16 October 2009

Addiction or Vice?

The French philosopher and cultural theorist, Michel Foucault, argued that one of the many effects of our modernist obsession with Reason and Power is the pathologization of the human condition; that is, rather than attributing our worse qualities as people to our fallen nature, we turn these faults into diseases.  Sexual deviancy becomes a neurosis.  Acts of violence are treated as hormone imbalances.  Even death is medicalized into an affliction.

We've all watched as criminals are found "not guilty" by juries that buy the defense attorney's claims that his client was born premature, had an abusive father, an alcoholic mother, etc.  Usually, society is blamed at some point--systemic poverty, lack of proper health care, repression of sexual desire by religious dogma, bad diet, etc.  All of these may be reasons for criminal behavior, but do they add up to reasons to excuse the behavior?

Most of the long process of pathologization is about power and control--human power and control.  Plain, old-fashioned sin requires non-human intervention to fix.  Thinking of sin as a disease, a natural, material disorder places its cure squarely in the realm of the human.

Foucault's basic insight is that a dominant discourse (e.g., heterosexuality, Christianity, bourgeois capitalism) maintains social and political power by making criminals/patients/sinners out of non-conformists.  Criminals, etc. do not actually exist as objective things but only arise out of a dominant discourse when thought and behavior work against what is considered "normal."  Patients, especially psychological patients, criminals, sinners are created in the various dominant discourses--the Law, Health, the Saved, etc. 

Perhaps the most prominent example of our medicalization of the human condition is the rise of the category of addiction.  We no longer hear medical professionals talk about habitual moral failure, or a lack of will power to resist temptation.  Instead, we label these failures as acts of addiction.  There is little doubt that there are organic dysfunctions associated with what we call addictions.  And there is little doubt that medical treatments often help to curb addictive behaviors.  What's often missing in these treatments is the moral element, that part of us that links our behaviors to our choices and their consequences. 

What prompted this post?  While buzzing around the net this morning, waiting for my coffee to start buzzing around in me, I ran across a post titled, "Top Ten Modern Human Addictions."  They are:  Laziness, Sitting, Having My Way, Obsession with Trivia, Amusement/Escapism, Idolization, Sex, Being Cool, Obsession with Technology, and Always Needing to be Right.  My first thought was:  "These aren't modern.  They're just human."  Classical western literature is stuffed full of examples of all of these.  In fact, it wouldn't take much to link each of these to one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

So, what's the motivation behind labeling them addictions?  There are two, I think:  1). we think of addictions as medical conditions, so they are amoral, and we are therefore blameless and 2). as medically treatable diseases, addictions are curable, or at least, able to be mitigated by medical treatment.  How often have we heard (or said!) something like the following:  "I can't quit ________ b/c I'm totally addicted!"  Labeling a vice as an addiction allows us to acknowledge our bad behavior and at the same time excuse it.  Neat, uh? 

Most modern medical treatments for addiction rely heavily on behavioral modification therapy in combination with "talk therapy."  What is not part of the treatment regime in the modern therapist office is grace.  The Church has always practiced behavioral modification.  We call it virtue--forming good habits.  We have also always practiced talk therapy.  We call it confession and spiritual direction.  However, the success of our therapies is conditioned on an acceptance of God's grace.  We are freed from the burden of guilt and shame when we receive and work with God's gift of Himself to us in Christ Jesus. 

That's the difference that makes the difference in getting truly, wholly well again.


  1. What's missing is the acknowledgment of concupiscence and free will. Today's mores that urge 'if it feels natural, then it is natural, ergo do it' subverts the responsibility to engage on the anti-entropic project of ordering the faculties of the soul (intellect, memory, and will) to the truth--primarily by the virtues of faith, hope, and love. In this way only can one truly attain integration of the personality and lay the foundation to transcend any pathology that must be cured. Accept responsibility first, then seek the cure. In those that are too deeply mired in sin/pathology, another person can shoulder that responsibility and engage with the sinner/patient through charity until grace moves his heart to take up the responsibility himself (St. Augustine & St. Monica, anyone?).

    We work against physical entropy to put our personal environment in order; why would we expect not to work against the entropy of the soul?

  2. Anonymous6:36 AM

    I could not agree more! This contagion started with Rousseau, when he blamed the ills of man on society. To him, I say, "Blessed be God, Who makes man good. Blessed be God, Who makes the society of men good. Blessed be God, Who saves us all from our sin!"

  3. interesting and thought provoking!!thanks