spiritual being, that he possesses spiritual faculties. The human capacity to love and think is a proof of this, but so is medical science’s inability to heal addictions or certain psychological illnesses. If we were nothing but matter, why would a simple medicine not be able to heal us in the way a mechanic repairs a car? And if we were nothing but freedom? What good would boundless freedom be to us? We desperately need to return to solid truths, the truths of reality and common sense. To become a man, one must act as a man. Addictive behavior is simply bestial behavior on the part of a man who has forgotten his nature. And our technology does nothing to promote our humanity. Living in a virtual world brings men to forget reality and common sense. Psychologists may very well point out real problems, and addiction is indeed one of them, but they do not offer true solutions, for they have forgotten the essential, our humanity. And when we know that this humanity has been redeemed, this profoundly changes the situation, for man is no longer alone. Grace is there to make us live not only “as men,” but also as children of God. Healing an addiction by means of the confessional instead of a couch just might be an idea worth considering.