When the White Queen told Alice she had sometimes believed as many as six contradictory things before breakfast, she spoke for us all. But our irrationality goes further than a simple after-the-event report. Even while we’re believing it, we can know that something we’re believing contradicts something else we believe.
Take, in my case, addiction. I believe that addicts lack self-discipline and willpower. Yet I know that this cannot really be the explanation. I feel a faint but ineradicable disapproval of people who can’t stop eating, smoking, drinking or injecting themselves with heroin, while knowing that this reaction is not only harsh, but must be ignorant.
I half suspect people just need to get a grip; yet half accept this cannot be the problem, because we all know addicts who don’t lack willpower. My late father, for instance, an entirely self-disciplined man, exhibited the classic symptoms of cold turkey when deprived of cigarettes: depression, distraction, pallor and shaking hands. Two of my three brothers smoke and would love to give it up, but cannot. The late Conrad (Earl) Russell once told me he would literally rather die than live without cigarettes. An MP friend, now dead, would in the last stages of cirrhosis teaspoon the port out of the melon with trembling fingers. And another friend with an iron will is nevertheless eating herself to death. None of these people exhibits any lack of self-discipline in any part of their lives except that relating to their particular addiction.
How can I reconcile the evident contradictions in my moral knowledge? I’ve concluded that the only way must be through experience. I’ve never been seriously addicted to anything in my life. If I could properly know at first hand what it was to be addicted, then, knowing myself to be self-disciplined, I could know what it is that the human will must confront when we battle with addiction. Heroin, by all accounts, is the big one, and for decades I’ve wanted to experience addiction to that drug; but as a semi-respectable person I know one should not break the law.
Or alcohol? I drink quite steadily but have never become an alcoholic, and occasionally quit for a few months to check that it isn’t difficult. My partner is a bit addicted to caffeine — he gets seriously unsettled if he can’t have coffee in the morning — but I’ve been drinking coffee all my life, never really liked it, and could drink my last cup tomorrow without regrets.
Which leaves nicotine. My problem with smoking has been its terrible effect on the lungs. I saw what it did to my father’s. Now, however, we have nicotine patches and e-cigarettes, neither of which damages the lungs. Of course it is always possible to find a doctor who will insist that nicotine itself (even shorn of the tars that cause cancer) can be bad in certain quantities for certain patients with certain conditions; but you can say that of caffeine too; and I’m not aware of any general threat to health from either.
I did have one wholly abortive attempt at getting hooked on nicotine patches. My mistake was to attempt a shortcut and apply patches that were classified as the equivalent of 30 cigarettes a day. I put one of these patches onto my lower back, forgot all about it, went out to dinner — and ended up literally crawling to my host’s sofa, unable to stand, lying there with my heart thumping, ripping off the patch, passing out, and not waking until dawn. Apparently, if you have had no exposure to nicotine, its effects are hugely magnified. The episode made me scared of patches.
So shall I try again? Or shall I go for those rather elegant e-cigarettes — ‘vaping’ I believe it’s called — where a micro–heater combines minute bursts of steam with pure nicotine, for inhalation? A friend tells me he knows a non-smoker who decided to do exactly that — tried e-cigarettes, and has become seriously addicted to them. Sounds promising.
But a drawback would be that my partner would be vastly irritated by what he would see as a foolish affectation, so I’d have to vape very privately. And wouldn’t all the palaver of getting in supplies of the nicotine, and recharging the e-cigarette batteries, be tiresome?
So it’s here that advice is needed. One vaping friend says it’s no trouble at all, but then he’s used to the ritual of smoking and probably enjoys it. And how often would I need to vape in order to let myself effectively but gently into a possible addiction? Could I, for instance, do it twice a day, once before cleaning my teeth and once before bed?
So many questions. Is it easier, do you think, to get hooked via vaping than via patches? One might suppose so, but perhaps that’s just because of our mental association between the physical routine of smoking and the accompanying addiction. Getting addicted to patches sounds horribly clinical, but may be just as easy. Has anyone else trodden this path? What reports do we have? These are not questions on which one could consult a GP: a family doctor would regard the whole thing as irresponsible and want nothing to do with it, so I shall just have to ask around.
One thing is clear to me. Everybody — including me — seems very ready to announce their opinions about addictions, about addictive drugs, and about the dangers medical as well as moral; but very few seem to have conducted the simple experiments that might resolve some of the unknowns. It’s no good just studying addicts: maybe they are a skewed sample who have fallen into this category because of some physical, psychological or moral predisposition which makes them untypical.
No — people who are not addicts should try it, and report. Sooner or later, and one way or another, I intend to.