Will Power, Humility, And Discipline

Will Power, Humility, And Discipline August 28, 2011

Earlier today I relayed the insights that led atheist and recovering alcoholic Marya Hornbacher (author of Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power) to embrace a conception of humility and meaning in life that made AA work for her without her needing to believe in a “higher power”. I summed up the story by referring to this as a matter of finding the humility required to do AA without a “higher power”.

In reply, @FlyingFree333 on Twitter challenged me by tweeting:

You don’t need humility to kick addiction, you need a spine.

People kick addictions in 1 of 2 ways, willpower or substitution, 12-step programs are just another addiction.

I counsel abuse victims & addicts I’m also in the business of getting people to quit smoking,I know the subject

Let me preface my response by saying I am neither a research psychologist nor a trained or experienced counselor.  I have no special qualifications to discuss substance abuse.  I only write as a philosopher, an ethicist, and at best a lay psychologist.  I would be delighted to receive feedback on my remarks from specialized experts in these areas.

Let me take at face value @FlyingFree’s suggestion that the two ways out of addiction are will power and substitution.  I want to question whether AA might not be only the substitution for addiction with another addiction (say, to meetings, to religion, or other AA encouraged rituals of thought and practice) or whether it might be both a form of substitution and a means to developing will power (and that that will power could overcome the need for substitution were it not for AA’s teachings inspired by authoritarian religious views).

The reason I say this is that will power is a matter of self-discipline.  Some people seem more or less naturally self-disciplined.  Obviously, the addicted are not naturally self-disciplined—or at least when it comes to whatever they are addicted to, they lose their self-discipline for whatever biological, psychological, or other reasons.  To whatever extent formal and informal methods of education and behavior modification are actually productive, what they teach people is how to be more self-disciplined.  The ideal of submitting to someone else’s discipline—be it one’s parents’, one’s teachers’, or one’s AA counselor’s—is to follow someone else’s (ideally) wise rules until they become one’s own personal effective habits.  In other words, by following a programmatic discipline, we program ourselves to function automatically in the desired way.

Those who AA works for (and from what I understand, it’s clearly not everybody) find a great deal of guidance from the principles which it lays out.  The first and most important principle is the one about recognizing the limits of one’s power and the need for help.  The reason that I think this probably works as the first and most important step of the 12 is because it is the one in which the addict accepts that she is going to adopt someone else’s guidance and discipline for herself.  She is going to trust the code of recommended actions to guide her.

This is not really formally different from trusting a martial arts instructor or drill sergeant or college professor or athletic coach, etc.  In every case in which someone learns self-discipline through submission to the discipline of a leader, one has to trust the leader that the practices are worth sticking with in order to achieve the desired results.  To a certain extent, one must suspend one’s inclination to insist on one’s own judgment and be willing to trust someone else’s.

Since many addicts are often control freaks who have lost control over themselves, and since their addiction will fight them every step of the way, the most important thing they have to commit themselves to at the start is that they need something besides themselves and they need to defer to that something even when it is painful or in their own minds they don’t see how it will work.

The ultimate goal of this should not be that the addicts become addicted to a new substitute for their chemical of choice but that through the disciplining of the steps they gain mastery over themselves.  If the steps are guides which effectively discipline people so that they are, in the end, in charge of their emotions, capable of taking responsibility, etc., then they have effectively regained their own strength of will over themselves.  That is the ability to exercise will power, even if it is learned through someone’s else’s disciplinary guidance.  It is the same as the martial artists, the soldiers, the college graduates, or the athletes who now have mastery over themselves and can exert good will power against new adversity because they submitted to good trainers and their methods.

The danger I see in AA is that the view of humility it incorporates is too extreme.  So even as, functionally, discipline may be created in the self-liberating way that I described, my problem is that AA promotes the idea of your ultimate powerlessness and your ultimate need of a “higher” and (supernaturally) “spiritual” power who will actually do the work for you.  This is not really true—there is no such higher power helping you out, what is really helping you is your humble willingness to follow an effective program which is teaching you self-discipline and properly fixing some of your emotional problems.

AA wants to teach humility but it threatens to teach a religious ideology of spinelessness—a self-understanding of oneself as inherently sick and powerless.  As I complained previously:

human ennoblement and civilizational progress in the last centuries has come through people’s increasing political, moral, and intellectual autonomy.  Yet the addict bears naked the limits of human autonomy.  Many religious people want to characterize all humanity as being as desperate and in need of abject submission to something outside themselves, and therefore the addict saved by God has become a major modern conversion myth.

Contemporary evangelical Christianity wants people to feel powerless and desperate for God so that after they are “saved” they interpret all the good that comes to them by their own power as owed to God, so that all their own powers and successes become reinforcements of their religious allegiance.

I have argued for a different sense of humility, one more rationally based and less all-consuming than an ideology that we are utterly powerless and worthless without the puppetry of God doing good works in spite of ourselves.  I argue by contrast that proper pride and proper humility mean recognizing our actual place in the larger totality of things, recognizing both pridefully the extent of our power to create good in the world and humbly the extent to which our power is a function of other people’s power who have cultivated our strengths in us, and of our biology which makes it possible, etc.

So if we are properly humble, we will recognize the greater wisdom in the collective experience of humanity than in our own minds and seek out qualified experts with proven methods who can teach us.  If we are properly humble we will not take for granted the ways that culture and particular individuals cultivated in us our very excellences of which we should also take pride in expressing and in spreading to others.

If we are properly humble we will recognize that our behaviors are dependent on complex physical and mental processes that we do not fully understand and cannot always fully control ourselves and so learning from others techniques for mental and physical self-control is necessary.  We are not disembodied free wills who can just push our minds and bodies around at whim.

We need to respect the deeper powers of our subconscious minds and our bodies to drive us in directions we would rather not go and learn practical techniques for regaining the wheel where sheer “willing” is ineffective.  I think that whatever success AA has probably comes from its powers for teaching people precisely how to do this—and not from an ability get a non-existent God to take over people’s lives.

And I resent and worry that AA keeps even those it helps succeed against addiction nonetheless trapped with a lopsided, misanthropic, pessimistic view about the limits of human power, often with the result that people wind up submitting to authoritarian religions and denouncing the most ennobling thing about us, the thing towards which every temporary disciplining of human beings should ultimately be aimed at creating, our autonomy.

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