Addiction and Virtue -- Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice

(by Kent Dunnington, Ph.D.)


1. Addiction is more than a brain disease because
    A. tolerance and withdrawal, which are considered necessary conditions for addictions, are experienced by many people who are not addicted, such as surgery patients who are prescribed a pain reliever.
    B. some people on regular medication experience little to no tolerance or withdrawal symptoms.
    C. even though studies show that drug abuse does change the structure and function of the brain, people still retain voluntary control over their behavior.

2. It is true that people who have genes associated with addictions do exhibit more immediate and powerful attraction to the drug, and/or develop tolerance to the drug more quickly and severely and/or experience more acute withdrawal symptoms in the absence of the drug. However, addiction is not caused by experiences of gratification, tolerance, and withdrawal. Rather, it is the significance or meaning the person places upon those experiences that determines whether addiction will occur.

3. Most substance abusers do stop practicing their addictions and go on to lead lives free from addiction. A large majority of them recover in a non-medical context. There is no evidence to suggest that medical treatment improves the chances of recovery from addiction.

4. The "paradox of addiction" is when the addicted person claims to be powerless over their addictive behavior, yet this admission itself is the inroad to regaining power over that same behavior.

5. The "incontinent addicted person" is one who has the belief that the addictive behavior is bad for him and a corresponding desire to not engage in it, and who has some capacity to resist the behavior, but who nevertheless does engage in addictive behavior against his own better judgment.

6. A habit is a relatively permanent acquired modification of a person that enables the person, when provoked by the relevant stimulus, to act consistently, successfully, and with ease with respect to some objective. Thomas Aquinas says that habits form when an external act is repeated, and when appropriate attention is given to the interior quality of the act, namely, its intentions and desires, what the author calls the "habituation of the cognitive estimation".

7. It is simultaneously true that an addicted person loses direct control over his choices, and yet still be held responsible for his actions. This is because even though he lacks the necessary resources to exercise enduring control over his addictive behavior, he possesses the resources to act indirectly in such ways as to eventually develop the habits needed to make such enduring control a realty. This is in keeping with Alcoholics Anonymous which claims that addicted persons lack immediate control overt their behavior and yet can regain that control.

8. Addiction is the inordinate love of certain objects for reasons other than sensory pleasure. Sensory miseries such as memory loss, blackouts, vomiting, dry heaves, and being deathly ill, do not deter addicted persons from pursuing their addicted objects because these objects are believed to offer a type of moral and intellectual goods such as improving one's ability to communicate, being at ease with yourself, being unafraid, and being part of a community.


1. Addictions are like virtues and vices in that both virtues and vices are habits which empower persons to pursue what they think is the good life. Our modern life is devoid of any
mutually held account of the good life for persons. Aristotle believed that the good life consisted of moral and intellectual virtues which have the ultimate goal of serving and contemplating God. People get addicted because modern life promotes too many arbitrary choices without any ultimate rationale for those choices, because they are bored, since they do not know what their purpose for living is, and because they are lonely.

2. The modern tendency within the addiction-recovery movement, Alcoholics Anonymous being one example, has been to
replace the Christian language of sin with the language of disease and sickness. The author argues that this has been done for two reasons: (1) So recovering alcoholics who were not Christian or who were adverse to Christianity would not be put off from their recovery by the language of sin, and 2) So recovering alcoholics would not be tempted to think they could fix their own drinking problem through straightforward moral exertion.
Yet the author goes on to show how this change was based on a faulty understanding of the Christian doctrine of sin, that sin is something we ARE more than just things we DO. It is our nature to chose sin over goodness, while at the same time we are responsible for our sinning.

3. The author wants to restore the language of sin to the language of addiction in order to show how addiction disrupts our proper relation to God. Addiction is a counterfeit form of worship because the addicted person organizes his entire life around his addiction and gives his life "meaning." Addicts do not pursue fulfillment through moderation. They pursue ecstasy through excess.

4. Working the twelve steps of recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous is effective not because A.A. promotes the direct use of willpower, but because A.A. helps the recovering person become the kind of person who no longer perceives the world in terms of alcohol. A.A. helps people not so much to quit drinking as how to live sober.

5. The only thing the author would change about the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is f
or addicts not to fashion a God "as we understand him", but to follow the triune God of Israel who became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.