Addictions and moral culpability


I'm moving this dispute out of the comment box because it's not germane to the original topic. In my post on the aggressively eccentric Martin Sheen, I said "the 'root cause' of most poverty is bad morals: infidelity leading to divorce, illegitimacy, drug and alcohol addictions, etc."

Gordon Zaft strongly disagreed with my characterization of addictions, calling me a "fool." (Join the club! "Gordon Zaft" might be a pseudonym for one of my former teachers, or perhaps an ex-girlfriend.) Gordon elaborates in a subsequent comment:

Drug and alcohol addictions are most certainly NOT merely "bad morals" and it is, pardon me for saying so, unChristian to suggest that it is. It also does not square with a great deal of real research which shows real causes for addictive personalities. To deny them is, in fact, foolish.

If by "real" you mean that certain people are genetically predisposed to addictions, then you're right. The idea that certain weaknesses can be passed along to children is an insight that predates modern medicine by more than 2,000 years. Further, it wouldn't surprise me if the same studies confirmed that the level of predisposition varies from individual to individual.

The Catechism leaves no room for doubt that abusing drugs or alcohol is intrinsically sinful:

2290 The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine....

2291 The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense....

[see quotation in context]

So there is a physical, genetic component to addictions, and a moral component. In some individuals, the physical component can be overwhelming, and the moral component minimal. In others, the opposite can be true. As addictions progress, the addict's will tends to become weaker and weaker, until the choice to take another drink or reach for the syringe is barely a choice at all.

I'm not a moral theologian. I don't even play one on the Web. But I can't really see how "bad morals" is an incorrect way to describe drug and alcohol abuse. I am not saying that addiction is exclusively a moral matter in every case, but unless someone is clinically insane and not responsible for his actions, then the addict must confront his own sinfulness and repent. It doesn't do him any good to explain away the addiction as merely genetic.

Gordon, maybe you could elaborate a little more about your objection. Perhaps I'm not understanding your point. Anyone else who wants to throw in their two cents (or if you're from Canada, two pesetas), please do so.


My objection is that morals has absolutely nothing to do with addiction itself. Addiction is a medical condition that is predisposed for in certain individuals, and is morally neutral.

What is NOT morally neutral, and is in fact sinful, is drug or alcohol use by a person who knows himself to be an addict, or to have an addictive personality. Indeed, the CCC reference doesn't refer to addictions at all, but instead to 'abuse'. Of course, I have no quarrel with the CCC so long as one reads what it actually says.

To put it another way, addiction in and of itself is not sinful, just as SSA is not in and of itself sinful. There is no choice involved whatsoever, and therefore no sin. What IS sinful (with varying degrees of culpability) is acting out that addiction. But to simply say that it is "bad morals" is a dismissive way of dealing with people who are often struggling with a horrible, terrifying condition. Having known a few addicts (alcohol and drugs) myself, I can tell you that an atttitude that characterizes them as having bad morals is cruel and, yes, unChristian. I trust that you meant to state your point more finely and don't really intend to say that addiction is "bad morals", but that abuse is "bad morals".

To put it another way, reading the CCC in context would certainly say that gluttony is a sin. By your way of thinking you would claim that obesity is simply "bad morals." It's much more complex than that and you do a disservice to others when you try to reduce it to a simple formula.

I'll duplicate this on my blog.

Gordon, Merriam-Webster defines addiction as

1 : the quality or state of being addicted
2 : compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly : persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful

You are using addiction in the first sense, I am using it in the second, which clearly includes behavior and disposition. I'm not sure that insisting on one usage of a word is helpful.

I can appreciate that you know people who are addicted to various things (who doesn't?), and that you want to defend them. I don't see how they're helped by making excuses for their addiction (definition #2). From what little I know, the most successful treatment programs insist on the individual taking responsibility for his own actions and fighting the addiction with his entire being. Pity is a poor medicine for the soul.

As an alcoholic nearing 10 years of sobriety, here's an addict's perspective.

I come from a line of alcoholics (probably a long one--my ancestors were likely "transported" to the new world for drunkenness). I was a daily witness to the alcoholism in the family. Following my father's death on the way home from a bar, I swore I'd never be like him. Whatever. I did become just like him.

And the choice to take the first drink, or not, was always mine, and the choice was a moral one. The choice to seek or to delay seeking assistance was also mine, and it was a moral one. Every time.

"Alcoholism is a disease." From a medical perspective, that's semantics. From a treatment perspective, it MAY be helpful to call it that, but solely to deflect the newly sober from their guilt so that they can concentrate on more helpful work. Recovery, however, depends on that guilt being acknowledged and the harm faced. The moral perspective will not be denied.

Stand your ground, Eric.

What? Who?

On life and living in communion with the Catholic Church.

Richard Chonak

John Schultz

You write, we post
unless you state otherwise.


About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Eric Johnson published on September 24, 2003 12:01 AM.

Imitation Catholics was the previous entry in this blog.

Dean out of his bean is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.