“Character defects”

In traditional AA meetings, I enjoy saying things contrary to the dominant ideology. I don’t look for fights, and I don’t say these things solely or even mainly to stir controversy. Often enough, they pass uncommented on.

Whenever the Sixth Step topic of “character defects” comes up, I say “I don’t believe in character defects. I don’t have any character defects, and neither do you.” When I’m in a jaunty mood, I’ll even add “You’re perfect the way you are.”

The book of Alcoholics Anonymous tells us that alcoholism is a disease, the result of an allergy, a mental illness or related to mental illness, and therefore not primarily a moral failure; and that it is causally connected to deeply seated defects of character. (This is only one example of many gross contradictions in the text.)

Current therapeutic theory and practice treat addiction without regard to cause, but there is a large body of evidence correlating addiction to PTSD, to mental illness in general, and to social and developmental neglect. Addiction is the result of habitually using of mind-altering behavior to cope with the affects of those kinds of life problems. (Note: Affects, not effects.) My “character” has as much to do with creating the harmful environment I grew up in as it does in creating weather patterns.

I don’t mean to deny that addicted people develop some unfortunate behaviors. Addiction is an unfortunate behavior, and addicted people will engage in many others in order to “feed” their addictive habits.

Aristotle is the philosopher most strongly associated with the idea that character is habit. He notes the etymological link between ethos and ethics in arguing that it is possible to build virtuous character. He also argues that a man (and it was exclusively a man) could only build virtuous character is he was raised in a family and a society that taught and valued virtue, and could afford the education and training required. This requirement for virtue is conveniently left out of most current-day retrenchments of virtue ethics, especially by political conservatives and libertarians. It is also left out of the discourse of AA.

Nonetheless, I know that in my addiction, I stopped acting on the basis of what I previously valued, and went through what it’s fair to call moral decay. Addiction corroded my character, as it destroyed my healthy habits. Toward the end, as I reached my “bottom,” my addictions took up essentially all of my time, energy, and money. My only habits were my addictive habits.

Recovering from addiction, I have an opportunity to build or rebuild healthy habits, and restore my deep values. In other words, once out of the worst addictive behavior, I can change how I behave, and how I think.

The ideology of “character defects” suggests that the habits and behaviors I want to give up are the fundamentals of my essential character, that they are defective, and that I am responsible for their existence. (And in the traditional list, Step Seven tells me that I will have to ask for and await divine intervention to eliminate them, rather than change my behavior myself — which leads to another bizarre contradiction.) But they are the results of addictive behavior. If my behavior changes outside of active addiction, then the whole notion of “character defects” rests on begging the question of which set of behaviors is really the core of me.

In AA and other 12-Step programs, we are nearly obligated to refer to ourselves as addicts or alcoholics, thus asserting that who we are is our addictive behavior. If I’m reducible to my behavior, then why pick out past behavior and say that is what and who I am? If I’m not reducible to my behavior, then why use my past behavior, ignoring my current behavior, and say that what I used to do is the hallmark of what and who I am? Clearly, this ideology is based more on “original sin” than on observing what people in recovery actually are like and actually do. So, I reject it as stated.

(But being raised in the religious tradition I was, I still suffer from guilt and shame, two tremendously destructive forms of self-hatred and negative self-criticism. I have also internalized the fear and anger I felt as a child sufficiently to have constant mental and emotional agony at my existence. “Character defects” only reinforces that destructive relation to myself.)

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