Philosophy Seminar

Richard Holton (Cambridge): 'Addiction, Desire, Pleasure, Pollution'

'Addiction, Desire, Pleasure, Pollution’

Much recent work on addiction has stressed the importance of cues for the triggering of desire. These cues are frequently social. We now have a plausible theory, in terms of the incentive salience account, of how this triggering works at the neurophysiological level. But what are the ethical implications?

One concerns the authority of desire: maximising the satisfaction of desires no longer looks like an obvious goal of social policy once we understand the dependence of desires on cues; interestingly, give the incentive salience account, maximising the satisfaction of second-order desires, and maximising happiness, also look rather less secure. A second concerns an addict’s responsibility in the face of cues.

I suggest that the provision of cues can be thought of as akin to pollution, for which the polluter may bear the primary responsibility, and which is best handled by regulations stopping it at source. I spell out some of the political implications and ask whether there are good grounds for extending the argument to the cues involved in obesity.