Vice Squad
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Regulating Vice: Chapter 2, "Addiction: Rational and Otherwise" (part III)

When we last checked in with Regulating Vice, we saw how time inconsistent preferences might recommend (public and private) policies that would differ from those that would be appropriate for rational, time-consistent addicts. Chapter 2 continues by looking at further departures from the "standard" rationality story, i.e., where addictive choices are made outside of the usual cognitive framework, or are the result of a diseased mind. One piece of evidence that addictive-type choices are not simply reflecting time inconsistency is that cues in the environment can bring on intense cravings for addicts -- though there is little reason to think that these cues alter discount rates generally, since they only seem to affect choices made in relation to the addictive good or substance. When a smoker has a beer in a bar in night, he might crave a cigarette, but he doesn't necessarily want to lower his savings in favor of more present consumption.

The disease view of addiction has much to recommend it -- at least more than I suggested in an early Vice Squad attempt to come to grips with it. The basic idea is that our brains evolved "reward mechanisms" that give us pleasure when we engage in activities that are (or at least were) helpful for propagating our genes. These mechanisms -- think about those pathways from Monday's post -- have a biochemical substrate, of course. Along comes some chemical like cocaine or morphine that acts as a key that unlocks the pleasure pathway, though these chemicals were not part of the environment in which the pleasure pathways evolved. People try morphine, they really enjoy it, so naturally they try it again -- and again, and again. The brain, awash with external opiates, cuts back on its own endogenous production of pleasure chemicals (endorphins, or endogenous morphines), so now, without the external morphine, the addict is less happy than she was to begin with. Eventually, she needs the morphine not to make herself happy, but to prevent her from being miserable.

Regulating Vice Posts Roundup:
(1) Announcement
(2) Introduction (part I)
(3) Introduction (part II)
(4) Introduction (part III)
(5) Erratum, Page 2!!
(6) Chapter 1, The Harm Principle (part I)
(7) Chapter 1, The Harm Principle (part II)
(8) GMU Talk (part I)
(9) GMU Talk (part II)
(10) Chapter 2, Addiction (part I)
(11) Chapter 2, Addiction (part II)

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