When most of us hear the word habit we think of smoking or picking your nose or biting your nails. However, habit is a much deeper category. In his book, Addiction and Virtue, Kent Dunnington argues that addiction is best explained by the category of habit than choice or disease. He follows Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ description of habit to elucidate his readers – in a very philosophical way.
- why persons continue to act addictively even when they know it is harmful
- why addicts speak of being compelled to act addictively yet are able to recover without medical intervention
- why people can suddenly relapse after months or years of sobriety
Addiction is not about what the person does, but about who the person is becoming. Dallas Willard, in The Divine Conspiracy, talks of becoming the kind of person who naturally obeys Jesus’ commands. This very concept – “don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” – is habit. “A habit is relatively permanent acquired modification of a person that enables that person, when provoked by the relevant stimulus, to act consistently, successfully and with ease with respect to some objective.” (62)
Habit, Dunnington argues, is a mediating category. First, habit mediates between instinct and disposition. It is like an instinct in that it makes things effortless, but it differs from instinct in that it can be acted on with reason. Habit is like a disposition in that it can be changed, but unlike a disposition in that it takes great effort to affect change. Second, habit mediates between determinism and voluntarism. Habit is voluntary in that it connects at some level with reason, but involuntary in that it does not issue directly from deliberative reasoning.
How are habits formed? Most habits are caused by the repetition of acts combined with an inward intensity of intent and focus. Without the latter, acts simply become conditioned not habituated. This is an important insight for those who wish to recovery from addiction. It is not enough to merely stop repeating the outward acts of addiction. There must be a real inward change that demonstrates intent and focus on recovering. This is why so many who appear to have “recovered” on the outside relapse. They failed to address the interior life. The life of recovery will involve learning new outward acts and repeating this while also learning to attend to the inner life.