Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice

Written by Kent Dunnington Reviewed By Paul Warhurst

Dunnington's monograph on addiction charts a course between the two dominant models of addiction-disease and choice. Initially, he analyzes and critiques both approaches and demonstrates how neither achieves an understanding of the problem without remainder. Biological and genetic accounts fail to explain how some regain will power without medical treatment; voluntarism “makes intelligible the possibility of recovery only by denying the category of addiction” (pp. 34-35). Alternatively, Dunnington proposes the category of “habit” as “an intelligible path between the muddled polarities of 'disease' and 'choice'” (p. 10). Chapter two explores Aristotle's teaching on incontinent actions, those which are “performed whenever a person rationally approves of what is good, desires what is bad, and following appetite, does what is bad” (p. 37). While physical and psychological craving explain aspects of addictive behavior, they cannot clarify why someone pursues addiction when craving is absent (p. 55). Prolonged “bad” habits or lack of “good” habits become “second nature” in an individual and generate a rational mode of existence where knowledge informs our desires and desires inform our knowledge (p. 52).

Chapter three maintains that, on its own, will power is not enough to explain or enable humans “to tend toward one among a variety of potential actions” (p. 58). Aquinas's work on habit as “rational appetite” accounts for the consistent actions of the will in a certain direction, even in spite of opposition, whether internal or external in origin (p. 61). In the realm of addiction, this insight mediates between common polarities: instinct-disposition; determinism-voluntarism; involuntary-voluntary (p. 63). While habit resembles each feature, it walks between them: “addiction is a rationally informed habit” (p. 73). The inner workings of habit on a person's imagination, evaluative skills, and memory show that habits are complex and thus not easily conquered through the intellect and will alone.

Chapter four considers the difference between intemperance and addiction. Instead of mere pursuit of sensory pleasure, addiction aims beyond the sensate “toward the attainment of particular moral and intellectual goods” (p. 84). Addiction, as habit, is the counterpoint of virtue; as a vice, it targets and mimics the good life, which is legitimately advanced only in and through virtue (p. 96). Chapter five elucidates how today's society exacerbates the problem of addiction. Modern people have lost the telos of virtue and the telos of participation in the transcendent (p. 103). There is no overwhelming consensus and no “shared context for envisioning the good life for human persons” (p. 101). Consequently, addiction is a way of organizing the pursuit of happiness through an otherwise arbitrary, lonely, and boring modern existence (p. 105).

Chapter six argues that while sin and addiction are not identical, the removal of sin from the theory of recovery has devastating repercussions. Dunnington champions Augustine's view of sin as the bondage of the human will and demonstrates how sin as an act, as a habit, and as a pre-disposition, mirrors the testimonies of addicts, especially with regard to the paradox that “addictive behavior is at one and the same time voluntary and yet beyond the immediate control of a supposedly autonomous will” (pp. 132-33). The category of sin elevates the status of addiction to loss of “our perfect good of eternal friendship with God” (p. 140). It also establishes redemption as the alternative to addiction, not the cold comfort of a return to the status quo of the American dream (p. 139). Chapter seven recapitulates the earlier chapters to conclude that addiction is “a counterfeit form of worship” (p. 141). Returning to Aquinas, Dunnington compares and contrasts charity and addiction, presenting them as two alternatives to integrating the good life and contemplation of the divine (p. 144). Both love for God and addiction enable an individual to “assess and evaluate every possible course of action in terms of one definite end that eclipses every other contender for absolute allegiance” (p. 151). Finally, Dunnington enumerates positive and successful aspects Alcoholics Anonymous as a way of calling God's people to more closely identify with the power and prevalence of addiction; pointedly, “the challenge addiction presents to the church is whether or not it can embody the purposive, ecstatic and all-consuming love of God in a way that is more compelling than the life of addiction” (pp. 193-94).

Dunnington's philosophical and theological contribution is a nuanced challenge to the models of disease and choice. His multi-layered explanation on the perplexing issue of an individual continuing in a pattern of destructive living, even though they know better, resonates with the NT's presentation of habitual sin. His care to present the addicted person as imago Dei and as someone in search of meaning helps to curb the stereotype “morally reprehensible” and reveals a latent self-righteousness in individuals and communities of Christianity. Still, the particularities of the telos Dunnington presumes for the addict may not always fit the situation; moreover, one must be careful when ascribing “meaning making” to sinful behavior that cannot be granted any positivity or legitimacy in our lives. Dunnington does not view the work as a recovery manual per se; nevertheless, there is plenty here for pastors and counselors working with addicted individuals. While the interaction with Aristotle and Aquinas may cause trouble for some readers, the presentation of these giants is lucid and the research could serve a wider audience. Addiction and Virtue sets the stage for a new scene in the church, where she is no longer dulled and distracted by a secular vision of happiness, but is a vibrant, attractive, and welcoming community of “repentant sinners.”

Paul Warhurst

Paul Warhurst
King College
Bristol, Tennessee, USA

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