Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Virtue and Vice in an Age of Addiction

Capitalism has come to profit off our vices, and we need an opt-out.
Phone addiction

The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business, David T. Courtwright, Belknap Press, 336 pages

Addicted to Lust: Pornography in the Lives of Conservative Protestants, Samuel L. Perry, Oxford University Press, 288 pages

It’s been a long day, and you would like something to look forward to. It’s there, waiting for you, easy to get when you’re tired, feeling down, or merely bored, and though you sometimes worry that it may be a larger part of your life than it ought to be, you are assured that it is entirely normal, commonplace even, if not so common as to lose all appeal. Everyone’s doing it, or at least everyone having fun, or the ones who are just like you. Besides, even if it’s not so public, and even a little, shall we say, frowned upon, no one needs to know. And as long as you don’t, you know, really overdo it, it’s basically inexpensive. And anyway, who’s to say if it’s actually a problem? Some people who do it all the time seem just fine, and isn’t the whole idea of being free and modern that there don’t really have to be rules? Make your own way. You sort of miss rules, but also you don’t. You sort of hate yourself, but also you don’t. Or do you? It’s not even a big deal. You just gotta get your morning started, or get to sleep, or through this slump. It’s just a few pills, one more drink. You know? 

“Accessibility, affordability, advertising, anonymity, and anomie, the five cylinders of the engine of mass addiction,” writes David T. Courtwright in his new, one might say compulsively readable book about bad habits becoming big business, The Age of Addiction. We are, all of us, doing things to regulate our moods and get a little hit of dopamine, to cope, all the time. Sometimes we call those things addictions. Often, of course, we don’t. That second cup of coffee; the music that’s always on, whether in your car or your house or your headphones; the ice cream or third helping; replying on Twitter and posting on Instagram: these aren’t for the vice squad but they do make us feel good, or if not good at least normal. What happens when you just have to press a button to feel really good? Why shouldn’t you just press and press until you die of pleasure, waste away in ecstasy? Some people do—brain chemistry overwhelmed and dopamine pathways carved out like canyons—but, of course, we know we shouldn’t. But why shouldn’t we? 

Fortunately, our language still carries vestiges of answers. Vice has been mentioned already. We know it when we see it, as the records of the Supreme Court assure us. Cigarettes are a vice; that’s uncontested. Vaping barely seems serious enough to be a vice, but it must be, by genus. And vice has an opposite: virtue. That seems to be what’s missing, the why here, the reason we take seriously that there are better things to do than just feel pleasure all the time and worse things than feeling pain. Virtue implies, or perhaps it recognizes, that our capacity for pain and pleasure means there’s a best way to experience those, a truly excellent way to be. What we have forgotten as a society is that even before science told us how fragile we actually were, how exploitable our limbic systems are, we knew wills were weak and formed by habits, that it was golden means (not extremes) that we should strive for. Now we find ourselves suspended between individual choice and human frailty, the latter exploited in the name of the former. It is very profitable to press the pleasure button, consequences be damned. And in our collective illness, we have no metaphysic to minister to us, no theology of the body to tell us what this flesh is for.

That lack of any agreed upon account of physical existence beyond the bare individual rights of man to his own person in the state of nature has meant that we have embraced the purchase of pleasures of all kinds. We have taken advantage of others’ addictions. Drugs, in the broadest meaning possible, are fungible. People just want that dopamine. And we live in a society where things are designed to give us dopamine all the time. Courtwright calls this limbic capitalism: “Limbic capitalism refers to a technologically advanced but socially regressive business system in which global industries, often with the help of complicit governments and criminal organizations, encourage excessive consumption and addiction.” In crisp and playful prose and with plenty of needed humor, Courtwright has written a fascinating history of what we like and why we like it, from the first taste of beer in the ancient Middle East to opioids in West Virginia. 

Courtwright’s book tells the story of a humanity stuck “in an underlying conflict between the principle of hormesis (a little is good, a lot is bad) and the logic of free market capitalism.” What people want to sell and what people want to buy, and how much, is basically up to them. While before the cataclysm of World War II there had been residual resistance to the abandonment of a public morals, despite the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution, they had been built on increasingly secular and utilitarian justifications that offered little beyond regulation, the J.S. Mills of the world beating out the John Ruskins. In the war’s aftermath, with old orders swept away and mass production for a mass society firmly established, the liberal order became the global hegemon and limbic capitalism went global: 

By the late twentieth century global anti-vice activism had been routed on a broad front by what can fairly be called global pro-vice activism. Multinational distribution and marketing machines had built a scaffolding of persuasion, camouflaged with strategic bits of public relations dissuasion, around a range of products that carried a serious risk of habituation and harm.

Courtwright is not an anti-capitalist. The abundance of the market is the payoff for all the years of misery mankind experienced in the aftermath of the move to agriculture and stationary settlement. The earliest vices, our little decadences and bad habits, were basic coping mechanisms for lives of relative material want. And Courtwright is a believer in the power of commerce to facilitate progress, the marketplace producing and testing and keeping what works, what’s worth it. The problem is that limbic capitalism is capitalism’s “evil twin,” a twin “joined, not at the hip, but at the historically contingent point where science and technology made it possible to turn a commodity into a vice”—think food and phones designed to hook you. Science and technology also made it possible to turn vices into commodities, pornography a click away and narcotics increasing in potency and sophistication. Scale has exploded, destroying the possibility of a default moderation based on scarcity. It is a Darwinian “market” commonplace, sometimes called the Lindy effect, that what is good endures, that what has survived will survive. The trouble is that nothing’s quite as durable as the desire for dopamine. Addictions are lindy. 

Addiction is, as Courtwright is quick to point out, a contested and multivalent term. Still “the word provides a usefully concise and universally understood way of referring to a pattern of compulsive, conditioned, relapse-prone, and harmful behavior.” It is defined in a matrix of assessments, combining individual experience with chemical reality and social expectations. A feature of this age of addiction, with its multiplication of potentially addictive substances and behaviors—and of claimed addictions, like social media and tanning and shopping and Netflix, defining addiction down to things I like to do a lot—has been a general defining down of vice, too. Mainline Christianity and civic moralists collapsed on the job in the midst of the Cold War before an onslaught of “skeptics and opportunists in consumer societies questioning whether many traditional ‘vices’—their scare quotes said it all—were objectionable at all.” What World War II began, the Sexual Revolution finished. In Courtwright’s telling, religion was a lame opiate compared to what was coming on the market, and the masses were eager for everything. “In undermining religion,” he writes, “limbic capitalism undermined one of the most important historical barriers to its expansion and innovation. If God was dead, any product was possible. If any product was possible, the godly had less chance of recruiting.” Christian denominations that had played a prominent role in public life lost ground to those that pursued a church of the pure and kept themselves apart from the world. The Sexual Revolution, based on the most reliable source of pleasure we as humans have, finished what total war started. 

It is in the sexual arena that the intersection of technology, vice, and addiction has played out most dramatically over the course of the 20th century. As Courtwright says, “Accessibility, affordability, advertising, anonymity, and anomie, the five cylinders of the engine of mass addiction, ultimately have found their most radical technological expression in the floating world of the internet,” meaning especially pornography and the pornification of the contemporary monoculture in the form of hookup apps. Courtwright writes:

[I]n the span of a century, there have been three revolutions of technology and sex. The first, artificial contraception, separated sex from procreation. The second, digital pornography, separated sex from physical contact between persons. And the third, online remoteness and impersonality, separated sex from courtship and its customary object, marriage. When sex is cheap, quick, and always available, why bother with corsages, dinner dates, and engagement rings?

As mass communication has expanded the capacity for individual expression and personal consumption separate from community, so too has pornography transformed from something consumed in the company of peers panting in dark theaters to something available anywhere at any time on the data-networked devices nearly all of us carry around every day. Anonymity, accessibility, and affordability have never been as easy, and there’s plenty of advertising. Anomie? Depends on your community. 

To not have that final “A” of addiction, the divorce from any community moral standard, is to heighten the painful self-awareness of habitual vice. Conservative Protestants—as sociologist Samuel L. Perry refers to church-attending Evangelical and Reformed Christians in his study Addicted to Lust—reversed the liberal Mainline story of increasing irrelevance, instead “engaging the culture” as that culture more fully embraced vice of all kinds. But that has come with a cost. By adopting the world as its reference society, this community has had to confront the reality of its own hypocrisy. Addicted to Lust is an examination of the personal and social consequences of the fact that a sizable number of conservative Protestants “both morally reject and regularly view pornography.” Perry, with sensitive insight, says this “is in some ways an inevitable consequence for a subculture that repudiates the sexual mores of the dominant culture while simultaneously (and quite intentionally) refusing to disengage from that culture, particularly in terms of technology and media consumption.”

Perry allows conservative Protestant pornography users to speak for themselves in interviews, as he seeks to understand what their “moral incongruence” means to them and their social identity. Addiction is socially and personally constructed. What we decide has power over us. It disrupts our lives, becomes an addiction when recognized as such: this is the experience of the religious subjects of Perry’s study. He writes that “even though committed Christians are not more likely to watch pornography than other Americans, they are consistently more likely to label themselves ‘addicted’ to pornography.” Porn use by those conservative Protestants who do regularly view pornographic content does not generally fit the health-professional definitions of addiction because that use does not prevent them from being normal, productive members of society in obvious ways, like the kind of debilitation we see regularly in alcoholics or “hard” drug users. Rather, conservative Protestants experience viewing pornography as addiction because it is felt to make their spiritual life nonfunctioning. Perry believes this is a byproduct of what he calls “sexual exceptionalism,” or assigning unchastity of any kind the highest place in the pyramid of sin, over, say, gluttony, wrath, or pride. This means, of course, that “Many of the men I spoke with…seemed to measure their religious faith or sanctification almost solely by their success in resisting the temptation to watch pornography and masturbate.” 

While sexual exceptionalism is distinctive of most expressions of conservative Protestantism, and its faithful’s desire to legislate against porn has remained at about 50 percent going back to the 1970s, pornography has not always been the yardstick by which personal holiness was measured. In the early days of widespread abandonment of traditional sexual morality, Evangelicals stepped onto the public stage to decry the move, but as the problem of the larger culture and not their own. Seeing that “the culture” did not care about tradition, campaigns against pornography became primarily about the victimization of those who appeared in it. Finally, leaders in conservative Protestant communities realized that the enemy was at their gates, whether confronted by their own personal hypocrisy or the guilty consciences of the flocks they shepherded. It was time to take seriously “personal-viewer harm” and the possibility that the ubiquity of pornographic exposure extended even to their own congregations. “The focus is no longer on shutting down pornographers or ensuring the faithful protect themselves and society from ‘filth’ and ‘smut,’” Perry writes. “It is instead on helping believers, their families, and their faith communities recover from their ‘enslavement’ to pornography ‘addictions.’”

Protestant theology can sometimes be guilty of a gnostic elevation of mental assent over, and to the exclusion of, actual physical obedience. Liberal Protestantism makes this obvious in its making what a Christian ought to do and ought to believe equally esoteric. Perry recognizes this general Kantian tendency as the root of much of the incoherence and consternation in responses to pornography use among conservative Protestants, calling it “pietistic idealism.” These Christians, Perry writes, believe “God is chiefly concerned not with a person’s actions but with her motivations.” And so “conservative Protestants—more so than Catholics, Mormons, Orthodox Christians, Jews, or really most other religions—have a weak ‘theology of the body.’ Simply put, for conservative Protestants, the obedience that God demands is not about bodily actions so much as it is about a person’s heart.” Intentionally viewing pornography is the perfect foil to this account of sanctity, a distilled lust of the eyes and lust of the flesh proclaiming an unregenerate heart. 

In fact, Perry says, conservative Protestants—though they consistently advocate for an ideal of heterosexual, generally procreative intercourse within marriage—are far more consistently definitive in their condemnations of the viewing of pornography than the act of masturbation. Indeed, because of an absence of explicit references in the Bible, many prominent writers in that community view masturbation as a matter of divine indifference, if outright separable from a lustful heart. According to Perry’s research, pornography is understood by conservative Protestant men in general and users in particular (including women, an under-ministered to and under-acknowledged component of the community) to be a sin experienced primarily as an involuntary, mechanical, biological—limbic—thing, without an identity function beyond that of sinner. But conservative Protestant women who do not struggle with porn, and do also subscribe to pietistic idealism and sexual exceptionalism, often attach emotional and narrative significance to the discovery of a partner’s use of pornography and consider it as equivalent to adultery. This emphasis on the heart, and the lack of a widely accepted formal process of confession and reconciliation in conservative Protestant theology beyond one’s own relationship with Jesus, means that the self-loathing of moral incongruence often drives porn addicts away from spiritual practices and community. Instead the seeming inescapableness of besetting sin is experienced as bringing into question one’s own salvation. Intense psychological agony leaves the sinner in despair or causes him to abandon the standards that prompted the feeling of condemnation in the first place.

There are many lessons to be derived from Age of Addiction and Addicted to Lust, but one in particular stands out. The concept of hormesis, as has been mentioned, says that dosage makes the poison. The problem is that technology as it currently exists makes the control of dosage nearly impossible. Anything not explicitly produced or regulated as an opt-in system will become universalized, and thus an opt-out system. Writes Courtwright: 

The internet delivered the knockout blow, launching anti-vice activism out of the ring and landing it somewhere in the third row of seats. A restrictive strategy predicated on physical supply chokepoints (open your trunk), human checkpoints (show me your ID), and regulation of space and time (no ads near schools, no selling after hours) had scant chance against a technology operating in the virtual fifth dimension of a globally connected, post-spatial environment. Anti-vice activism did not compute. 

Or as Perry puts it, “addiction” to pornography among Protestant men is too tied to “their addictions to modern technology and media” for them to be able “to abandon the source of their ills.” The internet we have is an explicitly opt-out system, largely built around the exchange of free access for personal data and eyes on advertising. Until that architectural default is changed to an opt-in one of deliberate choice, perhaps in the form of paywalls, memberships, and subscriptions—which might actually fulfill the liberal ideal of individual self-determination currently overwhelmed by the vulnerabilities of our dopamine-fiend nervous system—regulating one’s dosages will continue to require a near-superhuman degree of self control. That is, it will demand from the beginning the very discipline that it seeks to build up to and habituate. 

We have succeeded in building such an opt-in system around nicotine products. It was not easy but it happened eventually, and we should derive some small comfort from it. Limbic exploitation can be arrested, it seems. A common thread in the interviews that make up much of Addicted to Lust is descriptions of the strategic efforts to remove the temptation to view pornography—to eliminate, in effect, the five A-words of Courtwright’s account. This despite the reality that the interviewed’s theological convictions emphasize a purity of intention over action. Until such a time as an opt-in system is adopted for these things, anyone serious about living a life of virtue will need to embrace radical means to opt-out of the structures that wage incessant war for our attention, our participation, and our compulsive return. The disciplines of virtue require time and space to be practiced, to become habit. Strategic retreat in one battle is not weakness when drawing up strength to win the war. What did Christ say? “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.”