Cohen, Peter (2017), The emancipation of ‘dependency’. There is good reason to be less fearful of ‘addiction’. In: Freek Polak (ed.), De kwaal is erger dan het middel. Over de noodzaak van legalisering van drugs. Amsterdam, Gibbon. English translation by Beverley Jackson.
© Copyright 2017 Peter Cohen. All rights reserved.


The emancipation of ‘dependency’

There is good reason to be less fearful of ‘addiction’

Peter Cohen [a]

‘Et la génerosité consiste souvent à comprendre et à respecter les dépendences d’autrui, et non à les harceler au nom de la morale.’ Albert Memmi [1]

My view of ‘addiction’ is inspired by observations of something that is familiar to us all: people are inclined to form strong relationships with other people. Almost all people develop such ties with a life partner or family members, ties that are so strong that when they are broken (by death, for instance), it produces an extremely painful experience. Not so long ago I lost my dog, and in this connection too I experienced how painful that was, the sudden cutting of ties to an animal to which I had formed a strong attachment. People develop attachments to objects that have become important to them, [2] and will not lightly relinquish these ties.

‘Not lightly relinquish’ is rather an understatement. After all, even when we want to break some tie or other, we are often incapable of doing so! Take the example of Dutch people who emigrate to Canada. They frequently experience a strong sense of homesickness for the Netherlands. It is not possible to sever that tie like switching off a light, however much one would like to do so.

Thinking of this, it is fair to say that everyone forms attachments, and therefore strong ties, to objects. These objects may include a particular city, a church, a rabbit, or a political movement. People also form strong attachments to certain kinds of food, drink, drugs, or specific rituals around going to bed or getting up. All the strong ties we form make us dependent, to some extent, on the object concerned.

Homesickness, as a manifestation of dependency, may be so strong that people abandon their emigration and return home. We also not infrequently see divorced couples who have gone on to marry other partners, eventually finding themselves unable to give up the earlier tie and marrying each other for the second time. Such dependencies may range from weak to very strong. What is more, the strength of a dependency often becomes clear only when someone is forced to do without the object of the attachment.

The term ‘addiction’ is used for a strong tie (and hence dependency) that has caused problems. Someone may have become heavily dependent on something that is surrounded by public controversy, such as sex or heroin. In Western cultures, different value judgements are attached to different kinds of dependencies. Dependency on the well-being of a life partner is almost never frowned on or labelled ‘addiction’. Dependency on prescribed medicines is seen as a normal state of affairs. If someone needs to take a particular prescribed drug every day to regulate their blood pressure, no one will call that an ‘addiction’. But if someone takes medicine frequently without a doctor’s approval, that habit triggers different social attitudes.

If someone uses morphine or amphetamine every day, which they need in order to function well, this is always regarded as addiction, even if other people never notice it at all. So we clearly draw an important distinction between different kinds of dependencies: dependency on a life partner is ‘normal’, and so is dependency on a dog. But dependency on drugs is rarely viewed in the same way, with the exception of alcohol and tobacco. The daily consumption of the latter two, established in a fixed pattern of consumption, is not automatically an ‘addiction’ attracting the strong censure of society, but rather a ‘bad habit’.

All these words were necessary as an introduction to the following proposal regarding the concept of addiction:

Let us learn to regard dependency as one of the fundamental characteristics of human existence.

As soon as we start seeing dependency as the normal human condition, in which the object of the dependency is not relevant to its existence, we will be able to discuss the set of dependencies that are now known as ‘addiction’ from a far more neutral perspective. Only ties that produce strong negative social or cultural consequences in our culture are referred to as addiction. That Pete feels truly at peace with the world only when he is sitting on the sofa beside his dog is a culturally non-negative assessment of Pete’s dependency. Not an addiction, in other words. But when we hear that Pete feels truly at peace with the world only when he takes 100 mg morphine every day, he is branded with a highly negative view of his dependency, which may have major social consequences. This example shows that it is not Pete’s ‘dependency’ that is at issue but the object of it. The dog is okay, but morphine obtained without a medical prescription is not okay. [3]

In my proposal, all forms of human dependency are in principle okay. Since no one can do without dependencies altogether, we will refrain from judging them. Whether someone is a member of the Reformed Church or has no religious beliefs at all – and the underlying reasons or motives – we will not judge them. If someone’s dependency on Floppy the rabbit
makes them feel good, we will not judge them. If someone’s dependency on a daily intoxicant makes them feel good, we will not interfere. Whatever the reasons may be for these dependencies, we will not judge them.

Dependency can cause damage. Since people can only develop and survive in a tightly-knit network of dependencies, it is not possible to pry oneself loose from that network. But all adults theoretically possess the capacity to divest themselves of a specific dependency. This is difficult, perhaps extremely difficult, but it can be tried, with some chance of success.

Whether or not to make this attempt is up to the person concerned and not for anyone else to decide, not even a life partner. If someone wants to give up a particular drug or a particular relationship, but finds it impossible or sinks into an unbearable state of mourning, that person may choose to sign up for some form of therapy. The same applies to homesickness or to eating or sleeping habits that someone experiences as oppressive or even dysfunctional. Someone who finds it impossible to give up or modify the strong dependency may decide to enlist the help of others. If a specific dependency leads to unbearable harm, others too may
intervene. [4] It is not uncommon for people to seek help with their dependencies without being forced to do so. Such help may result in breaking the dependency, or it may result in the person’s learning to become more accepting of it, or learning to deal with it in a less harmful manner. But for most people, it is unnecessary to supplement their relationships with their strong dependencies by an orchestrated approach by third parties.

Whatever the object of the dependency, enforced treatment is inappropriate. Under the terms of my proposal, human beings are totally free, and have a perfect right, to become and remain dependent on any object whatsoever.

Were my proposal to be accepted, our laws would cease to distinguish between different kinds of dependencies. Substances that give rise to a dependency would no more be forbidden than animals, musical compositions, or cities that induce dependency. All forms of dependency would in principle be permissible and would never be subjected to someone else’s approval. What one person may call an admirable dependency, such as a strong attachment to the church, someone else may see as harmful, a deadly sin, or highly neurotic! We can assume that such judgments are likely to endure, but our legislation and the doctor would be removed from the equation.

The Netherlands prides itself on the principle of freedom of religion. Let us add to it the freedom of dependency. Only then will dependency be emancipated, and the concept of ‘addiction’ will pass into the same obsolete frame of reference as ‘bewitched’.


  1. ‘Generosity of spirit often consists of understanding and respecting the dependencies of others, and not vilifying them in the name of morality’ Albert Memmi, La Dépendance, Gallimard (Paris) 1979, p. 165.
  2. The word ‘object’ is used in a very broad sense here, to embrace ideologies and feelings as well as tangible symbols and living creatures.
  3. Morphine is not considered okay unless it is taken for pain relief and prescribed by a doctor. This shows that an object that is considered bad may be considered good if the motive for its consumption is culturally or morally acceptable.
  4. Politicians or scientists who are totally dedicated to their careers may find their spouses suing for divorce. And if alcohol consumption becomes such a high priority that parents neglect their children, intervention is possible: by the person him- or herself, family members, or the State. The criterion here is harm, not dependency.
  5. Translation from Dutch: Beverley Jackson.