Addiction and Virtue (Dunnington)

Addiction and Virtue

Kent Dunnington, Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice

Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011.

I drink coffee all the time. I have for many years now. Naturally, I’ve built up a little tolerance to its caffeine-fueled effects. As I think about it, I don’t often drink coffee for the caffeine, I drink it because it is a warm, comforting drink whose flavor I’ve come to enjoy. Still, there are jealous haters out there that sometimes tell me I’m addicted. I tell them I’m not, and then they tell me that’s exactly what addicted people say.

Addiction is a part of our modern worldviews. It is a concept we use to describe a relatively wide range of behavior. Certainly coffee “addiction” is nowhere near the same level as addiction to, say, meth. Often we use the term in a trivial kind of way to describe behavior that’s more along the lines of short-term obsession. One could say they are “addicted” to the show Grey’s Anatomy and, besides their obliviousness to the shame they should be feeling for saying such a thing, they could not really mean something along the lines of alcoholism.

In this enlightening and challenging book, Kent Dunnington wants to expand and sharpen the ways we think about addiction, especially beyond the scientifically-centered debates that tend to reduce it to the models of disease or choice.

The Gist

A good portion of this book is dedicated to asking the reader to think differently about familiar terminology. So the major claim Dunnington advances about the nature of addiction is that it is a ‘habit’ in the sense that Aristotle and Aquinas developed the term. On the face of it, habits and addictions are two different species of behavior. I have a (bad) habit of biting my fingernails, I am not addicted to fingernail biting. But Dunnington looks back into the philosophical roots of the term to show important ways in which thinking of addiction in terms of a ‘complex habit’ (properly defined) actually goes a long way toward striking the right balance between the disease and choice models.

Understanding addictions as complex habits opens us up to the rationality of addiction. It is simplistic and dismissive, though perhaps tempting, to think of addiction as simply irrational. By thinking about the rational aspects of addiction, Dunnington unearths the way in which addiction is a kind of behavioral phenomenon that aims at making certain goods accessible. Broader and fundamental goods like meaning, practical stability, and a sense of transcendence are made possible by the single-minded and organizing drive of addiction. It is not as if addictions are a straightforward, conscious strategy of achieving these ends. Rather, addictions are both the result and culmination of practices employed as a way of coping with the lack of these goods.

What Stuck

The first thing that stuck with me was the author’s portrayal of modernity and its issues that seem to be fertile grounds for addiction. Addiction is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Dunnington (drawing on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre) does a good job at articulating the groundlessness of modern life. In the modern world we no longer have strong, shared social assumptions about what constitutes the good life. Instead we have a large number of fragmented versions of the good life competing against one another, none of which have any kind of ultimate grounding that the modern mind would accept. This freedom has the unintended consequence of anxiety which manifests in a number of problems we all likely experience: a sense of arbitrariness, boredom, and loneliness. Unsurprisingly, these problems are all identifiable features of addiction.

The second thing that stuck was Dunnington’s description of addicts as “unwitting prophets.” They are not prophets in that they have words of warning, rather they are themselves the prophetic warning. Their lives point to patterns and problems that everyone faces in life. We all in some ways struggle to find meaning, value, and direction in our lives. Addiction is one way in which those kinds of goods become accessible, though in a counterfeit kind of way. In that sense, addicts are a prophetic reminder of the failures of our world—institutionally, culturally, and individually—to provide valid alternatives to the counterfeit “worship” of addiction.

Memorable Quotes

[M]ost moral philosophy until the modern era was concerned precisely with opening up an exploring the terrain between the determined involuntary and the spontaneous, unconstrained voluntary. The philosophical category that covers this terrain is the category of habit. I am convinced that if we are to avoid the false dichotomy that forestalls fresh thinking about addiction, we must recover the abandoned category of habit. (32)

However, the psychological craving that accompanies addiction represents a special threat to our abilities to resist desire because the desires that constitute psychological craving never come singly. . . . Every effort to direct the gaze of the intellect away from the object of desire ot to call the intellect to reflect on the inferiority of the object of desire is met, not by relief from the immediate threat, but rather by a new attacker in a similar guise. (49)

A habit is a relatively permanent acquired modification fo a person that enables the person, when provoked by the relevant stimulus, to act consistently, successfully and with ease with respect to some objective. (62)

Repetition alone, however, is not sufficient to produce habits. In addition to the outward multiplication of like acts, an inward “intensity” of intent and focus is required. Alongside the repetition of external acts, we must also attend to the interior quality of acts. This is because a habit does not merely include the ability to perform external actions but also entails some sort of continuity between an agent’s actions and her intentions and desires. (77)

Thus in the most perplexing cases of addictive behavior, we are confronted, not with reason struggling against appetite or emotion, but rather with flee-floating reason struggling against reason as rooted in habits of the imagination and the cogitative estimation. (81)

Loss of memory, blackouts, vomiting, dry heaves and being deathly ill are not normally counted among the variety of sensory pleasures. Yet these addicted persons pursue their addictive objects because those object are believed to offer definite goods, goods like the ability to communicate, being at ease with oneself, being unafraid, and being part of a community. Major addition, therefore, simply does not fit the bill of intemperance, which has to do with the pursuit of sensory pleasures of taste and touch. (94)

Once there were no addicts. Or at least if there were, no one could have known it. The notion of the “addict” and the corresponding concepts of addiction and addictive substances are of a modern vintage. (99)

To the extent that modern persons see themselves as moral agents confronting a variety of mutually exclusive ways of life, questions about the right ordering of the goods and activities of our lives become urgent and sharpened. Addiction, I contend, supplies a type of response to this crisis. (105)

Ours is a contradictory culture in which the deep ambiguity about the possibility of justified commitment is matched in intensity by the ideologies of opportunity, self-realization and self control. Addiction emerges at the point of impact between these contradictory impulses since it facilitates a single-minded pursuit of fulfillment in the absence of a rationale. (111)

Addiction is in fact a kind of embodied cultural critique of modernity ad the addict a kind of unwitting prophet. (123)

The language of sin that A.A. rejected was not the orthodox doctrine of sin propounded by thinkers like Augustine. Rather, A.A. rejected a certain understanding of sin that had long since been found theologically wanting. (129)

The Christian doctrine of sin does provide explanatory and descriptive insight into the phenomenon of addiction, insight that is not accessible in the thoroughly naturalized terms of the addiction discourse. . . . If our notion of the good and of human flourishing is restricted to normal physiological and social function, then our ability to characterize the destructive character of addiction will be similarly restricted. . . . We can only bring out the profound depth of addiction by placing it within a broader frame of convictions about human nature and human destiny. This means that the language of sin is not only compatible with the phenomenon of addiction but is also necessary to a characterization of addiction in all its profoundly destructive power. (138-39)

The post-Christian pursuit of flourishing and fulfillment, then, has been reduced to a project of immanence, and my argument will lend support to the thesis that addiction is a product of this modern privileging of immanence at the expense of transcendence. Addicts may be our most forceful and eloquent modern prophets, reminding us of the peril that a denial of transcendence brings. (144-45)

But what each of these testimonies makes plain is that the lure of addiction lies in its ability to give the addicted person a sense of being in control of her life and of being able to assess and evaluate every possible course of action in terms of one definite end that eclipses every other contender for absolute allegiance. Paradoxically, the addicted person loses control over her addiction exactly to the extent that the ordering and controlling power of addiction insinuates itself into her view of the world. (151)

We might say that addicts are persons who are unsatisfied with the good life that is countenanced by Aristotle and which is ultimately rejected by Aquinas as a merely proximate form of happiness. Addictive desire is not for any proximate good but rather against every merely proximate good and for a good that is beyond the proximate. Addicts seek a perfection of happiness, rather than an approximation or measure. Addicts are, as A.A. describes them, “all or nothing people.” They seek comprehensive happiness, nothing less than perfect contentment. This is why abstinence seems to be the only really successful response to addiction. (157)

One of the great insights of A.A. and of the twelve-step recovery model in general is the recognition of the addictive habit’s recalcitrance to direct deliberation and willpower. . . . The other eleven steps can be understood as exhortations to address the problem, not by tackling it straight on, but rather by adopting alternative patterns of thought and action that may gradually reeducate and reform the habituated mind. The wisdom of the twelve-step program lies in the recognition that the habit of addiction can only be supplanted through the development of another habit that is as pervasive and compelling as the habit of addiction. (165)

I have attempted to make addiction seem less foreign, giving us ways to think about the pull that addiction has on all our lives. I hope my analysis has shown how near, rather than how far, each of us is to the major addict. (167)

The question that addiction puts to the church is whether or not it ca offer a convincing alternative to the addicted life, and the challenge addiction presents to the church is whether or not it can embody the purposive, ecstatic and all-consuming love of God in a way that is more compelling than the life of addiction. (194)


Dunnington writes with equal amounts clarity and finesse. His philosophical arguments are substantive and mature, but not complicated. I never felt lost in a logical maze. At the same time Dunnington shows his ability weave in rhetorical flourishes that are rarely cheesy, as many of the above quotes demonstrate. If you’re looking for a comprehensive analysis and treatment of addiction, you might find this book a bit wanting. Dunnington is obviously a huge fan of A.A. and other twelve-step programs which are not uncontroversial in the debate about addiction. And he does not spend much time discussing the clinical aspects of addiction. But that is not his focus, nor is it the point of the book.

This book demonstrates well that addiction is more than just a biological or neurological problem. It is also a cultural, philosophical, and theological problem, and attention to these humanistic aspects helps a great deal in understanding addiction and effective treatment for it.

This is one of those books where it is impossible for what the author is describing not to hit home. Even if you’re not a semi-hypochondriac like myself and worrying about whether you have an addiction or not, you will recognize issues and patterns in your own life that correspond to aspects of addiction. Anyone interested in engaging the human core of addiction would do well to start with this book.

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