Do Character Defects Suggest A Moral Failing?
Critics of the Twelve Steps often bemoan the topic of character defects.
Particularly pop psychologists who cringe at the thought of anything being intrinsically wrong with people.
“Addiction is a brain disease!” they shout from the damn rooftops. Addicts are not responsible for their disease but for their recovery.
Some groups are suspicious of this theory, they think the data suggests otherwise.
They decry, “it’s a choice, not a disease.” To them it is in fact a moral error.
The AA Paradox
Alcoholics Anonymous has a twist though.
They claim that alcoholism is not a moral failing, that it is a disease yet in the same vein emphasize character defects as the primary problem.
They suggest that “the problem centers in the mind” and the manner in which this mind-problem can be resolved is by having a spiritual experience – this restores the mind to sanity.
Nevertheless, this term “spiritual experience” is rather vague.
Alcoholics Anonymous uses a definition laid out by Carl Jung.
“Here and there, once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences. To me these occurrences are phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.”Carl Jung’s Definition of a Spiritual Experience
They then argue that the building blocks for cultivating this spiritual experience is through character building.
But what exactly is character?
Character is “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.”
Therefore, spirituality is distinctively moral.
If premise one is that addiction is not a moral failing and then premise two is that addiction is ultimately a lack of morality, then the conclusion is contradictory.
I suppose I’m sensitive to those critics!
How AA differs is where they position the location of the disease.
It’s not the brain but the spirit.
The concept is less one of science and more so one of religion (see the Emmanuel Movement).
Moreover, it appears they see the Spirit as the lens – envision a pair of glasses, through which we observe ourselves and the world.
The Spirit is therefore our primary interpretation of the world and that which motivates us.
Examine the bullet points below.
If they adequately define the view of yourself and the world, you’ll be motivated to take action that ultimately brings harms to yourself and others.
In other words, it’s what fuels your addiction.
In Alcoholics Anonymous this is referred to as the “spiritual malady” or “the bedevilments.”
The Spiritually Sick View of Self, the World, and God.
So, what visuals can you expect to see through the glasses of spiritual sickness?
- being restless, irritable, and discontented,
- having trouble with personal relationships,
- not being able to control our emotional natures,
- being a prey to (or suffering from) misery and depression,
- not being able to make a living (or a happy and successful life),
- having feelings of uselessness,
- being full of fear,
- inability to be of real help to other people,
- being like “the actor who wants to run the whole show”,
- being “driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity”,
- self-will run riot,
- leading a double life,
- living like a tornado running through the lives of others, and
- exhibiting selfish and inconsiderate habits.
You see, if living morally equals a spiritually healthy interpretation of the world, then morality plays the most critical role in recovery.
To the authors of the Big Book a spiritual experience produces the necessary shift to see the world in a healthy manner and, subsequently, a life of high moral character maintains it.
So, whether morality plays a role in forming addiction I suppose is a moot point.
Personal values aren’t formed overnight.
The very function of the brain that executes moral behavior and ethical reasoning isn’t formed until adulthood.
Most addicts get wrapped up in the cycle well before they have a fully developed moral apparatus.
So, it certainly makes sense.
Moreover, our view of the world and ourselves isn’t something we choose. The lenses are given to us by genetics, social conditioning, stressors, and our biological makeup.
In my opinion, even if addiction is ultimately a moral dilemma it doesn’t somehow decrease the effectiveness of the 12 step program.
Instead it decreases its attractiveness.
So, now that we cleared the air, let’s talk about character defects.
Character Defects…what are they?
When Alcoholics Anonymous directs us to look at our defects it does so under the assumption that defects are unconscious beliefs that drive us.
Character defects are the beliefs and character attributes that compose the spiritually sick view of the world, self, and God.
They are defective in the sense that they:
(1) don’t work in achieving human freedom, that is they tend to enslave the individual to repeat unresourceful patterns of behavior
(2) they don’t consider other human beings and since humans are primarily social, they cut us off from our essence and disconnect us mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Moreover, in AA you’re not instructed to examine your incidents and condemn yourself.
Instead, you’re told to look at and correct the defect (belief) that created the incident in the first place!
One of the forefathers of AA, Clarence Synder, in 1944 (9 years following the publication of the Big Book) developed a pamphlet titled “Going Through The Steps – A.A. Sponsorship.”
Synder is overtly religious, which was likely the majority of tone of early AAs. The pamphlet helps clear up loads of misunderstandings that plague the rooms today.
In Step 4, we’re asked to take a searching and fearless moral inventory. We must find out what we’ve got, what we need to get rid of, and what we need to acquire.
There are 20 character defects to ask about — the individual wrongs are not necessary to go over, just the defects that caused them.
Going over the questions, you ask that the person be honest and admit his defects to himself, to you, and to God (where two or more are gathered in His name, there shall He be.)
By admitting, the person also takes Step 5. The inventory is of our defects, not our incidents.
Here are the defects of character:
- Resentment, Anger
- Fear, Cowardice
- Self pity
- Self justification
- Self importance, Egotism
- Self condemnation, Guilt
- Lying, Evasiveness, Dishonesty
- False pride, Phoniness, Denial
- Negative Thinking
- Immoral thinking
- Perfectionism, Intolerance
- Criticizing, Loose Talk, Gossip
Continuing To Take Inventory
Chapter 5 of Alcoholics Anonymous uses the analogy of a running a business.
“Therefore, we started upon a personal inventory. This was Step Four. A business which takes no regular inventory usually goes broke. Taking a commercial inventory is a fact-finding and a fact-facing process. It is an effort to discover the truth about the stock-in-trade. One object is to disclose damaged or unsalable goods, to get rid of them promptly and without regret. If the owner of the business is to be successful, he cannot fool himself about values.”
They continue that this is an “effort to face, and to be rid of, the things in ourselves which had been blocking us. Our liquor was but a symptom. So we had to get down to causes and conditions.”
This illustration is extraordinarily helpful. If a business which takes no regular inventory usually goes broke how much more so should we be inventorying the business over our lives!
Let’s make this a bit more obvious:
Imagine I own a shoe shop. Like every good shoe shop, I originally marketed variety – need my consumers to be happy!
However, one day I became convinced that these unattractive generic shoes (let’s call them Sal’s Shoes), were going to become so immensely popular that I would likely become rich in a short time.
Personally, I love Sal’s Shoe’s, I even own 4 pairs of my own. So, without further investigation of the market and the importance of diversifying my income, I basically fill my entire store with solely Sal’s. Jettison the Nike’s.
Unfortunately, the sneakers aren’t as hot as suspected. They’ve not been flying off the shelves as I projected they would.
So, what do I do?
I become convinced the world is full of idiots, I blame whoever I can, and invest in more Sals.
I run with this line of reasoning and piledrive my business right into the ground. Heck, I even climb the ropes and drop her down with a brainbuster.
A lot of us live our lives like that. We have a pattern or patterns of thinking that are a lot like Sals Shoes. Personally, we think our investment is wise (or will at least bring some type of benefit) but in reality, it’s bankrupting our business!
What the 12 Steps are designed to do is identify which habits of thought and behavior are giving us the biggest return and have the strongest profit margins and then scale these. We also want to identify the Sal’s in our inventory and exchange them with the selling items.
This analogy is brilliant – it communicates the simplicity of the Step. It’s certainly not easy, but as with every nuance of the 12-Step Program, it’s extraordinarily simple.
A Commonly Asked Question
In Alcoholics Anonymous Steps 5, 6, and 7 examine the “exact nature of wrongs,” “character defects,” and “shortcomings.”
Some have proposed these concepts all refer to different things but that seems silly and unwarranted.
For starters, by definition they are all the same. Additionally, in terms of morality these terms would simply be deviations from the moral standard.
So, “What is the difference between ‘defects of character’ in Step Six and ‘shortcomings‘ in Step Seven?”
According to G.S.O.’s archives Bill W. commented about his use of “Defects of Character” and “Shortcomings” interchangeably in the Steps in a personal letter he wrote dated March 7, 1963.
Thanks for your inquiry, requesting to know the difference between ‘defects of character’ and ‘shortcomings’ — as those words appear in the Steps.
Actually I don’t remember any particular significance in these phrases. In my mind, the meaning is identical; I guess I just used two ways of expression, rather than to repeat myself. It’s just as simple as that.
In another letter, dated November 16, 1965, Bill again responded to a similar inquiry. His letter read, in part:
When these Steps were being done, I didn’t want to repeat the phrase ‘character defects’ twice in succession. Therefore in Step Seven, I substituted ‘shortcomings’, thereby equating ‘shortcomings’ with ‘defects.’
When reading most people do equate that way and there seems to be no difficulty. I used them as though they both meant exactly the same thing — which they appear to many people.
If you’re interested in Clarence Snyder’s entire pamphlet click here for the PDF.
Additionally, click here for a ridiculously long list of character defects to help you through your 12 Step journey.
Are you ready to get rid of the defects that caused you to live the way you did?
“We have emphasized willingness as being indispensable. Are we now ready to let God remove from us all the things which we have admitted are objectionable? Can He now take them all – every one? If we still cling to something we will not let go, we ask God to help us be willing.”Step 6 in Alcoholics Anonymous
When ready, we say something like this: “My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen.” We have then completed Step Seven.Step 7 in Alcoholics Anonymous
Upon completion you’ll begin to view the world differently. The glasses you now wear are ones of spiritual wellnss.
What’s a spiritually healthy view of the world look like? Well, the Big Book provides that as well.
The Promises of AA
Promise 1: We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.
Promise 2: We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.
Promise 3: We will comprehend the word serenity.
Promise 4: We will know peace.
Promise 5: No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.
Promise 6: The feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear.
Promise 7: We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.
Promise 8: Self-seeking will slip away.
Promise 9: Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.
Promise 10: Fear of people and economic insecurity will leave us.
Promise 11: We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.
Promise 12: We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.