Friday, August 03, 2012

Virtue in (the) Twelve Steps

Here's a draft of something I've been working on: "The Virtues of the Twelve Steps." Around the time I was working on the relation between integrity and certain kinds of inner conflict and struggle (resulting in "Integrity and Struggle"), I saw a call for essays on "Twelve Step Spirituality" and was intrigued by the idea of writing about the Twelve Steps. I'm not entirely sure why. (I've been to one AA meeting in my life, having gone with a friend who was "forced" to, as it were. At the time--I had a very different attitude about a lot of things--I thought it was all unimpressive. But then I didn't know much about much at that point in my life.) But it seemed connected to some things I'd been writing about. So I did some research, saw what seemed like a fairly obvious way of reading the Twelve Steps as a virtue ethic, with some virtues that I've been thinking about at its center--and so as something more than a program for addiction recovery--and had at it.

I'm looking forward to reading the other essays in the volume; I'm an outsider looking in and trying to make connections (and I hope that because of that I haven't made myself into a hack). Some of the other contributors (from what I can tell from their bios and abstracts) have more personal experiences and stories to tie in with their philosophy. At any rate, I thought I could say something fruitful here (and based on a proposal I submitted the editors seemed to think so, too), so I gave it a shot. And the project as a whole strikes me as a good one because it takes up something that matters to real people, even if some snooty types "purists" will wonder whether such undertakings count as "real" philosophy. (Blah.)

If you have suggestions or criticisms, please share. I hope this is a more or less final draft, but I may still need to make some changes, and possibly shorten it just a bit. And I hope you find it a worthwhile read, maybe even worthwhile philosophy. (!)


  1. I have three questions. I don’t think answering them is essential to the argument in your paper. I am just curious what you would say.

    One thing, I guess, that can make the issue seem not real philosophy is that the Twelve Steps are--or seem to be--a kind of prescription. And if you are right to connect that matter to Aristotelian virtue ethics, it seems wrongheaded to suggest that we can give a prescription for eudaimonia, a set of rules one can just follow blindly. I am pretty sure you would say that the Twelve Steps are not like that. Am I right? And if so, can they be mistaken for such a prescription?

    Second, towards the end, you are making a distinction between living well, and the preconditions of living well. And you ask whether the Twelve Steps are only helpful for the second, but not the first. This is reminiscent of the distinction between equality and equality of opportunity. There is also a distinction that I like to make sometimes between two kinds of projects: flying and floating. On the one hand there are those who aim to become more than they are, to be super-humans, to achieve greatness, to come close to God. On the other hand, there are those whose only wish is to be able to stay above water and not drown: to be able to think straight, to feel something, to be assured that their existence is not threatened, and so on. These distinctions are probably not all the same, but they are similar. Anyway, ignoring the differences for the moment, your discussion made me want to question the depth of such distinctions—at least it made me what to question whether these are logical distinctions. For at some point it seemed to me that you were suggesting that there is no formal, logical, difference between the kinds of projects you mentioned. But I’m not sure this is really what you think. So I wanted to ask you about that.

    In the same connection, you connect Thomson’s idea of minimal decency with the second kind of project--the keeping one’s head above water level project, the project of guaranteeing the preconditions for a decent life. I see an associations between Thomson’s minimal decency to this project, when it is formulated in this abstract way. But I’m having a hard time seeing the connection between Thomson’s minimal decency and the alcoholic. What she aims at and what the alcoholic aims at are both minimal, but they don’t seem to me to be minimal in the same sense. So I wanted to ask you about that too. For if they are not minimal in the same sense, then it seems that the Twelve Steps may still only guarantee some minimal conditions (this time in a sense that is nothing like Thomson’s minimal decency) but not be able to guarantee a good life.

  2. I like that distinction between "floating and flying." In a way, your three questions strike me as related. On 1 (and maybe 3): Part of what struck me about the Steps as I read about and reflected on them is that while they are in one sense progressive steps (there's no going to step two unless step one has occurred), there's also a sense in which there's something dialectical going on--particularly to do with the "personal inventory" business and the idea of applying the steps in all one's affairs. This suggests a different sense in which the steps are not something one eventually ascends for a last time (and one then, as it were, throws the ladder away).

    I should think more about question 2 and floating vs. flying. AA people talk about taking sobriety one day at a time, which can sound like a staying afloat sort of idea. But part of this also seems to be not taking sobriety (or the idea that one is recovered or better, etc.) for granted because this can lead to rationalizing behavior (or inattentiveness) which can then lead to relapses. I think my initial response to your question would be that we can be engaged in more than one sort of project at a time. But I guess I can see a bit of a puzzle here if one project seems to be a "staying afloat" sort of project, while another is a "flying" sort of project. But then maybe I see why you are wondering about this distinction. A person might be doing things that involve flying high, while at the same time having to also make sure that he or she is "staying afloat"--that is, staying sober, or committed to oneself, and so forth, as one soars.

  3. I don't have any suggestions for improvements, but just in case you're really worried about what purists might say I'll say this. Someone once asked: "What is the use of studying philosophy if all it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc, & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life." It seems to me that your essay could be a big help to people thinking about important questions of everyday life (e.g people who could use the Twelve Steps but are put off by the higher power stuff). It also includes good "real philosophy" too, as you surely know.

  4. Thanks (again). I probably should have just omitted that comment about "purists."