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Addiction, self-control and the self: an empirical, ethical study

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posted on 2022-03-28, 01:37 authored by Anke Snoek
Addiction is often equated with loss of self-control. Determining what constitutes loss of self-control, however, is complicated. On one hand, substance dependent people often describe their use as involuntary and life-ruining. On the other, substance use requires planning and intentional actions. I will argue that loss of self-control in addiction is poorly understood because current theories do not make explicit which level of self-control they are describing. In this thesis I argue that developing a hierarchical account of self-control is critical when analysing loss of self-control in addiction. I distinguish three hierarchical levels of self-control: 1) intentional self-control, or doing what one intended 2) instrumental self-control, or reaching ones goals, and 3) normative self-control, or living the life one values living. Loss of self-control in addiction is not underpinned by failure on just one level, but rather by a set of interacting factors. Still, to judge whether someone has lost self-control or not, knowledge of the normative level is essential – are people able to live the life they value living and be the person they value being? This normative perspective is poorly examined in the current literature. To gain insight into the circumstances in which normative agency is developed or impaired, I designed a longitudinal, qualitative study involving opioid and alcohol dependent people. I followed 69 participants over a period of 3.5 years, asking them what hampered their self-control and the goals they set for themselves. I conclude that loss of self-control in addiction is often a loss of self. People must see their actions as making sense within their concept of self and their life stories. My first finding is that addiction impacts heavily on people’s bodies – their appearances and how others reacted to them, their energy levels, potential life threatening illnesses, and the risk of overdosing when relapsing. Many participants lost trust that their bodies would carry them into the future. They stopped setting goals for themselves. They lost belief in self-efficacy. I also find that people’s agency is threatened when they lose hope, resulting in a resignation from their normative goals. People struggling with substance dependency are disproportionally vulnerable to adverse circumstances which often cause them to abandon plans. The link between resignation and loss of self-control is frequently misunderstood in the current literature. It is often viewed as a choice-based, justified change of normative outlook, rather than a forced abandonment of the outlook. Resigned, addicted people are perceived as ‘willing addicts’. Finally, regaining belief in self-efficacy is a key aspect of recovery. One respondent said, for instance, that he had many capacities for self-control, but only started using them when he began to believe he could attain the future he valued. My findings highlight the importance of evaluating loss of control within someone’s existential situation and normative framework. The findings have implications for treatment. The model of hierarchical levels of self-control I described can be used by practitioners to assess on which levels the self-control of their clients is impaired. I argue practitioners should evaluate whether current dominant treatments are sufficient for boosting their client’s normative agency. They should help clients reconnect with their image of their ideal future self. They can do so by showing trust in clients’ agency and self-efficacy by assuring them that it is possible to live the life they value living, and to be the person they value being.


Table of Contents

Introduction -- Chapter 1. Perspectives on self-control and what it is for -- Chapter 2. Self-control and addiction : a review of the current literature -- Chapter 3. Experts on their own lives : methods and preliminary results -- Chapter 4. How the self motivates behaviour -- Chapter 5. The influence of the body on our diachronic plans and self-concept -- Chapter 6. The resigned addict : ‘we are just normal people living very complicated lives’ -- Chapter 7. Normative agency exercised -- Chapter 8. Conclusion and summary of main findings -- Appendices -- Bibliography.


Theoretical thesis. ‘We all want to be a part of something positive. But our lack of belief in self is what can cause negative impactful choices’ -- at foot of title. Bibliography: pages 237-257

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Arts, Department of Philosophy

Department, Centre or School

Department of Philosophy

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Jeanette Kennett


Copyright Anke Snoek 2017. Copyright disclaimer:




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