Addiction as Rule-Following
Max Weber’s 1907 paper ‘The Concept of ‘Following a Rule’’ outlines a number of definitions regarding what a rule actually is, or is supposed to be. First, there are those which assert ‘causal connections’, some of which at present have known exceptions and some of which do not. Generally, it is these second kind of ‘causalities’ which are less well understood, for as the cliché runs, an exception serves to ‘prove’ the rule. Next there are norms, which provide the content for validity statements. Most of these incur a ‘face’ validity simply because we can presume upon them to hold in like circumstances of human intersubjectivity. My reaction to this or that encounter will be held within a certain narrow spectrum, and so I can presume upon the other to hold to a very similar spectrum of how one ‘should’ act or not act given such circumstance. Norms are the ‘contents of imperatives’, suggests Weber, and if we pause to consider the force of a social norm we realize that its cleaving to our commonplace apprehension of what constitutes ‘normal’ social relations requires validities that backdrop that of ‘face’, including that both ‘content’ and ‘predictive’. That norms and causal principles are likened to one another is one part human egotism and another plain analogy.
Beyond the sense that things ‘happen’ for a reason and that such an interface is rule-governed, there are, Weber continues, certain ‘maxims of action’ that inform our social beings. No matter their content, they always include the exhortation ‘go and do likewise’. We are, in a word, supposed to not merely nod our heads to the idea of the maxim but to act upon it in the real world and continue to do so consistently given the viscous variety of social encounters. These maxims are thus more conscious than mere mores. They can range from the gravitas-laden ‘call to conscience’ of which Heidegger makes much mileage without ever truly specifying either what is calling or what is being called – the question of origins at both ends, as it were, of such a dynamic is an ongoing phenomenological puzzle, for instance, at least for me – to the much less weighty proposal that I simply ‘get along’ with the others when in Rome. That such maxims directing us to action can conflict should be no surprise, for day to day relations require of us little enough ‘conscience’ at all let alone a Wagnerian countenance or yet more self-conscious, one Pauline.
But Weber is quick to remind us that however ‘conscious’ our approximation of acting to a rule, ‘following’ it, as one commonly says, or distanced from being called to mind or to conscience, it makes no logical difference in the standards and outcomes of any social relation. Because human interaction is generally more complicated than are natural relationships – nature has no need of ‘lying’, for example, though our own rules regarding dishonesty have increasingly presumed empirical sensibilities to be the only exacting standard by which to judge truths and in this certain uniquely modern implications thence arise – even so, judged broadly enough and observed over the longer term, human interactions too begin to exhibit a precision at which the free-minded individual would, in her own singular acts of will, be nothing other than appalled. In a word, human beings are, en masse, almost as predictable as nature has itself become known to be.
There is a certain inexorable logic to all of this: I find myself on the outs with another. If I wish to regain her trust or yet her love, I must follow, quite precisely and consciously, a number of rules that our culture has designed and ‘maxim-ized’, as it were. If in doing so, she still shuns me, then I can generally take this as something quite personal. It is not the action that is derided, in other words, but rather I myself. The pariah figure differs from the hermit in precisely this important regard. The latter is viewed as eccentric, but the former is an outright villain. And the usual rubric of unknowing might as well apply. Most of us have no idea how commonplace technologies actually function, for example, and thus we interact with them on a need to know basis alone. Just so, we are not specialists because there are others who do have such intricate technical know-how who exist and who we can thus consult. The more so, there are also other kinds of ‘experts’, the psychologist, for example, who is presumed to know how the human mind ‘works’, at least in some basic sense.
But just there the analogy drops off. Weber makes much of the distinction between how the maxim interfaces with one, the empirical ‘law’, on the one hand, and two, the norm, on the other. We can observe what is ‘in’ nature and we can act ‘within’ it either for or against. In this, our human actions in the world cleave more closely to the ‘cause and effect’ sensibility we have of how nature works unmolested. Oddly, this could be seen as making us less human, as we have taken on what we understand to be the character of natural relations in order to influence, for better or worse, the ‘course of nature’. Certainly, our judgment about the ‘good or bad’ in our own acts remains squarely within the human orientation. Nature carries on no matter what we do, though it may take a different course and one that is not salutary for our continued existence within its heretofore forgiving envelope. I would add that in addition to Weber’s famous distinction between ideal types (closely related to ‘models of’ in Schutz) and historical types (‘models for’), that any human maxim which is hortatory can only be analogous to an anthropomorphized nature – it has no direct bearing either upon it nor does it emanate therefrom. We thus, as Weber states, perform it within the mindset of a ‘teleology’; that is, we believe that the action takes us forward to a clearly defined end goal, which is how he ties in his further conceptual distinction of ‘absolute value’ versus finite goal. And yet they are intimately related in our action ‘within’ or toward nature – no matter what hyperbolized wisdom is at hand, telling us that ‘this is what nature wants of us, or requires of us’. Surely this is but a rationalization. And in this, it differs markedly from the kind of sensibility Weber says we bring to finite goal oriented activities.
While it has been oft stated that Weber’s presumption of the basic rationality of human action in the world is perhaps an overstatement of real affairs, if we take his model of finite goal orientation to itself be an ideal type, the problem dissipates, though we are, admittedly, placed at an uncertain distance from how persons actually act, with a corresponding loss of predictive validity accruing to anything we might further say of such acts. Even so, the projection of social norms into a wider nature is not without its own equally social function. On the darker side, perhaps we can point to the socialization-oriented imperatives that children must somehow be brought into the normative fold of ongoing social relations as they have been previously experienced. The challenge for each generation to do just this is not only perennial, but well known; so much so, that the wildest concatenations of both ‘experts’ and self-styled wiseacres have been brought to bear upon it. One trip to any thrift store will evidence this, as there is always present an entire section of books etc. devoted to ‘family’ or ‘child-raising’ or ‘education’. And yet this is hardly the end of the human process, most glaringly, due to their being nothing in any experience of acculturation that can truly prepare me for mine ownmost death.
Hence the ideality of the finite. Human goals, in order to accede more closely to those we imagine nature to have evolutionarily mastered, must become generational in their development and not merely their reproduction. And in this we are brought face to face with the problem of addiction. Seen in its widest sense, addiction is the result of a too-focused orientation of one’s acts toward neither a finite goal – such a goal is, almost by definition, recognizable as not being present prior to one’s acts ‘toward’ it, for instance – nor an absolute value; this latter is seen to be transcendent of our individual acts and in this one can only provide a pale mimicry thereof, much like the sensibility we bring to the idea of an alien nature. Instead, addiction desires reproduction alone. In this, it is itself an imitation of mechanical solidarity within social contract societies. Though human beings are notably adept at adapting to changing circumstances, the shift in finite goal orientation, whether enacted rationally or no, is yet directed toward the absolute value of preserving what has already been in existence, whether this be a whole species, an entire culture, a set of norms, or an individual person. In short, what adaptation has generally meant for human consciousness is designing a new set of rational actions directed toward finite goals – Zweckrationales Handeln – without altering the ultimate teleological relationship with not only the maxim-generating content of this or that absolute value oriented action – Wertrationales Handeln – but the idea of a value which is itself absolute, that is, must be followed no matter changing circumstance.
The origin of all specific addictions thus must be seen as a mimesis of the basic need for social reproduction. In this, it has the face validity of a will to life. Each of us might ask, ‘well, how else are we to survive and carry on as a species?’, or even more commonly and arguably more honestly stated as, ‘I know what I like and I like what I know’. This deeper imperative is no mere convention, in that nowhere do we either find it being ‘convened’ as if one had to come to a collective decision about its value or its validity, or do we see it as ‘conventional’ in any other sense than that of what is unthought and therefore never brought to conscious life at all. It is a perhaps ironic characteristic of the will to life that it itself is rarely lived as a knowable and palpable experience. Weber’s discussion of the meaningfulness of norms being their suasive property is in principle correct; I have to understand that my action has both a purpose and a sense in order to carry it out. The former directs me to a goal, the latter frames what I actually do in attempting to attain it. Between purpose and sense, meaning is eventually granted. That such meanings will change over the life course is testament not to reproduction let alone addiction, but to the authenticity of Dasein’s ongoingness. Indeed, twenty years after Weber’s essay, Heidegger’s masterwork notes that addiction completely translates all of Dasein’s action into the most narrow focus imaginable: that of reproducing a state which is counter to all known human process as well as effacing human history. Beyond this, there is an intimation that, through ‘tarrying’ and even curiosity, human beings as Dasein run the constant risk of becoming addicted to themselves.
And just as Weber reminds us that ‘an event becomes part of nature only if we do not ask after its meaning’ – it is a different question if such meanings remain within the purely human ambit; within it, there may be all kinds of disputes regarding meaningfulness even if we in fact agree that such and such an event took place – addiction possesses this additional force; it approaches us with the radical subito of a compulsion precisely because we have assigned to it no meaning related to our own phenomenological ongoingness, even in the day to day. Addiction is thus the paragon of rule-following. Empirically, this is seen in the effort, especially by youth, to exert some personal control over their existence. Young women suffer from eating disorders while young men are transfixed by gambling, and indeed these are the topmost versions of addiction that are generally found in these demographics. It may be that alternate gender identification tactics take on the compulsive character of addictions because they are, by definition, attempts to place under personal control the forces of self-definition, at once so intimate and alien to each of us, but especially to youth.
Addicted persons regularly state that their motives for engaging in reproductive action center around their ability to ‘take control’ of their lives as against an omnipresent external control, often family or the combination of various social institutions ranged against youthful experimentation in all things. Eating disorders are now understood to be sourced, at least individually, in such oppressive and overtly controlling circumstances. Gambling, especially that digital and oriented towards sports betting, is advertised as if one can actually control the outcomes of the events gambled upon. The panoply of ways and means of placing bets gives the illusion that one will inevitably win at least some of the time. Just as we frown upon the controlling parent, we should do more to sanction against the manipulative marketing of ‘gaming’. The further effect of addiction is to make such ways and means unconscious, in the sense that they may not be called to mind at all and simply acted upon as part of the general compulsion of addictive behaviors. As Heidegger stated, all action drains off into the compulsion; ‘anything for a fix’, in casual terms. Thus as well, all meaningfulness of such action vanishes, and the stenochoric character of the original human self-understanding is both mimicked and mocked; one, because any action bereft of both meaning and reflection becomes mechanical, and the other because in addiction, we have only the shadow of the social contract in that it is neither authenticating to a tradition nor is it capable of generating new ideas.
In sum, neither the ‘agents themselves’, the addicts, nor those who profit by them, escape this narrowed horizon that shuns the basic ongoingness of existence. But it is hardly enough to designate only the most obvious examples of a stunted will to life which itself eschews both will and life as a human being must live it. Any activity that we are compelled to repeat overmuch, that which retreats from our conscious reflection as well as avoiding any call to conscience which might exist for us, must be subjected to unwavering critique. Production and consumption, patriotism, in-group or familial loyalty, schooling, the ‘absoluteness’ of values, even the ‘finiteness’ of goals, are often addicts which affect far more persons than does any drug. And if religion is no more the ‘opiate of the masses’ – surely it has long been replaced by media in general – it remains the case that our notion of reproduction and the absolute frame our narrow self-interests. In one sense, this was historically inevitable if we fashion ourselves as God’s replacements. Both creation and destruction come fully into our purview, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
But self-creation and self-destruction cannot simultaneously exist for a finite being whose very essence is existential and whose very meaning is historical. And so it is a case of a misplaced ‘ought’ that now in turn misdirects us to assiduously, even slavishly, follow rules which are oriented to reproduction in lieu of those more open-ended maxims that exhort creation. On the one hand, the meanings of these latter rules are to be contested, and the turning away from such human conflict is, though understandable, a denial of the basic ethical precept that humanity is one thing in its very diversity and that we thus have a duty to the other to undertake an understanding of her without the addictive compulsion of forcing her to be ‘like’ we already imagine ourselves to be. And on the other hand, it is an escape from the problematic test of being compelled to follow normative rules, let alone those cosmic, which is particularly acute for youth but which follows each of us until our individual deaths. The chief difference empirically between an adult and a child is that the former generally follows the rules at hand. The key distinction ethically is that the adult knows what the rules are and how to follow them, whether he does so or not, and beyond this, must generally accept personal responsibility for outcomes of actions even if something or other is not one’s ‘fault’. In addiction, I can avoid both of these conjoined responsibilities, and this is an addiction’s charm at the level of the individual. But seen only existentially and historically can we truly understand addiction as a fraudulent manner of reproducing an inexistence yet charged with the will to life at all costs. In this it is the obverse but not at all the opposite of the ‘evil of evil’, Ricoeur’s ‘fraudulence in the work of totalization’. It is only by way of our incorrect estimations that meaning only holds within the absolute value, that life can only endure by eschewing living, that the act can take the place of action, and that the world is ‘by nature’ a study in conflict and nothing besides, do we thence fall under the spurious spell of addiction in its most essential sense.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, health, social theory and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.