Free Will and Compatibilism

2. What Is Free Will?

2.3 Addiction

Various forms of addiction are regarded as psychological compulsions that inhibit the exercise of free will. These include alcohol, substance, work and gambling addictions. Some addictions are a symptom of a mental illness, which I deal with in the next section. Examples of these are addiction to sex, hoarding, kleptomania and pyromania. For the ordinary person on the street, as well as for medical and legal experts, many addictions are seen as compromising a person's ability to choose freely. Here are some examples of these opinions.

When asked about the drug addict's lack of choice and what this means for free will, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Alan Leshner, explained:

Most people are able to control their initial drug use. They're able to exert their will over it, but once they are addicted, it's a myth that many people just decide to break their addiction. . . . They need help to deal with the compulsive, uncontrollable drug use.

[Moyers 1998]

Leshner continues:

You are an addict because your brain has been changed by drugs. You're in a state where the drug has totally taken over your being. . . . So, there's something about these biological changes that are going on at the cellular level that gets translated into compulsive, uncontrollable drug use on the behavioral level.

[Moyers 1998]

Book cover: The Free Will Delusion by James B. Mile

What's important to note is that while Leshner thinks that one's 'brain is constantly changing as a function of the experiences one has', the addicted person's brain undergoes 'a very dramatic change' [Moyers 1998]. Free will, for Leshner, is not about having some of one's brain states form independently of one's genetic constitution and environment. It's about being free of psychological compulsion and being true to one's character; to one's being.

Dr. Denise Cummins mirrors Leshner's view that drug addiction robs the addict of the 'free will to choose' not by subjecting previously uncaused brain states to physical causes, but by changing the causes that activate the reward circuitry in the addict's brain. For Cummins [2014], the loss of free will from drug addiction is from the drugs 'power to enslave us'.

According to the Law Library, a judge will only allow an accused person to enter a guilty plea if they consider that the accused 'exercised free will'. The guilty plea is not accepted if the 'defendant isn't mentally competent at the time he agrees to the plea, for example, due to a developmental disability, intoxication or influence of narcotics'. Once again, the ability to reason about one's actions figures prominently in the consideration of whether the act is free. The accused must be able to understand the court proceedings and 'consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding' [Law Library 2016].

Here, the point is not whether an addiction really limits the exercise of free will. Opinions will vary considerably. What these examples demonstrate is that the common person and the professional alike link the loss of free will in cases of addiction to feelings of compulsion, loss of personal identity and reasoning ability. The incompatibilists' notion of contra-causality is notably absent from these considerations.

Copyright © 2016, 2018, 2021

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