A question of morality

For me, the most glaring contradiction in the ideology of Alcoholics Anonymous is that alcohol addiction is called an illness (or even disease), and the treatment for it is regarded to be a “spiritual” and moral change of the individual’s life. I’m not going to take any position about what exactly in addiction is, but I do want to examine this contradicti

It’s a contradiction because illnesses are not treated morally, they are treated clinically. To extend the contrast between a disease like cancer and the malady of alcoholism from chapter two of Alcoholics Anonymous, cancer patients are not called upon to examine their relationship to God or a Higher Power, or to review their “character defects” and their histories of mistreating other people. Conversely and symmetrically, addicts are not given radiation, chemotherapy, or surgery (yet).

Perhaps cancer is not really a good analogy for addiction. But the contradiction of calling addiction a medical condition while focusing virtually all the “treatment” on an addict’s moral life would not be resolved by finding a better analogue. Instead, consider what is implied by the moral “treatment” itself.

Within traditional AA, we hear a lot of theistic talk about the moral path that members say is their key to recovery. We hear that “doing the next right thing” and eliminating “self-will” directs the recovering alcoholic unerringly along that “happy road of destiny” and sober living. Even in secular versions of 12-steps, one’s own moral reconstruction is a major focus. For instance, in Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, Marya Hornbacher writes:

The devolved, collapsing moral structure of that frightened addict will continue to undergo repair for my entire life. I believe it is imperative for all of us, addicts or not, to engage in moral growth for a lifetime. But my job is not to tell anyone else what his or her moral structure should be. My only job—and it’s plenty—is to let go of the morally questionable, damaging, selfish, or otherwise harmful values I have come to hold, and to replace them with values that have spiritual meaning and worth. (75f.)

Easy for a skeptic like me, I suppose, to ask how Hornbacher or Wilson or anyone else is to know they have found the “next right thing,” or “values that have spiritual meaning and worth.” Well, yes, it is easy for me, but it is also an important question to ask. The obvious underlying assumption here is of a moral principle or moral value in-hand that serves as the guidepost.

Possibly not-so-obvious is the assumption that the moral is a clearly-defined area of life, one that is personal and individual, and up to the individual to change and make right. This assumption abstracts morality from the social and political context in which we live. The concept of morality calls us out as ideological subjects—as “individuals” who are “responsible” and are expected to adhere to a “moral compass” that is presumed to be within. I submit that a perspicacious look at our society would reveal how this ideology serves the dominant class.

Even laying aside the ideological critique, I have a lot of questions. Is there morality for individuals as such? Do we understand what our brains are doing when we think about morality, when we “do” moral things, or when we consider our decisions through a moral sensibility? What is morality for? What does morality do?

(Extra credit section: Those questions are not motivated by Nietzsche, although they are similar to questions he asked. I’m motivated by Sextus Empiricus and Ludwig Feuerbach lately—two ends of the spectrum of dialectical thought, in their way. This all might lead me to re-read Nietzsche, an alarming prospect. It’s been 30 years.)

2 thoughts on “A question of morality

  1. The end game of morality is peace, within oneself and with others. This could be an easier thing to strive for in the power classes than for the oppressed, as in be kind to others. But acting moral, e. g., being kind, is the path to serenity.


  2. I don’t agree that I have to repair my moral structure for the rest of my life. Ya, whatever moral is in that definition. I just want to be sober. And, maybe that also means being free to be me.


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