Practising Virtue and 12 Step Recovery
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.