The Social Contract of Alcoholics Anonymous

There may be no purer example of a society formed by social contract than Alcoholics Anonymous. It will come as no news to secular AAers that this doesn’t necessarily mean that AA is a bastion for equal rights of all.

We forget that the great theorists of social contract were dangerous radicals. They rejected the legitimacy of royal lineage or the blessing of the Church as bases for government. Even more radically, they attempted to explain the basis of government on something that had nothing to do with government.

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes presents a theory of human nature. He ascribes to this nature something called a “right,” defined as “the Liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himselfe, for the preservation of his own Nature; that is to say, of his own Life; and consequently, of doing any thing, which in his own Judgement, and Reason, hee shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto” (Leviathan, Chapter XIV). In the so-called “state of nature,” everyone would take this liberty to its fullest possible extent, and so do whatever appeared expedient for survival. Famously, that would lead to a condition of total mutual war of all against all, “And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (Chapter XIII).

To avoid this incommodious situation, individuals would, with rational forethought, agree to the formation of a governing body, and transfer to that governing body their liberty and power to murder one another for a turnip. In fact, according to Hobbes, rational human beings would accept any government at all, provided it eliminated the chaos of war of all against all—no matter how repressive or inequitable.

John Locke refined Hobbes’ theory in the Second Treatise of Government (which he did not write either to justify or to cause the Glorious Revolution) by suggesting that there are limits to just how unfair a government can be and still be rational to accept. Locke also reserved as a “natural right” the liberty to wipe out, or opt out, of a society governed in a way that was simply too malignant or bloodthirsty for taste.

Thomas Jefferson plagiarized Locke’s Second Treatise in the famous passage from the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Jefferson plagiarizes further:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

One hardly need be a leftist to recognize that Jefferson wrote of the “equality” of “all men” in the midst of forming a nation where chattel slavery and indentured servitude were legal, women and many non-propertied men would lack most rights, and so forth. As far as ideal versions of the social contract go, nations of the Earth are not great models.

But have a look at AA!

The only reason to join AA is one’s own self-interest—the rational choice to use one’s liberty in order to preserve one’s life. Once joined, the prudence of the individual remains sacrosanct. Everyone in AA has an absolutely equal right to participate, and this is not limited by continent of origin, skin color, social class, sex, or any other attribute of a person. In AA, no one has more official power than anyone else; no one is an absolute “ruler” except the entire group as a whole; and no one can inherit position, power, or anything else. There is no rule of AA, no tradition, no ritual, that is not approved by “group conscience.”

Everyone has the right to make a motion to a group conscience. Everyone has the right to speak their mind. No one has to follow any of the Steps, and there is no authority in AA that would effectively stop anyone from violating the Traditions. John Locke would be happy: No one in AA is required to relinquish an ounce of liberty, and everyone retains the absolute right to renounce and withdraw from AA. So you see, Alcoholics Anonymous truly is a social contract.

With the benefit of hindsight, Alexis de Toqueville and John Stuart Mill explained a significant problem with the libertarian paradise that a pure social contract would create: the “tyranny of the majority.” As Toqueville put it, “politically speaking, the people have a right to do anything” (Democracy in America). Regardless of who the “people” are who have “rights,” their totally free exercise of those rights in a contract would permit a society to decide to oppress some of its members, for the good of the whole. Beyond de jure mob rule, the majority can function as social vigilantes, imposing its will through what Mill called the “despotism of custom” (On Liberty).

If “group conscience” is the pure form of the liberty of individuals in a social contract, it is also the juridical hammer of the mob. In so many fellowships, it is used to nail together a Christian-shaped entry doorframe (if you’ll excuse the metaphor). Once inside, an individual who has had to twist and contort to get through the door finds despotic custom all around, in group recitations of prayers, in wall posters, and in evangelizing and shunning.

As I said, this is not going to be news to many in AA. It is worth considering in order to understand the situation, and (as I’ll attempt later) investigate alternatives.

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