Practising Virtue and 12 Step Recovery

virtues 5

By Steve K.


My goal in writing this essay is to demonstrate how practising virtue – defined as a trait or quality of character considered to be morally good or desirable – is essential to the practice of the 12 Step program of recovery originated by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

I am particularly interested in the application of Aristotle’s “Virtue Theory” of moral philosophy, which can be described as a ‘humanistic’ approach towards an ethical life, to AA’s program of recovery which is based upon basic Christian principles.

Virtue ethics as an approach to moral philosophy has its origins in the works of Plato and Aristotle and differs from the other two major approaches to normative ethics, in that its focus is upon the character of the person (“Agent Centred”), rather than any particularly act in deciding ethical behaviour (“Act Centred”). The other two approaches are Kant’s “deontological ethics” or “duty ethics”, which advocates adherence to ethical principles, and “consequentialist ethics”, which suggests considering the outcome of actions in deciding moral behaviour and is associated with the 19th century philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

Simply put, “virtue ethics” suggests that practising virtues such as courage, temperance, wisdom and justice – the so called “cardinal virtues” – leads one to live a good, moral or “flourishing” (happy, serene, wellbeing, a life well lived) life. By practising virtue one becomes virtuous. The way one “is” or one’s “being” is what’s important, not necessarily what one does.

Aristotle’s understanding of virtue was the mean between two extremes of a character trait, e.g. courage as a point between cowardice and foolhardy, or humility as between prideful and low self-esteem (being right sized). This is sometimes referred to as Aristotle’s doctrine of the ‘Golden Mean’.

The 12 Steps

The aim of AA’s 12 Step program of recovery, as originally conceived by co-founder Bill Wilson, is to bring about a spiritual experience or awakening within the alcoholic, sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism. It is based upon Christian principles and is considered to be a spiritual program of recovery by members of AA. The fundamental belief behind the 12 Steps is that the alcoholic cannot recover upon their own resources and needs a “Power Greater” than themselves in order to do so. The practice of the Steps facilitates this “Higher Power” in one’s life and brings about inner change and growth or “psychic change”.

Regardless of whether or not the alcoholic accepts the traditional understanding of God or Higher Power in relation to the Steps (in accordance with the Steps, guidance in the Big Book and the Traditions, members of AA are allowed to conceive their own understanding of the concept of a higher power), virtue is needed in order to practice them and I will attempt to show which virtues are required.

The Steps can be understood from a “humanistic” perspective, i.e through the prism of reason, experience and shared human values, without the necessity of a belief in God. AA is a diverse fellowship built upon liberal as well as spiritual principles, which has from its inception always included members of different world views, including agnostics, atheists and humanists. A “Power Greater” can be understood in terms of the collective power and inspiration of the fellowship and the wisdom, love and spirit of humanity within its members.

The Steps are often referred to in AA as a “Way of life”, (to be practised) and spirituality as a way of “being”, which both accord with “virtue ethics”, which values the way one is, one’s character or way of being and the way one lives overall. I believe that the example of virtue in others, the understanding and practice of it, can bring about ethical/spiritual change and growth within the individual.

Understanding the 12 Step program of AA from this perspective and using the liberal principle of freedom to choose one’s own concept in relation to God or Higher Power, enables a more humanistic or broadly spiritual interpretation of the Steps. I will give an example in relation to Step 3, which suggests “made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” If one’s concept of God is the inner sense of right and wrong, one’s conscience or Good/Love within, one can choose to turn one’s will in this direction, or in other words practice the appropriate moral virtues one is aware of at the time. “Do the next right thing” is often heard around the rooms of AA, which requires the practice of self-discipline or temperance along with any other virtues that may be required as part of that right choice (e.g. could also require the practice of love, humility or acceptance).

I will now attempt to identify the virtues inherent within the 12 Steps of AA. The first Step requires an admission that one lacks control in relation to their drinking and humility, honesty, acceptance of the truth and a surrender of the ego are needed in order to take this Step. Honesty with self and others in relation to one’s lack of control and the humble admission of one’s limitations are needed for Step One. These virtues require ongoing practice in order to maintain sobriety.

Again humility is required for Step 2 and is common to the practice of all 12 Steps. This Step requires an understanding that one is Not-God, is not the centre of the universe, doesn’t know everything and can’t control all things. Pride and the arrogant ego are the enemy of humility and therefore Step 2.

Being humble is having an accurate view of oneself as a limited, imperfect human being and also being honest in the portrayal of oneself to others – without pretence. Humility acknowledges the need for others and reaches out towards them, whereas Pride/ego denies this need and results in an inner emptiness, it cuts one off from others due to its sense of being better than in comparison and therefore lacks identification and compassion for others.

Low self-worth is the opposite extreme to pride and also prevents humility, as it cuts one off from a healthy connection with others as one feels less than in comparison. It also prevents identification and creates feelings of rejection, anger and bitterness towards others.

The humility required for Step 2 allows for an open-minded attitude, as one doesn’t assume all knowledge and power, as opposed to the dogmatic ego which is closed minded as it already knows the “truth”. Humility allows for the willingness to believe in something greater than the self.

In addition to humility and willingness Step 3 requires the ongoing practice of faith and self-discipline. Faith in deciding to turn one’s will and life over to a ‘power greater’ and the self-discipline to practice what one believes is a “higher power’s” will. In my case, turning my will and life in the direction of the “Good within” or my conscience as inspired by the principles and practices of the Steps, the inherent moral virtues they contain and the collective wisdom within the fellowship of AA.

Humility, honesty, courage, willingness, compassion, forgiveness and empathy are required for the genuine practice of Steps 4 & 5. It takes humility and courage to look at oneself honestly and to admit one’s faults and failings. The ego and its “defences” always get in the way of this practice in the form of pride, arrogance, resentment, denial, rationalisation and justification. Therefore the willingness to step outside of oneself, to transcend self-centredness and be objective, is paradoxically needed to take one’s own inventory effectively.

One also requires the capacity of compassion, forgiveness and empathy in order to admit one’s faults/failings and their impact (harm) upon others. Compassion and forgiveness towards one’s own faults and failings as an imperfect human being and both empathy and compassion in relation to how one’s faults and failings affect others.

Hopefully the awareness of one’s character defects gained from carrying out Steps 4 & 5 and their effect upon oneself and others, creates the acceptance and willingness required in Step 6, acceptance of the need to change and the ongoing willingness to let go of character defects, with the help of a Power Greater than oneself.

Humility and faith are the key virtues of Step 7. The humility to understand the need for change, to rely on help from something greater than oneself and to attempt to transcend oneself and reach out towards moral/spiritual growth. Active participation is essential for me in relation to Step Seven, e.g. prayer, meditation, service, work with a sponsor and actively practising the rest of the Steps and therefore virtuous living.

I have faith that practising all of the above recovery actions can help remove my shortcomings and develop inner virtue. In relation to prayer and the removal of shortcomings, what about those who do not believe in a personal God? Can they pray for the removal of shortcomings? It’s up to the individual but for me the answer is yes. I pray in order to connect inwardly with the moral/spiritual values I aspire to live by, to affirm my conscience or higher self. The following description of Buddhist prayer in the book “Experiencing Spirituality”, p.228, by Ernest Kurtz & Katherine Ketcham, Penguin Group, 2014, expresses well to a large degree my interpretation of non-theistic prayer and how it can relate to Step 7.

Buddhist prayer is a practice to awaken our inherent inner capacities of strength, compassion and wisdom rather than to petition external forces based on fear, idolizing, and worldly and/or heavenly gain. Buddhist prayer is a form of meditation; it is a practice of inner reconditioning. Buddhist prayer replaces the negative with the virtuous and points us to the blessings of life.

For Buddhists, prayer expresses an aspiration to pull something into one’s life, like some new energy or purifying influence and share it with all beings. Likewise, prayer inspires our hearts towards wisdom and compassion for others and ourselves. It allows us to turn our hearts and minds to the beneficial, rousing our thoughts and actions towards Awakening. If we believe in something enough, it will take hold of us. In other words, believing in it, we will become what we believe.

Again humility, honesty and courage are required for Steps 8 & 9 and a rising above pride and any resentment held towards others, who may also have done harm to the alcoholic or addict. Forgiveness is the antidote to resentment and so often needs to be practised for these Steps. Empathy and compassion for others’ difficulties and character defects allows for forgiveness. Also a sense of justice is needed for making amends.

The willingness and perseverance needed for one’s own moral and spiritual growth are essential for Step 10, as are all the other virtues identified in Steps 4-9, as Step 10 is the ongoing practice of all these Steps on a daily basis.

The necessity for ongoing effort in relation to moral and spiritual development, as part of 12 Step recovery, is summarised well in the following passage from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.

AA is not a plan for recovery that can be finished and done with. It is a way of life, and the challenge contained in its principles is great enough to keep any human being striving for as long as he lives. We do not, cannot, out-grow this plan. As arrested alcoholics, we must have a program for living that allows for limitless expansion. Keeping one foot in front of the other is essential for maintaining our arrestment. Others may idle in a retrogressive groove without too much danger, but retrogression can spell death for us. However, this isn’t as rough as it sounds, as we do become grateful for the necessity that makes us toe the line, for we find that we are more than compensated for a consistent effort by the countless dividends we receive. (Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd edition, “The Keys of The Kingdom,” p. 311)

Step 11, develops one’s spirituality and requires humility, willingness and a degree of faith. For me it plays a big part in developing moral virtue and awakening me to the “good within”. It helps me reflect upon my relationship to others, the mystery that is life and the universe we are part of, which is greater than me!

As the result of practising the previous Steps and the inherent moral virtues they contain, one should have awakened sufficiently enough morally and spiritually, to be willing to be of service to other alcoholics and people in general. One will have become more outward looking and less self-centred – in other words, a more virtuous person who is willing to carry this message to other alcoholics and practice the aforementioned virtues and principles in all their affairs. This is Step 12, and in addition to the previously mentioned virtues it includes the practice of altruism or unconditional love, which is the giving of oneself without expectation of reward. This is a high ideal and the main characteristic of 12 Step recovery, and not easy to live up to!

In summary the idea within 12 Step fellowships of a good, contented recovery, or being spiritually well as the result of practising the Steps, is similar to Aristotle’s idea of “human flourishing” – a state of wellbeing, happiness and emotional balance, which is the result of living a good or virtuous life.

This essay is part of a larger endeavour called The 12 Step Philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous: An Interpretation By Steve K. It is available (for free!) on Steve’s website 12-Step Philosophy.

40 Responses

  1. John R. says:

    Thanx for the post. I appreciated the exercise in intellect, which I find somewhat lacking in most AA groups. One point might be worth mentioning: if “moral” means “a system of beliefs that govern behavior” then it seems most of us do have some sort of morality, whether we are conscious of it or not. I leave room for the possibility that some hyper-conscious Buddha might come along who is free from all judgements, beliefs, or concepts, but haven’t seen it yet.
    I use the steps as a method of examining just the aforementioned list or “old ideas” (especially the good ones I got “yesterday”). In addition, I have found that dealing with the angst, emotional baggage, and such through the 10th and 11th steps leaves me with a certain serenity and comfort and, it seems to me, this makes the need to seek a solution in booze, drugs, sex, etc. less likely. ymmv.
    BTW, there is some evidence to support the idea that meditation and “positive thinking” does impact other diseases in positive ways. And current research on the neuroplasticity of the brain also tends to support the veracity of meditation and physical activities for the re-organization of the brain a worthy endeavor, whether for the sake of virtue or simply a well-lived life. Of course, I could be completely wrong, it’s happened before…

    • Michael says:

      This is not meant as a rebuttal to you John. I just can’t figure out how to start my own thread.

      I believe in AA, the common cause, the common understanding and support it provides but I stop short at the revered 12 steps. I am fascinated by the lengths that well meaning atheists will go to shoehorn those religious steps into edible secular bits, ever further dissecting the principals at work. How’s this for a different slant. Who says we have to become more virtuous or gooder to stay sober. Show me the proof that I need to become more spiritual, what ever that means, to stay sober. I don’t think you will find any evidence of this premise. It’s just assumed that the steps work and atheists must squeeze the God stuff out to make it palatable and comfortable to stay in the rooms. I too ran out of the rooms many times because of the steps and the God stuff. My solution today is not to sit in never ending self examination and reflection, but to just accept myself warts and all. I am human, I am built the way I am for a reason, I react the way I do for a reason. This is me, like it or not. My personality was 80% set by the age of 5. I am not going to change appreciably in my lifetime. Why not just accept it instead of focusing on my flaws and trying to change them. How about focusing on my strengths and trying to live more in them. I actually get far more positive results this way and life is a heck of a lot more fun. I refuse to carry the flawed, character defected thesis that AA assigns to us alcoholics as embodied in the 12 steps. And when I relieve myself of these 12 steps shackles and live in my strengths,something remarkable happens, those negatives seem to slowly fade away all by themselves.

      • Steve K says:

        I don’t think all alcoholics have to practise the Steps or develop virtue in order to stay sober, just this one! There are different types of alcoholic or different reasons/factors in the manifestation of the condition. My personality needs help or a framework to help me live well or recover and the fellowship has helped me to stay sober by support, being part of and identification. Also alcoholic or not the quote by Socrates applies to all, “the unexamined life is not worth living by a human being.” If human beings didn’t exert themselves in relation to virtue there would be even more suffering in the world than there already is. I don’t get some peoples’ hostility on this site to others desire to practise their own understanding of the steps, I don’t have to I want to! You’re free not to, “live and let live.”

      • John R. says:

        Who says we have to become more virtuous or gooder to stay sober.

        My solution today is not to sit in never ending self examination and reflection, but to just accept myself warts and all. I am human, I am built the way I am for a reason, I react the way I do for a reason. This is me, like it or not. My personality was 80% set by the age of 5. I am not going to change appreciably in my lifetime. Why not just accept it instead of focusing on my flaws and trying to change them.

        Michael, thanx for the point of view. In response, I would like to mention that I don’t think I said anything about “becoming gooder or virtuous,” though others certainly do.
        Really, for me, it’s about growing into a deeper understanding of those ways in which I have acted out of ignorance and self-interest that are not useful or result in that which I feel is in keeping with my deeper desires. Nor do I focus only on this. There seems to be a misunderstanding about self-reflection that it means only examining those things I do or think that are unskillful.
        While Socrates may have said (actually Plato wrote it quoting Socrates) “The unexamined life is not worth living,” I believe it was GB Shaw who said, “the un-lived life is not worth examining!”
        Of course, I’m not an atheist, more of a non-theist, so perhaps this will preclude our reaching a point of connection. For me, “spirituality” simply means a focus on the inner-life to better live within the values that I have come to based on not only introspection, but also meditation, study, and my interactions with “other.” Infinite naval gazing is more like what I did in the bars!
        Finally, I would suggest that there is ample evidence that we are not simply a “tabula rosa” and must resign ourselves to our personality at age 5. Current brain research alone shows that we are an ever-changing complex system capable of significant change, albeit not without effort. Certainly we are all human, and subject to all that that means. However, that also means that we can change. In point of fact, I find that acceptance of “me” and those “defects” is the most reliable way to release myself from being stuck in them! Trying to force change is an exercise in futility, in my experience.
        To me, the “self” is really a culturally and familial construction which is not set in stone. I have found that my efforts in meditation and introspection have resulted in real changes from the reactive, unskillful, and touchy “personality” with which I grew up. My own attachments to views, anger, and delusional thinking have yielded to a combination of compassion for my humanness, surrender, acceptance, and honest reflection over the years with the help, influence and love of others (the fellowship, for instance) and the underlying principles of the steps (regardless of the fact that I don’t ascribe to the theology of their origins).
        Of course, over the years my understanding of the process has changed significantly, and I have no reason to suppose that might not also change in the future! Stay tuned, it’s only been 65 years of life and 33 years of sobriety for me. Still, I don’t know that any of this is directly preventing me from getting drunk; but I do suspect that if I don’t continue to be honest with myself and seek that which is important to me from the heart, it probably would lead to seeking out solutions to hide from my own self-deception and eventually that would lead to either drinking, other drugs, or suicide of some other type. My own pre-sobriety life experience provides me with a lot of evidence for that.
        Still, this is only my own path and what works for me – ymmv. Thanx for the response, it gave me an opportunity to write through some of these ideas.

  2. Holley S. says:

    I can appreciate an intellectual discussion but when you’re fifteen days sober, like I am, this article is helpful. Call me simple-minded, I don’t care. I have “gone out” at least 50 times over the past twelve years as I have tried to stay sober both on my own and with AA. The AA literature and dogma has surely been a stumbling block in trying to work the program but as much as I revel in self-reliance and isolation, I need the fellowship.

    I am working very hard right now at developing different ideas/ideals to make the AA literature applicable to my beliefs (or lack of) so that I can apply it to my life. And as you all know, that is a very tricky business. I can’t afford to be out and angry at AA as my alcoholism chips away at my life.

    I wish AA was different but this is what I choose to work with as I try to stay sober. I appreciate any article that can help me digest the word ‘god’ in a new way.

    Thank you all for the work you do in getting us WAFTs out of the AA closet.

    • Steve K says:

      I’ve been in a similar position Holley and the way forward for me was to develop a real connection with the Steps using the liberal principles of AA, so that they are really meaningful and I can apply them in my life. I don’t have to compromise my beliefs, I don’t believe in God as suggested in the BB, but I don’t have to fight AA either or try to change it I just accept it as it is and relate to it in my own way happily. This attitude has allowed me to have the best relationship with the Steps and fellowship than I’ve ever had over the past few years. “When I’m unhappy it’s because I find some person, place or thing unacceptable to me…” I stopped fighting AA and accepted it as it is faults and all, while still being true to myself. It can be done if you want to do it and who am I to change AA? Hope this helps, it’s meant to and I sincerely wish you a happy sober life.

    • Brent P. says:

      As a prominent recidivist in AA I get to talk to a lot of folks struggling with relapse. My first question to them is always, “what’s pissing you off so much that killing yourself with booze is better than genuinely relaxing in a community that is designed and built especially for you?” With all due respect to the author of this piece, the metaphysical complications of Aristotelean Ontology need never interfere with you finding contented sobriety in AA or AAAA.
      Our program identifies resentment as the lethal villain. I simplify that to plain old anger which to me includes hatred, resentment, fear, contentiousness and so on. But usually it finally gets expressed as anger because if you’re drinking, you, by necessity, have to disavow AA. The brain can’t be genuinely convinced of your alcoholism and need for help while you are out on a relapse. That you have relapsed is proof illogic that AA doesn’t work so, that’s who/what you’re angry at. For me, I had to accept all the people in AA, most of whom I didn’t like, though I didn’t know why. That was “letting go” for me. It was the beginning of some of the virtues that are spoken of here, being able to work on me and eventually for me.
      When I last relapsed, some years ago now, I came back to AA giving myself permission to express my feelings, any and all my feelings including anger and hatred. The only restraints I put on myself were, I couldn’t “be” angry or hateful when I did speak to those issues and I could never be deliberately provocative or personal with my comments. That allowed me to let off the steam that decades of relapsing had built up in me and, to my surprise, I found myself accepted rather than tolerated at most meetings which allowed me enough time to be cared for until I could care for myself.

  3. Don S. says:

    Here’s a piece by Maia Szalavitz that gets at the issue of whether “recovery” includes personal betterment:

    [Betty Ford Institute Consensus Panel (BFICP)] argues that “citizenship,” which it defines as “working toward the betterment of one’s community through participation, volunteer work, and efforts to improve life for all citizens” is a critical part of recovery.

    I this is asking too much. While obviously admirable—and clearly essential to many people’s recovery, including my own—I don’t see how we can exclude from recovery people who have functional work and social relationships but don’t see “giving back” to the community at large as part of their lives. We don’t say that heart disease patients need to be volunteers to be in recovery from that condition—nor do we make this claim for depression. There’s no need to make an exception for addiction, particularly since it implies that we need to make up for our past sins—and carries a strong suggestion that 12-step recovery must be the best type because of its recommendation of service as part of the steps. (It’s Time to Reclaim the Word “Recovery”)

  4. Glenna R. says:

    Thanks Steve: it was an interesting post. I like a well-reasoned piece, such as this. I’m a fan of Science, but when I hear people putting Religion and Science at cross purposes, I have to bow out. I feel they are two paradigms for explaining the world/universe and that’s all. Although I tend to choose Science over Religion, I catch myself often as I really prefer a Philosophical or Literary approach to reality. I suspect my old love of a Poetry paradigm would gain a lot in everyone being an individual, cause that’s so AA.

    That said, I’m nor sure that I agree with your assumption of our journey being a moral one. After all, do cancer patients need a moral paradigm to get well? Either we have a disease or we are diseased, take your pick.

    I was concerned with all the negative feedback, but that is AA too. In error, I thought that Atheists / Agnostics / Freethinkers would be more open to a reasonable approach. I guess the people in AA who are anti-intellectual are not just the Religious. Thanks again, Glenna.

    • Steve K says:

      Thanks for your comments Glenna. In relation to your reservations about recovery being a moral issue my view is based upon my experience of witnessing the corrupting nature of the illness upon the alcoholic morally. Alcoholism affects one psychologically, emotionally as well as physically and socially. So for me it’s an illness that damages one morally and therefore healing requires moral repair/growth. In response to others’ comments in relation to recovery not requiring moral growth, maybe this is so for some but not for me; I want to grow morally and so it works for me viewing the Steps in this way. In my essay I made the mistake of suggesting this is the case for others and will look into any research on the issue. I’m guilty of making assumptions in this respect. I do, though, struggle psychologically, emotionally and socially, partly due to growing up in an alcoholic home, and find moral inspiration both helpful and healing for me.

      • John says:


        Thanks for your essay and comments. My comment here and below is in no way an attack on you. However, I think that 12-step dogma, whether in the context of AA, Al-Anon, Overeaters Anonymous, etc, is premised on the false assumption that people drink alcoholically, overeat, or are co-dependent because of their moral shortcomings. A newcomer to an AA meeting will experience something that goes like this:

        1. Prayer at the onset of the meeting;

        2. Reading “How It Works” moments later and the nonsense about no human power having utility in the fight against addiction;

        3. More often than not, a “Step” discussion about something that has very little practical application in terms of how to get through the next 24 hrs without inebriation — that is to say, a discussion about moral shortcomings, how to do a 5th Step, having a “spiritual awakening,” making amends, connecting with a “Higher Power,” etc.; and

        4. Close with yet more prayer.

        In sum, very little about the actual disease or managing the disease of addiction is discussed because 12-step dogma has an obsession with Christian morality, prayer, and above all, God. I appreciate that AAs like to ignore that reality and call the program “spiritual.” However, as someone on this website once said: “AA is spiritual, not religious. So shut up, hold hands, and let’s pray to God!” My point is this: I believe that the God-talk and talk about morality/virtue has the net effect of undermining the primary purpose of getting/staying sober. Once sober, my experience is that people naturally become radically more virtuous/moral than they were when using. I don’t believe that Bill Wilson’s reconfiguration of the Oxford Group’s ultra-Christian principles is a condition precedent to moral growth.

        Thanks again for your essay. I hope you continue to share your ideas here!

      • Duncan says:

        Steve K, I am glad you responded to Glenna in this way. To be honest I had you down as very arrogant and to my mind that did show in your previous responses to others.

        I know of none in AA who knows all the answers but to me it is a Fellowship not the 12 Steps, Bill W, the Big Book or the Programme or even an illness. What I like about it is that there are no rules. Yes you can even drink if you want to and there are many who do just that in AA. You probably know some of these yourself.

        I am an atheist and because of that I just don’t do the 12 Steps nor do I follow any other suggestions from alternative 12 Steps. That however does not mean that I don’t follow some of the principles involved. Of course I do because that was how I was told to behave from being a child in order to get on with other humans in or out of AA. When I drank I often broke these rules but so did most others, whether alcoholic or not.

        I once drank and now I don’t, like many other things in my life I no longer do. Why? Because it is better for me or maybe it was time for me to grow up. AA makes that better and not just for the drinking but the company of others.

        I’ve been sober now over 36 years. I live in Manchester so I am sure we have many common friends. Keep smiling Steve and as one person wrote to you – Just lighten up a bit.

  5. MarkInTexas says:


    I enjoyed your essay regarding classic virtue and its possible connection with living a “better life.” I’m sure many will find it not only informative, but somehow useful and helpful.

    Whatever else may be said about the 12 Steps, they are at least an attempt to incorporate “self-examination” as a mental habit. And, “if” self-examination is part of what is going on, then, there is no better place to go regarding that, than back to the Greeks and Romans, and the prevailing philosophical schools of that period.

    It could be said that those schools have forgotten more about self-examination than most modern people have ever dreamed of knowing.

    So, hats off to you for your efforts. Glad you are aboard!

    That said, I do not find using theistic categories, or Steps arising out of them, perhaps especially so when “secularized,” or “liberalized,” to be coherent, or meaningful.

    I’m fairly practically minded. I’ve found Epictetus to be spot on regarding “mental states” that do produce a simple and profound serenity.

    Perhaps Epictetus and other Stoics would say Aristotle “just complicated the hell out of the deal.”

    Smiles, and Best Regards!

  6. life-j says:

    This is in response to Steve K and JHG’s discussion of whether moral virtue is necessary.

    I do tend to agree with Steve that it is central to AA, just like that probably no human power could, and god could and would if he were sought is central to the program.

    I for one don’t go join another program like steve suggests because AA is the only game in town, and because anyway to me the benefit from AA comes to a large degree from its fellowship, rather than from its teachings, even though I concede that the help from its fellowship is beneficial in large measure because it is backed by its teachings.

    This of course said from the place where I find myself today, having lost my innocence yet once more, this time within AA, where my agnosticism has been fought hard.

    Curiously, nonetheless I personally agree that it is important to grow along moral and virtuous lines in AA, that sobriety is not enough for me to improve my life, and that is one thing that makes me like AA over say, Lifering. What I don’t like about that is that it is so hopelessly steeped in christian/theistic dogma. But I do believe that inventory, restitution, and a spiritual practice of some sort are essential, and that, when stripped down to its absolutely basic components, free of religion, is the worthwhile essence of AA that makes it more attractive than the other programs.

    Can the christian/theistic dogma ever be weeded out of AA so that this is all we have left? No, I’m confident it can’t. AA will just have to outlive itself and implode before we can put something sensible in its place, but let’s not forget, this is a christian nation, people want the god to cling to, even if it is detrimental to sensible recovery. Would have been nice, after all if it wasn’t a requirement for membership in AA that you leave your reasoning ability at the door. Ability to reason makes life after sobering up so much better.

    Can I impose my way on anyone else? No, we can’t make each other do anything. Can’t even make a drunk quit drinking. Drinking? Huh? Oh right, this is about not drinking, almost forgot.

  7. John says:

    The author states in his comments to the piece that “People that don’t want to practice moral virtue should join another program of recovery.” He goes on to say in his comments, “As I state in the essay in order to practice the Steps in any way that remotely resembles the way they were originally written one needs to practice virtue.” A sentence later the author states: “My essay is only an interpretation, my perspective, I’m not claiming it’s the “truth…”

    That last comment nails it for me.

    One person’s virtue is often another person’s vice. Alcoholics Anonymous is considered by some folks to be a modern “wisdom tradition” akin to other newer “wisdom traditions,” such as Mormonism or Scientology. It seems to me that all of these “wisdom traditions” are simply hocus pocus masquerading as the One True Way to lead a virtuous life and thereby attain some other benefit – sobriety, salvation, etc. I agree with the comments by Don S. to the effect that “rehabilitating the Steps” (like rehabilitating the Ten Commandments) is counterproductive. Many Mormons believe that wearing temple garments (“magical underwear”) serves to remind them of covenants they made in the temple and protects them from evil. Many AAs believe that turning their lives and will over to the care of God (as they understand “Him” – versus a God that they misunderstand, apparently) is the silver bullet for sobriety.

    For an atheist or agnostic, doing intellectual back-flips and contortions to find meaning and utility in 12-Step dogma seems to me like a (I can’t help myself because of the Greek references in the article) a Sisyphean task. I believe that virtuous behavior is often the result of sobriety but rarely, if ever, the cause of it.

  8. Don S. says:

    Steve K said:

    If you and others so strongly disagree with just about everything in terms of AA philosophy why go?

    This is dangerous talk. There is no AA philosophy. Saying there is is in conflict with our primary purpose of helping the most alcoholics.

    Bill W recognized this and was obsessive about avoiding anything that would put up obstacles to membership. If AA were a program, it would suit some drunks more than others.

    That’s why it’s a very good thing that AA is not a program, it’s a fellowship.

    If you love the Steps, please remember why: because they helped you, or because they help people. So “help” is the real object of your devotion, and anything that helps a drunk should be part of AA. And indeed, it is.

    AA is bigger than the Big Book. It has to be if we are to help the most drunks.

    • Don S. says:

      Let’s suppose that we need to grow spiritually in order to stay sober. Would that comport with our values?

      Imagine your oncologist talking the way the Big Book does. “I’ll cure your cancer if you work on your character.” You’d report him. And you’d be appalled by his meddling. Just give me the chemo and mind your own business.

      This meddling is so pervasive in AA it’s invisible. It’s like water to a fish. Fish don’t know they’re wet. And most AAs think it’s loving for God to help you if you seek him. It’s not.

      If growing in virtue were required for sobriety, I’d work to change it, because that’s no way to hand out lifesaving aid. We give insulin to unrepentant death-row inmates. Why? Because to withhold it would be monstrous. Yet this is what the Big Book claims God does.

      Saying sobriety depends on pleasing God, or growing in virtue, is an entanglement that is bad for God and for AA. It’s also not virtuous.

    • Tommy H says:

      Don, I agree wholeheartedly with your last two posts.

      Wilson wrote in a Grapevine article quoted in As Bill Sees It/The A.A. Way of Life:

      All AA progress can be measured in just two words: humility and responsibility. Our whole spiritual development can be accurately measured by our degree of adherence to these magnificent standards.

      I think virtues, as is true in the case of “serenity,” is a by-product of what we do rather than the motivators of why we do it.

      • Tommy H says:

        “True virtue is life under the direction of reason.”

        —Benedict Spinoza, philosopher, Ethics, 1677

        I saw this on FB just now and wanted to pass it along.

  9. steve b says:

    Where is there any evidence that trying to act better will keep someone sober? It’s an interesting hypothesis, but is it true? I don’t know. Now I suppose that if someone works for self improvement, he may become a little better adjusted, and then may feel better about himself and get along with others better. Perhaps this process will help him stay sober, but again, do we know this is true? I suspect that the main ingredient of getting sober in AA is the feeling we can get of being on a team, all of us striving to help and encourage one another to stay sober. But is this helping and striving virtuous? Probably so, but so what?

  10. John M. says:

    Hi Steve,

    I think you have ably accomplished your task in showing that the 12 Steps need not be tied exclusively to a religious paradigm. I am not sure that some of the comments critical of your post are really saying anything that much much different.

    You use categories like “courage, honesty, willingness, wisdom, humility,” etc — let each person fill in the content. What you say does not necessarily imply a pure, pre-determined ontological essence. Let the fact that we are historical beings with evolving experiences be our ontology, (existence is our essence, says Sartre) and we will each come up with different and distinct stories stamped by similar and common themes like “courage, honesty, willingness, wisdom, humility,” etc.

    But more specifically, I especially liked the fact that you mention our “limitations” but then make sure to mention that “low self-worth” is also a limitation. Too often, AA critics say that talking about limitations or defects of character leaves us hopelessly resigned to them, and we cannot therefore but grovel in humiliation and low self-esteem. Naw…. You point out that we recognize our limitations in order to make use of our power to transcend ourselves. (“Virtue” by the way from the Latin means “power” as Spinoza was quick to point out in his Ethics.)

    Thanks for your contribution in demystifying the Steps.

  11. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks Steve for a heady and weighty post, one that resonates with much of my experience as a “Doubting Atheist” . . . 😉

    I’m reading Sam Harris’s most recent book Waking Up. Sam Harris is among the premier and most respected atheists currently on the speaker circuit, and he succinctly states:

    A rational approach to spirituality seems to be what is missing from secularism and from the lives of most of the people I meet. The purpose of this book is to offer readers a clear view of the problem, along with some tools to help them solve it for themselves.

    I deduce he would welcome your discussion here on AA Agnostica, as well as other posts, which take a rational approach from the history of our species as thinkers, grappling with the mystery of existence, and trying to figure it out without resort to fantasy, or as my new friend Adam N. describes it in his wonderful book Common Sense Recovery, “Spiritual Caulk and The Great Puppeteer in the Sky.”

    I greatly appreciate, Steve, your post and all others here who continue to seek rationally, using the brains and tools of observation to include our feelings of awe that we were born with to explain/understand/derive benefit from the mysteries that surround us.

    • Steve K says:

      Thanks for the positive comments Thomas B, i’ve just read ‘Common Sense Recovery’ great read! I’ll check out Sam Harris’s ‘Waking Up’ sounds interesting.

  12. Lon Mc. says:

    If one has little or no understanding of the useful mechanisms or tools that may lead one to find joyful sober living, then it may be more difficult to aspire to and achieve such growth. I believe this short piece clarifies much of the basics of that valuable understanding.

  13. Holley S. says:

    This is profound. I will be referring to this article as I work through the traditional steps with my sponsor. Thank you.

    • Steve K says:

      Hi Holley, glad you found my essay helpful and my aim in writing it was to aid people access the traditional literature.

  14. JHG says:

    While this is clearly a step in the right direction and will be helpful to many, it doesn’t go far enough for me. I, like many other atheists, have serious reservations about statements that claim, directly or indirectly, that the human self represents some sort of an ontological essence — in other words, that there is some sort of permanent something that we think of as “the true self.” The problem is that it is impossible to separate such a notion with the belief that we have souls. If this essence of who I am isn’t a soul, what is it? How specifically is it different from a soul? Where is it located? What happens to it when I die? If it is not physical, would that not make it metaphysical? If we get rid of God, but hold onto a belief in some sort of metaphysical reality that we can escape into, have we really changed anything?

    I agree that I am indeed what I do, but not because it shapes something inside me that can be identified as an already existing self. What I do merely forms a pattern that points to my habits, my beliefs, my attitudes, my sense of relatedness to everything around me, that about me which people can more or less count on, etc., but all of that is malleable. If I change what defines me, am I no longer me? Who was I before, and who am I now?

    If I haven’t lost you by now, you might be wondering what relevance any of this has, both with regard to the central claims of this article in particular and recovery in general. The thing is that the problem with AA is not just that it is moralistic, nor even that its moral assumptions are too Christian; instead, the deeper problem is that it is based on the implicit assumption that becoming better persons is the core of the solution. For an atheist like me, this is worse than unhelpful. To become free of false self-identifications that keep my enslaved to my addiction does not require a belief in “a true self” who just needs to learn how to play well with others and feel better about himself.

    How is fabricating a “true self” any less enslaved than addiction? Perhaps this fictional true self is identified with a more fruitful way of life, but have I really created an alternative that is robust enough to replace active addiction? Would I not be better off to just go straight to the task of changing my environment, who I spend time with, how I spend my time, that which creates conflict in my life, my beliefs, my priorities, and whatever else contributes to the compulsion to use?

    • life-j says:

      JHG, yes indeed, if you didn’t lose me, then I think I agree with you. That’s why we need to focus on that this program is about one alcoholic helping another.
      Having a program where it is about me and god, and not being happy with it, and then trading it in for a program where it is between me and something even more undefinable than god doesn’t really cut it. And I do think we’re on a troublesome path with all this recent trend of pulling in Plato to help explain things that can probably be explained better without Plato and all the rest of the Greek gang. It’s a bit too much like plain old name dropping.

  15. life-j says:

    I’m entirely with Dr. Bob on this one: Let’s keep it simple…

    • Tommy H says:


      • Don S. says:

        For an atheist like me, this is worse than unhelpful.

        JHG, thanks for saying this. I often feel alone even among atheists because so many of them seem intent on rehabilitating the Steps. Like the Ten Commandments ,they are more trouble than they are worth.

        And what about not drinking? I want to not drink, then do whatever I want with my life. I see no evidence that we have to grow, spiritually or in terms of virtue, to be sober. How virtuous I choose to be is my business.

        I’m uniformly disappointed by pieces that try to interpret the steps, or modernize or secularize them. I want to get away from the moralistic baggage in the steps. If the steps help you, whether they help you stay sober or not, then of course you should do them. But let’s not claim anything further for them without evidence.

        If you can show that growing in virtue has something to do with staying sober long-term, please post it. But the evidence I see refutes it. Here’s why: If it were true, then the people I meet in AA would be, on average, better people (more intelligent, better earning power, as the BB says) than in the world at large. The members of AA I know, including myself, don’t fit that description. We’re just people who also happen to have alcoholism.

        This self-congratulatory stance was held by Dr Silkworth, and by countless immature, insecure AA members:

        Most of these allergics are above average in intelligence and become worthwhile members of society when freed from alcohol.

        People stay sober by not drinking. Most people are not alcoholic, so we know that WHETHER we are alcoholic has nothing to do with our character. So, why should whether we stay sober depend on it? If it did, we’d have to accept it, but I haven’t seen the studies that support the idea.

        • Steve K says:

          People that don’t want to practice moral virtue should join another program of recovery. As I state in the essay in order to practice the Steps in any way that remotely resembles the way they were originally written one needs to practice virtue. One may not need to practice virtue in order to stay sober but why be a member of AA if this is the case? My essay is only an interpretation, my perspective, I’m not claiming it’s the “truth” and as a member of a fellowship based upon liberal as well as spiritual principles I’m free to relate to the program in any way I like. If you and others so strongly disagree with just about everything in terms of AA philosophy why go? Just stay sober on your own terms and give up attacking those of us wishing to grow morally/spiritually as part of our recovery. Oh, and I’m pretty sure that alcoholism corrupts one’s character, selfishness is plain to see in most practicing alcoholics and this just doesn’t evaporate when we get sober. That’s why some sort of moral program of recovery is required in my view and we are moral animals by nature/evolution so why not try and improve in this respect?

          • JHG says:

            Lighten up dude. You sound a whole lot like the “America, love it or leave it” crowd. What happened to “take what you like and leave the rest”? I’m pretty sure the second tradition doesn’t give anyone the right to interpret the program for anyone else. I don’t see a Steve K exemption in there. And even the Big Book says the steps are suggestions. There are plenty of resources for sobriety in AA that anyone is welcome to because of the third tradition. Agreeing with someone else’s interpretation of the steps or any other aspect of the program is not a requirement.

      • Don S. says:

        Steve K said:

        That’s why some sort of moral program of recovery is required in my view.

        But the data doesn’t support that view. Bill W had glaring character defects. He never made amends for his 20 year affair with Helen Wynn. I’m 23 years sober, but am morally average at best, and I don’t try very hard to improve myself. I’m nice enough to keep a job and stay married because I care about those things, but that’s not very virtuous, it’s pure self-interest.

        I’m familiar with Aristotle, Kant, etc and I find that stuff interesting and edifying, but when virtue is tied to sobriety, I ask for the evidence.

        And who can judge if someone is following a moral program? It would be laughable for one ex-drunk to judge another, particularly over how they avoid drinking.

        I think Steve is sincere and trying to be helpful, so of course he should promote his view. But I haven’t see the evidence supporting it, so out of the same concern for other alcoholics, I am responding.

  16. Joe C. says:

    Mind expanding Steve. Very nice. I like how you articulated agency vs action based change. I definitely lean towards the action side of the ledger. That’s a more personal way of talking than “internal locus of control/external locus of control” language. I don’t know that one is predominantly associated with a supernatural worldview and the other with a natural narrative. Some AA theists I know lean on the “faith without works is dead” adage and I am sure the same can be true of an atheistic “faith” in the AA (XA) process. This is why I don’t subscribe to the Serenity Prayer or the Godless Serenity pledge. I just don’t see these attributes of serenity, courage and wisdom as granted. To that extent I glean from your essay that I subscribe to an Aristotlesque brand of better living via better choices/practices.

    A little off topic would be that I flirt with a more Taoist view that right/wrong thinking/behaving is fueled in part by misguided judgements about how I believe that either I or the world ought to be. Balancing the idea of accepting my idiosyncrasies vs. being more good and doing more good seems to put me at constant odds. If “waiting” is Marya H’s higher power than “doubt” must be mine.

    Nevertheless I have a great take away in the agency vs. action language. I like it a lot.

    • Steve K says:

      Thanks Joe, glad you got something from my essay and liked it. I’m mutually appreciative of your writing and read your ” Agnostic musings” book most mornings. It’s helped me a lot and is the daily readings book i was searching for and it gives me plenty of food for thought in relation to my ongoing development and recovery.

    • Tommy H says:

      ” I just don’t see these attributes of serenity, courage and wisdom as granted. To that extent I glean from your essay that I subscribe to an Aristotlesque brand of better living via better choices/practices.”

      Ya hit the nail on the head, Joe.

    • Jeb B. says:

      In my experience of over 36 years in AA, the serenity, courage and wisdom come as a direct result of practicing the 12 Steps, as outlined on pages 60 through 88, albeit without the magical thinking/expectations.

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