Should We Include a Moral Dimension? The Aesthetics and Anesthetics of Addiction

October 18, 2020
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The True, The Good, and the Beautiful

In his lecture titled, “The True, The Good, and The Beautiful” Roger Scruton asks what these three things embrace and what they have to do with each other. Overall, the subject matter of that lecture is aesthetics:  the philosophy of art and beauty. 

Scruton states that pleasure says, “Come again” and knowledge says “Thanks”. And therein lies a problem.  How so?  He elaborates that some experiences that are pleasurable are harmful, and that putting aesthetic values first in a hierarchy of values is a kind of “immoralizing”.

He asks what we learn from art, and if what we learn from art is a kind of truth not available from any other human activity.    

He states by extension, in life, one may live a moralizing existence or find moral qualities within the experience of living.  Is it even possible to not? 

Ugly Truths?

In his blog post concerning children living with an addicted parent during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, William White wrestles with the topic of that truth, the bad side of that experience, and its ugliness. 

(Incidentally, for many years one of my fantasy projects for our field has been that researchers would meet with large numbers of those with the lived experience of being raised with and by an addicted parent, and meet with other family members – to obtain information about what addiction illness consists of, and what recovery could hopefully look like.  After all, only asking the one with the addiction illness is an information retrieval endeavor problematized by various features of the illness.)   

Further, some involved in thinking about addiction, addiction treatment, and addiction recovery, have touched on or struggled with the possible inclusion or exclusion of a moral dimension in their considerations. 

Anesthetic and Feeling

Interestingly, Scruton notes the word “anesthetic” contains the root word for “feeling”.  That is interesting to me because many substances diminish naturally occurring feelings and diminish subjective experiences.  And this causes me to wonder if either the philosophy of aesthetics or study of anesthetic functions can serve as a window into the moral dimension of addiction disease and its progression. As an example of that line of inquiry, I have spent a number of years studying the research literature concerning the simple harms that result from simple use

Within that study, the information I have found most fascinating describes acetaminophen reducing both pain and pleasure, with unexpected effects:

  • Diminishing the pain of decision making, reducing the positive value of feeling pain while weighing possible options (DeWall, C. N., Chester, D. S., et al 2015)
  • Diminishing social pain, such as pain felt when socially excluded (DeWall, C. N., MacDonald, G.M., et al 2010)
  • Reduced meaning threats, such as discomfort in considering existential meaning (Randles,,D., Heine, S. J., et al 2013)
  • Diminished psychic pleasure and pain (Durso, G. R. O., Luttrell, A., et al 2015).

Acetaminophen dampens neuronal activity and thus both pain and pleasure. And as these researchers show, acetaminophen dampens the neuronal activity underlying pain and pleasure, not just the feeling of pain. 

I also find it interesting that naltrexone produces anhedonia to music (Mallik, A, et. al., 2017).

Substance use, then, can be viewed as simply as access to various indigenous forms of anesthesia, like acetaminophen.  What can be said of the functional life impacts resulting from the blocking of pleasure and pain by use of alcohol, opioids, cannabinoids, amphetamines, benzodiazepines, and cigarettes?  For example, what does life look like aesthetically for the user?  And what does life look like aesthetically for the witness?  As Scruton states, there is the kind of art that is like sadness in a frame, or the kind of art that produces the kind of sadness that hurts you.

Factual Information vs. The Purpose of Art

In describing the value of the philosophy of art and the study of aesthetics, Scruton differentiates the mere instrumentality of factual information and the kind of thinking and judging that is done for someone on the one hand, from the purpose of art on the other hand.  And within art he differentiates art that is blatantly moralizing from moral qualities that might be present within art.

Scruton states one does not go to art for factual information as the primary aim, but one goes to art for the experience.  He extends that notion by stating not all truth is at the level of factual information, but that in some experiences of life, or of art, we may find a different kind of truth in the form of trust, support, or genuine spirit. “From the heart, to the heart”, as he says. He goes further and applies this to the emotional dimension.  He defines “false emotion” as when the “I” eclipses the “you” – deriving from a certain kind of self-involvement that is harmful to others. 

Thus, the aesthetic aim of the artist and aesthetic experience of the one experiencing the art may be similar or differ, but they will connect regardless – for better or worse, pleasurably or painfully, authentically or insincerely.  After all, as Scruton explains, arguments about taste differences in aesthetic judgment “concern the matters of the soul”. And art puts us in a position of rendering our own judgment, not just receiving facts or judgments others make for us.

Does Addiction Have A Moral Dimension?

Scruton states that in matters of philosophy the greatest value is often in the clarity of asking a certain question and in carrying certain questions, but that often no further clarity is obtained in answering them.  Is the possible inclusion or exclusion of a moral dimension in matters of understanding addiction, addiction treatment, and addiction recovery a question best asked and not answered, or a question that is best answered rather than only asked?

He gives us a hint toward a solution of that puzzle. 

Scruton differentiates the kind of “truth” that is merely straightforward and literal, from the kind that is personal, subjective, and rescued from mere functionality or sentimental pretense.  I apply that from two perspectives and for me they are not in tension:

  1. From the standpoint of mere information and sheer facts of a medical-scientific perspective, addiction disease and progression are not a moral matter per se.
  2. Concerning the aesthetic dimension of lived experience, to tell a child or adult child to eliminate or diminish the moral dimension would perhaps seem immoral or amoral, hurt or seem hollow, or simply seem silly and wrong. 

Back to The True, The Good, and the Beautiful

Which leaves us with the topic of addiction recovery.  If recovery is true, good, and beautiful, is it not a moral endeavor? Many children and adult children know that it is.


DeWall, C. N., Chester, D. S. & White, D. S. (2015). Can Acetaminophen Reduce the Pain of Decision-Making? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 56:117–120.

DeWall, C. N., MacDonald, G. M., Webster, G. D., Masten, C. L., Baumeister, R. F., Powell, C., Combs, D., Schurtz, D. R., Stillman, T. F., Tice, D. M. & Eisenberger, N. I. (2010). Acetaminophen Reduces Social Pain: Behavioral and neural evidence. Psychological Science. 21(7):931-937. DOI: 10.1177/0956797610374741

Durso, G. R. O., Luttrell, A. & Way, B. M. (2015). Over-the-Counter Relief From Pains and Pleasures Alike: Acetaminophen blunts evaluation sensitivity to both negative and positive stimuli. Psychological Science. 26(6):750–758. doi:10.1177/0956797615570366.

Mallik, A., Chanda, M. L. & Levitin, D. J. (2017). Anhedonia to Music and Mu-Opioids: Evidence from the administration of naltrexone. Scientific Reports. 7, 41952; doi: 10.1038/srep41952.

Randles, D., Heine, S. J. & Santos, N. (2013). The Common Pain of Surrealism and Death: Acetaminophen reduces compensatory affirmation following meaning threats. Psychological Science. 24(6) 966 –973.

Suggested Reading

Solomon, R. L. (1980). The Opponent-Process Theory of Acquired Motivation: The Costs of Pleasure and the Benefits of Pain. American Psychologist. 35(8), 691-712.

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