Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken

Insights on Addiction and Philosophy

Moral Home Renovation

The good and bad are all part of the process

In my post, "What You Do Becomes Who You Are," I claim that there are important reasons to bring richer and more robust moral language to discussions of addiction and recovery. I would like to demonstrate the usefulness of such language in the context of people engaging in a rigorous examination of their moral actions and character. Regardless of the path one chooses to make or take in recovery, it is vital that people be able to make an honest assessment of how they show up in the world and who they are.

The Twelve Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous very explicitly suggests (since there are no requirements) that each person engage in an exhaustive and honest moral assessment. Step four is to "Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves," while step five has us admit to "God, ourselves, and another person the exact nature of our wrongs." These steps often strike terror into the hearts of newly recovering alcoholics and addicts. The assumption of many people is that step four requires listing all my moral failings and step five is something of a confession of those failings. By admitting our failings in this way, we take them out of the dark and give them a good airing out. Exposed to light and air, these wrongs lose some of their power over us. Failings, secrets, and shame can all be debilitating and can break people. Once they lose their power over us, we may be freer to make different choices and try to become different people.

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But how do we even begin to imagine what kind of person we would like to become? How do we even begin to get to know ourselves as we presently are? This where step four is crucial. A searching and fearless moral inventory must be just that. Our shortcomings, failures, and transgressions are not the entirety of our inventory. They may seem the weightiest but no person's moral inventory is simply failings and shortcomings. I understand that Step four doesn't just look backwards at all the wrongs I have done and harms I have caused. It is also looks at the present; what sort of good character traits, virtues, moral commitments and concerns do I have? It might also look to the future; what sort of traits and commitments do I have that I can build on and what traits do I want to cultivate?

As strange as it may sound, I think it may be easier for some of us to be able to focus on our failures and defects. Many addicts tend to reserve the harshest judgments for ourselves. Admittedly, the harshness of these judgments may be well deserved. We tend to think these failings are proof of our bad moral character and in the past they served as reasons for drinking or using. These failings are familiar to us, and familiarity provides a kind of comfort and a ready excuse not to do the hard moral work of improving one's character.

The sort of moral examination that I think is crucial to recovery is akin to a massive home remodeling project. This occurred to me when I was teaching the philosopher Descartes, who was utterly vexed in the mid-1600s by the ways systems of knowledge failed to have an unshakeable foundation. In the hopes of locating such a foundation that would escape all doubt, Descartes in Discourse on Method (1637) undertakes a rigorous and by his estimation, exhaustive inventory of all his beliefs about everything. He regards himself as a one man demolition crew of his own system of knowledge. He wrote, "Now just as it is not enough, before beginning to rebuild the house where one lives, to pull it down, to make provisions for materials and architects, or to take a try at architecture for oneself, and also to have carefully worked out the floor plan; one must provide for something else in addition, namely where one can be conveniently sheltered while working on the other building."

Step four is an assessment of the entire house; what parts present serious structural challenges or dangers even? What parts can be saved? If one does not make a complete assessment and instead just focuses on the negative, one may well demolish the good features along with the less desirable because those will not be recognized. Sledgehammers are not the most precise tools.

Step five is the demolition work done in a prudent and careful way; knock down load bearing walls that are no longer up to the task. Remove rotted sills. Do all of this keeping an eye on step four. Demolition is a means to an end of home improvement; it doesn't leave one with nothing. Rather, it leaves the salvageable/good materials available for use in rebuilding.

Descartes provides a crucial reminder that we need to live somewhere during the renovation process. A thorough and searching moral inventory that recognizes positive features provides us with some shelter that enables us to do the hard work of rebuilding our moral selves.

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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