Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken

Insights on Addiction and Philosophy

What You Do Becomes Who You Are

Aristotle offers insights into moral virtue, character, and addiction.

Where philosophers once spoke of character and moral virtues, psychologists are more likely to speak of “personality types.” I want to bring back the expression, “moral character.” I want the language of virtues to enjoy a renaissance. Pairing these expressions with discussions of addiction is a delicate matter. For centuries now, addiction has been considered as a moral failing; addicts were those who simply lacked the will power and moral fortitude to stop. Addicts were thought to be some combination of weak willed, lazy, selfish, and a host of other blameworthy traits.

With the medicalization of addiction and a shifting tide of explanation to its being a “brain disease,” the moral disapprobation has lifted some and discussions about responsibility have shifted some. This is clearly a very good thing. But blame and responsibility are only two thin slices of moral philosophy. Character and virtue belong in the moral realm, and I want to bring them to discussions about addiction and recovery. Obviously I need to tread carefully with this claim, since it is subject to all kinds of misinterpretation. But the philosopher Aristotle offers some insights that might be particularly useful for people who are on their ways to developing addictions.

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Writing around 350 BCE, Aristotle undertook an examination of moral virtues, investigating how one becomes virtuous and comes to have a good moral character. No one, Aristotle claimed, is born naturally morally virtuous. No person is born naturally morally vicious. Aristotle defines virtue as the mean between the extremes of excess and deficiency. For example, bravery is the virtue between the extremes of cowardice and rashness. Generosity is the mean between complete tight-fistedness and wanton wastefulness. One learns to identify the responses that are appropriate to the situation through the use of his reason so that he is able to direct his emotional responses and actions in the right direction.

Through cultivating moral virtues and practicing them, one develops his good moral character. A person becomes who he is by what does repeatedly and habitually. He develops a second nature; he more immediately responds with bravery, generosity, compassion, and loyalty. As a virtuous person, he is someone for whom the greatest happiness is possible.

The contrary holds as well. Someone who repeatedly and habitually engages in bad acts runs the risk of becoming a bad person. In some cases, Aristotle wonders whether someone’s character can become so vicious or depraved that he reaches a point where rehabilitation of his character is not possible.

What I find useful in Aristotle when working with young people who may be struggling with their alcohol or drug use is this relationship between our acts and our character. It is always interesting exercise to ask students what/how they want to be and which virtues they want to embody. Since the language of virtues is so alien in much of our culture, I need to produce a robust list. Thankfully I can do so, drawing from Aristotle and the great Scottish philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776). Armed with their list of virtues, student often respond:

  • I want to be a good student (virtues: diligence, enterprise, and preparation).
  • I want to be a good friend (virtues: loyalty, trustworthiness, and reliability).

Then we launch into lively discussions about the concrete ways their choices and behaviors make it much harder to achieve the mean and instead much easier to incline toward either deficiency or excess.

We also talk about the ways that our character is made up of all sorts of habits and practices. One set need not define us. These sets of habits and practices are woven together like the fibers of a rope. But when part of a rope frays because of some of our habits, the integrity of the whole rope is at risk. It doesn’t matter that most of the rope is fine; what matters is the part that is not.

I wish I could say that realization is sufficient to effect an immediate change in all my students, but it isn’t. The study of philosophy often yields delayed dividends. I hope this is the case here too.

Peg O'Connor, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.

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