Thursday, December 30, 2010

Lessons in Rational Selfishness That Alcoholics Anonymous Taught Me (Mostly) on Purpose

Stuart K. Hayashi

Despite its shortcomings, Alcoholics Anonymous has some ideas that reinforce the ethics of rational self-interest.  After addressing AA's major weakness, I want to talk about its good side.

Who or What Is This 'Higher Power'?

In many ways, AA acts as a front for religious proselytizing.  Its "twelve steps to recovery" are notorious for this.  Steps 2, 3, 6, 7, and 11 all mention obeisance to God (see PDF here) That's terribly problematic. Taking control over your own life and fighting your vices is your responsibility; not a supernatural entity's.

To me, one can only speak of a "higher power" in an intelligible sense if the power is physical reality itself -- that is, the scientific laws of nature.  The one form of humility I can accept is the idea of being humble before immutable facts, such as that "Existence exists" and that natural law does not contradict itself.  I think it does make sense to recognize that scientific law will always overpower one's own wishes and whims. Note that in her essay that makes this very point, "The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made," Ayn Rand begins by quoting AA's Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, courage to change things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."

Rand comments,

...omitting the form of a prayer, i.e., the implication that one's mental-emotional states are a gift from God -- that statement is profoundly true, as a summary and a guideline: it names the mental attitude which a rational man must seek to achieve.

With respect to the issue of AA's religious bent, someone once submitted this question to Leonard Peikoff for his podcasts:  "I'm a recovering alcoholic.  The program has many tenets that run counter to Objectivism, including letting a higher power relieve me of alcoholism.  How can I reconcile Objectivism but continue staying sober through AA?"

Peikoff replied in 2009,

I once asked an official in AA, "Did you have to believe in God in order to join?"
And he said, "No. We leave the higher power..." -- what they call a higher power -- " the interpretation of the individual. And if you want to make it objective external reality, that's OK with us. We want something that you can't manipulate by will. And, of course, since you can't manipulate reality by will, it basically plays to the same rule for an atheist that 'higher power' does."

I think, as far as I can tell, all of the steps that AA takes are actually interpretable in secular terms like that. ...

So I don't agree with a lot of their formulations.  But, as far as I can tell, the essence of their creed -- combined with the important social support that they offer -- makes it not necessary to choose between AA and Objectivism.

Where AA and Al-Anon Support Rational Self-Interest

AA is known not merely for providing social support to recovering alcoholics, but also for providing sound advice to those who care about alcoholics who either refuse to quit drinking or are having a difficult time doing so.  Suppose you know someone who has displayed the virtue of rationality in many ways, but increasingly comes to engage in forms of self-destructive behavior to a degree that you find frightening.  There are many examples of such self-destructive behaviors besides alcoholism -- other forms of substance abuse, gambling "addictions," and exhibiting signs of mental illness and refusing to seek treatment.  Many psychology books addressing this subject dispense forms of advice that seem to always be traced back to AA or a group inspired by it.

When you are in a situation where such a person is close to you and is behaving self-destructively, people in AA's circles will often remind you that when someone doggedly chooses such an irrationally self-destructive course, there is no way you can rationally persuade the person to change.  No matter how correct you are, you cannot rationally convince someone of the truth against her own consent.  You can reason with a person on a subject only insofar as she chooses to to be open toward your appeal from the outset.  Therefore, those in AA's circles say that rather than lose your bearings while trying to change the self-destructing person, you must "Take Care of Yourself First." Psychologists frequently use that expression for caregivers in this situation, and it seems the expression might have originated with Al-Anon -- an organization spun off from AA to help loved ones of alcoholics cope.

To me, "Take Care of Yourself First" is an expression of rational self-interest.  The implicit message is, Do not sacrifice yourself in futile attempts to protect people who refuse your protection.  Rather than sacrifice for them, focus on your own peaceable eudaemonia as much as you can.  You are not responsible for another adult's happiness, but you are responsible for your own. 

Compassionate Detachment

"Take Care of Yourself First" has an important corollary -- the idea of "Detaching With Love."  Hypothetically, say that you know someone who has earned your respect by exhibiting many rational virtues. For a time, this person listened to you discuss your philosophy while most everyone else, for years, dismissed your intellectualism as boring.   Maybe this person shows an admirable, new ambitiousness in forming a career.  However, this person engages in at least one form of behavior that is so disturbingly self-destructive that you cannot ignore it in good conscience; you cannot witness such behavior without being overcome with horror, disgust, bewilderment, or a combination of these reactions.

When you confront your own inability to tolerate that person's self-destructive behavior, other people might advise you, "That person is worthless.  Just forget about that person.  Stop caring."  I think that such a decidedly dismissive approach is quite silly.  Even if the other person is self-harming in one respect, that doesn't necessarily erase all of the person's good points.    A much more logical, selfish approach is to "Detach With Love."

When you Detach With Love, you acknowledge to yourself that you can still have valid reasons for caring about this person, and you have every moral right to continue caring.  With the acknowledgment of those facts comes this corollary:  such continual concern and worry must not be allowed to reach a point where they come at the eternal expense of your own long-term happiness. Whether you say it aloud to the self-destructive person or not, this is the basic approach you take toward him:
I still care about you, and I have every right to continue caring.  I still have every appreciation for the virtues of yours that made us close in the first place.  What I am doing is taking a stand against the behaviors of yours that I find so disturbingly self-defeating that I must make my objection obvious to you.  I will not try to nag you out of the behavior.  By the same token, I refuse to pretend that I condone the behavior, that I find it acceptable.  I am withdrawing my sanction in this context.  I refuse to tolerate any abuse or disrespect associated with the disturbing behavior.  Should there come a day when you do decide to commit to changing the behavior -- perhaps by committing to a form of treatment for it -- I will proudly stand by you.  Until that time, I must distance myself from the objectionable behavior.
There are many ways you can detach yourself from the behavior.  You can still remain in contact with that person, but set up firm boundaries.  That is, you set up explicit rules.  You let that person know at which point the behavior becomes so intolerable for you that you must remove yourself from that person's presence or even from that person's social circle.  And if the self-destructive person balks at those rules, you might have to distance yourself even farther, maybe even cutting off all contact for a while (or possibly forever).

Such advice is commonly attributed to Al-Anon, and I agree with it.  I have struggled to teach myself that that stand is not inhumane and that it is not a form of abandonment.  It is a boycott against irrational behavior and an act of rational, peaceable self-preservation.  As Jennifer Seitzer writes, "Loving and caring for yourself is the most healthy *selfish* thing you can do for another."

I wouldn't say that this situation is necessarily like Hank Rearden finally leaving his brother Philip to fend for himself, as he had zero respect for Philip by then.  I would say that this situation can be compared to John Galt understanding that he could not force Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden to join his strike before they were ready.  Even though he knew that their taking a position opposite to his own -- continuing to sustain the looters' lives -- would only cause them more grief, Galt left Dagny and Rearden alone all those years to face the harsh consequences of their own actions.  He knew it was the only way.  You can "Detach With Love" from even those whom, in many ways, you deeply respect.

I am very thankful for learning about the expression and idea of "Detaching With Love."  Such ideas contradict the choice to abdicate responsibility over your life to an omnipotent deity.  Stripped of the omnipotent deity aspect, though, the ideas of "Taking care of yourself first" and "Detaching With Love" make a lot of sense.

Me posing with the book that taught me the expression "Detach With Love" -- Stop Walking on Eggshells by Paul T. Mason and Randi Kreger; photo taken on Friday, December 10, 2010

UPDATE from November 13, 2015:  In recent years, I have seen critiques, such as the one put out by Penn & Teller, of twelve-step programs as pseudoscientific.  Alcoholics Anonymous was named specifically in these critiques. For the most part, I think the critiques are correct; you do not  need to acknowledge a God to recover.  However, I still think Leonard Peikoff's advice remains applicable, because acknowledging the absoluteness of reality is important, and objective reality is indeed bigger than oneself.  For the record, I don't recommend Alcoholics Anonymous in general, but I do think the principles of nature remain a "higher power."