Existentialism, Humanism, and Addiction

by | April 26, 2016


Guest post by Liz Greene

I know a lot of people who struggle with addiction. I know alcoholics, prescription pain-killer junkies, and former heroin addicts. I have addicts for close friends and addicts in my family. With addiction being such a widespread force in my life, I’ve found myself questioning the choices of others — and examining many of my own.

As an existential humanist, I am a walking contradiction. While the two philosophies have much in common, they also have some stark differences. It’s those differences that make it hard to comprehend the why behind addiction, and the possibility of recovery.

Humanism Vs. Existentialism

While existential and humanistic psychologies are similar, they’re not completely interchangeable. Both emphasize objective reality, life meaning, and human potential. Both reject the notion that there is any kind of greater meaning or supernatural element in life (e.g. god, demons, spirits, etc.)  Because of this, both believe there is no predefined meaning to life — it is up to humans to create their own meaning and purpose for existence.

Existentialists believe that life is hard. It’s comprised of pain, pleasure, heartbreak, loneliness, love, affection, anxiety, guilt, and eventually, death. These things are not merely possibilities in life, they are inevitable. According to Existentialists, most humans live in denial of their full humanity — referring to this denial as inauthenticity. While there are as many ways to be inauthentic, conventionality is the most common, ignoring one’s freedom and living a life of conformity and shallow materialism.

Existentialists maintain that to live authentically, you have to be aware of your freedom and duty to create yourself as well as the inevitability of anxiety, guilt, and death. Existential philosophers believe that there is no absolute meaning to life, and thus life has no purpose. However, there is a great deal of value in life and the freedom of choice that arises from having no absolute meaning.

Humanists believe in the innate value or worth of every living person and in helping people achieve their full potential. Their view is that this is the only life we have and that we owe it to ourselves and others to make it the best life possible for all humankind. They regard both the good and bad of society as a human creation and believe that humans are best able to solve global problems when they are free to use reason and knowledge as their tools.

Generally speaking, humanistic psychology has a more positive view on humanity, whereas existential psychology examines the darkness of humanity. This is why I am a humanist on good days, an existentialist on bad days, and a rough mixture of the two on average.

When it comes to addiction, I find myself at war with the two philosophies. Are humans doomed to suffer addiction as one of the inevitable absurdities in life, or are they capable of pulling themselves up from rock bottom using reason, knowledge, and a belief in themselves?

As I studied addiction through both an existential and humanistic lens, I found some interesting viewpoints to consider:

Drug Use: Freedom, Choice, and Personal Responsibility

One of both existentialism and humanism’s fundamental beliefs is that individuals are free to make choices and shape who they are through their values, decisions, and actions.

When it comes to decision-making, existentialism argues that people should make decisions based on what has meaning to them and reject society’s imposition that certain beliefs, values, and rules be dutifully obeyed. Humanism prefers people measure the value of their decisions based on how it would affect human life — the individual self, family, society, and humankind.

Existentialists assert that individuals should take responsibility for their choices without the help of laws, rules, or traditions. Humanists stress the importance of taking responsibility for actions as they have an effect not only on oneself, but others as well. Both feel that decisions are not without consequences, and personal responsibility is emphasized as being incredibly important.

An existentialist views engaging in drug and alcohol use as illustrating the human desire to remove oneself from physical reality and exist outside the realm of what is considered naturally occurring. They surmise that an individual might become addicted to a substance because it fulfills essential intrapsychic and interpersonal needs.

A humanist understands that taking drugs and drinking alcohol can be pleasurable, but has concerns about the long-term consequences for the individual, their loved ones, and the community. They believe that addiction can destroy an individual’s freedom, autonomy, and the capacity to reason.

In Western culture, addiction is largely considered to be a disease. While it’s true that genetics may play a role in addiction, implying that addicts have no freedom in the face of addiction releases them from the responsibility to make sound decisions and build meaningful lives — directly countering the principles of both existentialism and humanism.

Religion’s Negative Effect on Recovery

Spiritually-based treatment programs assist thousands of addicts every year by treating addiction as a spiritual problem as much as a physical one. They pose that a closer relationship with God can end dependence on drugs and alcohol. While religion has certainly helped numerous people overcome their addiction, it’s also responsible for turning some addicts away.

The extent to which faith plays a role in substance abuse treatment ranges from minimal to all-encompassing. The most famous recovery groups, AA and NA, put it at the forefront, with their 12-step program requiring addicts to surrender their will to a higher power in order to achieve recovery. Unfortunately, this focus on a higher power has proven to make many people uncomfortable, going so far as to leave the program and never return.

By encouraging addicts to give up freedom of choice and concede any responsibility in their recovery, it takes away what little control they had left on their life. Instead of being built up, they are torn down. The message they receive is, “You’re so broken that only God can fix you.” This elimination of control and purpose is likely to lead to relapse, as perceived meaninglessness in life and loss of control is a factor in substance use.

Utilizing Existentialism & Humanism in Recovery

Both existentialism and humanism have found a role in recovery. Existential psychologists strive to help individuals find their own subjective life meaning in a world with no absolute purpose, while humanist psychologists take a nurturing and supportive stance on human development, and on the limitless possibilities for growth within. Both approaches value the basic goodness in people and the human potential.

Because these psychotherapies only target the underlying factors of behavioral and mental health concerns, the patient’s primary issues may not be addressed. As such, existential psychotherapy is often used in combination with other treatments in order to increase its effectiveness and encourage recovery.

As an existential humanist, I’ve come to accept that the addicts I love have to face their struggle as individuals — they must make, and be responsible for, their own decisions. My place is simply to offer support and love.

As Carl Sagan once said, “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”

Liz Greene is a makeup enthusiast, rabid feminist, and an anxiety-ridden realist from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. You can follow her latest misadventures on her blog, Instant Lo.

9 thoughts on “Existentialism, Humanism, and Addiction

  1. billybob

    Is “existential humanist an oxymoron?

    “Existential philosophers believe that there is no absolute meaning to life, and thus life has no purpose.”

    “Humanists believe in the innate value or worth of every living person and in helping people achieve their full potential.”


    1. Tim Underwood

      You’ve got it. Existentialism is a fact.
      Humanism is a choice. There are alternatives.
      This may be some king of an intelligence test.

  2. fredt

    You may have forgotten some things. Some things are up to us and some are not. We are not controlled by the rational mind. We can chose to live by virtue or not, we have that choice, and which virtues. We live within nature, and we do not know what is natural anymore. We can do it willingly or not. These are the root of the problem that religions try to address.

    There are godfree religions: Stoicism, Dao, Tao, Confucianism, Secular Buddhism(buddhism minus rebirth)that educate us on how to live. It is learning how to live that is the issue. Our purpose is any one of many, pick one, and paint it on, and live up to it or not. Only near useless people have no reason to get up in the morning and get on with life.

    1. Tim Underwood

      Paring it down a little further: only animals have purpose.

      “Death, that is my purpose.” The Grim Reaper.

      More often, its just preparing lunch.

      If a god had a purpose, then that god would also be an animal.

  3. Indi

    Very nice article.

    My thoughts:

        > When it comes to addiction, I find myself at war with the two philosophies.

    I’d say the problem lies not with the philosophies, but rather in applying them to addiction at all. Addiction is not a choice… in fact it is the *opposite* of choice, by definition… so talking about it in terms of choice and freedom is a category error right out of the gate.

    Sure, you can talk about the use of hallucinogens, stimulants, and other mind- and mood-altering substances in terms of choice, angst, authenticity, and so on. But the moment *ADDICTION* happens, the discussion should end, because at that point the “choice” is no longer being made by the conscious mind but rather by uncontrollable biological processes. Talking about addiction as a meaningful choice makes about as much sense as talking about breathing or urinating as a meaningful choice.

    The closest you can get is talking about making choices that *might* lead to addiction; ie, choosing to even indulge in something that might potentially be addictive. But even in that case the connection is weak, because a) nobody ever intends to get addicted to something; and b) the vast majority of people who do something don’t get addicted to it, and there are usually benefits to doing that thing (even if that’s only learning what the sensation feels like), so there is nothing unreasonable about giving it a shot.

    Of course, if you want to talk about the choice of whether to get *treated* for addiction, that’s a different story altogether, and no different than the choice of whether to get treated for *any* illness. The existential viewpoint on getting treated for addiction should be no different than it is for getting treated for cancer.

    Put simply, the “why” behind addiction is a question of biochemistry, not philosophy. The most closely related philosophical questions are the “why” of *risking* addiction, and the “why” of treatment.

        > In Western culture, addiction is largely considered to be a disease. While it’s true that genetics may play a role in addiction, implying that addicts have no freedom in the face of addiction releases them from the responsibility to make sound decisions and build meaningful lives….

    Now this is just complete nonsense that I see repeated depressingly far too often.

    The fact that something is a disease does not automatically and magically absolve the sufferer of the responsibility to make choices about their lives, nor does it make them completely unable to do so. Saying that is just fucking ignorant, and downright offensive. No one tells a cancer patient: “Welp, you’ve got the big C. Lucky you, you don’t have the responsibility to make any adult life decisions anymore!” That’s just not what “disease” means.

    Calling addiction a disease is about acknowledging the fact that their biochemistry is interfering with their ability to make rational decisions… *ABOUT THE SUBJECT OF THE ADDICTION*. Not in general. It is not about saying they’ve lost all capacity to make life choices. An addicted person may be unable to choose not to stop at one drink, or not binge eat, or whatever (or at least find it very difficult to make that choice)… but that doesn’t mean they can’t decide they want to be cured of that addiction.

    A person suffering from the disease of addiction is (usually) damn well capable of making the decision for themselves regarding whether they want to be cured or not, and they damn well do have the responsibility to make that decision. The key point is that once they make that decision, it’s okay for them to ask for help in their treatment, and it’s okay if they stumble or have setbacks… those things don’t mean the person is a failure as a human being because they lack the “willpower” non-addicted people have. (Which is not really “willpower”, but merely the fact that those people’s biochemistry is different.)

    Choosing whether to seek treatment for an addiction could be an existential issue. Being addicted is not.

    Also, the way addiction should be treated is also not a philosophical question. It is a medical one.

    1. Tim Underwood

      As a medical condition, it could also be either psychological or physical, or both?

      I was addicted to cigarettes but I’m not certain why. Being quite hyperactive, I might have just been using tobacco to cope with the office environment. The addiction was finally overcome in my forties. It was a struggle.

      I often think that the Native Canadian’s, high level of addiction, is related to Catholicism and the fear of eternal punishment and other nasty indoctrinations. This doesn’t relate to my own addictions, the way I see it now, but perhaps years ago I thought differently.

      My guess is that it is Catholicism, combined with disappointment, as well as the substances themselves.

      Catholicism doesn’t affect European ancestry people to the same degree as it does the Native population. This is because the European population had learned to be more skeptical about the divine threats, after centuries of debates and wars.

      Trying to help the native population, on a large scale, feel more positive about life, may not be possible until they develop their own immunity to Catholic mental intimidation. This could take centuries!

      Naturally I have no way to verify my suspicions. It is just wearisome to see another young Prime Minister waste his time on kind thoughts and enthusiastic dreams.

      Actually, if it is the dark cloud of Christianity, then it is, to some extent, also a philosophical question. Can philosophical learning more rapidly develop some psychological immunity to the dire affects of superstitious indoctrinations? Jefferson called himself a Epicurean. Did this, together with his multiple liaisons, help him pursue a modestly happy existence?

  4. bruce van dieten

    Wouldn’t it be more productive to recognize that addiction is likely multi-factoral? The effort to apply specific spriritual, humanist, medical, emotional or other variables as single variables has value I guess, but as a humanist I just wish we’d get on with the job of treating people and doing it with kindness and courtesy. Tobacco, alcohol, state sponsored gambling, etc. all will create a percentage of addiction. Is it a moral, ethical, existential failure of the individual? Who cares. There will always be addicts, it seems, so the issue becomes how we treat them, incarceration or injection sites, shaming intervention or loving support, alienation or community. I wish we would begin to accept that adult choice should be limited only where it harms others and thus eliminate our puritanical, unethical, and pointless war on drugs et al, that we liberalize. And build a strong network for treating addiction as the inevitable result of social freedom, of existential choice, by applying humanist principles to addiction.

    1. Indi

          > Wouldn’t it be more productive to recognize that addiction is likely multi-factoral?

      No. That’s like asking if it wouldn’t be more productive if we recognized that diabetes or Zika have social or spiritual factors.

      There are certainly a number of complex factors in *CAUSTING* addiction: access to addictive substances, education about the impacts of such substances, social factors like peer pressures and general acceptance of using the substance, a person’s unique biochemical tolerances, etc. Just keep in mind that even when you’re discussing the causes of addiction, “choosing to get addicted” is never one of them. So even in *that* discussion, one should keep in mind that the addicted person is the victim, not the perpetrator.

      Once you’re addicted, that’s a wholly biochemical phenomenon. When you get the shakes or the sweats craving a fix, that’s not because you lack spirituality or emotional support; it’s because you are biochemically dependent.

      There is a huge difference in talking about why people *get* addicted, versus talking about how to help people who *are* addicted. If you’re talking about the former, then sure, there are plenty of sociocultural and other angles you could approach it from. But if you’re talking about the latter, you’re in the medical domain. This is the same for any disease: if you’re asking why people *get* diabetes or Zika, there are definitely a number of sociocultural and other ways you can approach the problem… but if you’re asking how to *treat* people with diabetes or Zika, you’re asking a medical question, not a spiritual, social, economic, or cultural one.

          > … as a humanist I just wish we’d get on with the job of treating people and doing it with kindness and courtesy.

      I believe that once we rid ourselves of the puritanical, backward concept of addiction as a personal failing, and recognize it for what it is – a biochemical problem; a medical disease – then that will happen.

          > Is it a moral, ethical, existential failure of the individual? Who cares.

      Humanists do. Humanism is founded on a recognition of reality. Ignoring the reality of what addiction is is not a humanist approach.

      If addiction were merely a moral or ethical failing, then it should be treated as such… and we don’t treat moral or ethical failings medically; we don’t brain-wipe criminals to turn them into productive members of society (even if we could).

      But addiction is a medical problem, thus we should treat it medically. We should reduce or eliminate the biochemical dependence on the substance or behaviour, and squelch the biochemical response caused by triggering stimuli. As humanists, we should recognize that is the reality of addiction, and direct our efforts into developing such treatments and making them accessible to everyone. We shouldn’t waste our time on “treatments” centred around degrading and dehumanizing the victim, because they assume their addiction is through fault of some kind of spiritual weakness or moral failing. That stupidity is just another form of the classic “you’re sick because you’re a sinner” crap that we have rightly recognized as bullshit for most other health issues (mental health issues notwithstanding, but we’re working on that, too).

      A humanist approach to addiction, as with anything, is “let’s figure out what the problem *actually* is, and tackle it on those terms”. It is not “let’s just find the easiest path that makes everyone happy and avoids conflict”.


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