Moral Model Of Addiction


This article looks at the moral model of addiction. There’s little doubt that addiction has been seen in the past as primarily a moral failing. The stereotypes of a weak-willed alcoholic or a “fallen” drug addict are still with us. Testimony in court is still impugned when a history of drug addiction is mentioned and Alcoholics Anonymous is still anonymous, regardless of the battle against feeling ashamed of the behavior. Temptation is seen as the root of addiction and the spiritual aspects are emphasized.

Like it or not, society at large still treats addiction as a character flaw. This is especially so for the newest of the addictions – food addiction and sex addiction. So, is addiction a moral failing or a medical condition that absolves the addict of responsibility for their behavior? To be honest, it’s both.

The medical community clearly identifies addiction as a disease process – one that has a genetic component as well as social and environmental facets. The reason the moral model of addiction has fallen out of favor isn’t because it doesn’t describe the dilemma addicts find themselves in, but because it doesn’t adhere to the scientific understanding of what’s going on. In the scientific realm, our behavior is a result of physical processes and social influences – an absolute morality doesn’t come into it. Poor choices are the result of outside influences rather than inner, moral failings.

For this reason, the “official” moral model of addiction only survives in those areas where ideas about sin and human failings are preeminent. Those who are religious find that the evil of addiction matches up quite well with ideas about sin and immorality. They point out that other bad behaviors can be controlled with the moral model of addiction and see value in counseling and community support combined with prayer. On the medical side, these techniques would fall into the psychology camp as similar to cognitive behavioral therapy – change the way someone views a behavior and you can alter the behavior.

The bottom line seems to be two traditions, medical and theological, both understanding the same thing through different eyes. A spiritual event for one is seen as a mental event for the other. Society at large however, continues to see a combined picture of a propensity for addiction that is only a problem if someone succumbs to the temptation. This is why we investigate the drug use of our politicians and create scandals when a celebrity is sent to rehab. The moral model of addiction may not be accepted by the medical community, but it certainly resonates with the general public.

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