Last week, in another blog, I followed a long and heated discussion thread about addiction and the various approaches to treatment. People who have struggled with addiction feel strongly about what has worked and what has not worked for them, but one commenter entirely dismissed the notion of addiction as bullshit. He went on to compliment himself for not having a drinking problem, a drug problem or a gambling problem. He summed up the entire addiction problem as a moral issue, insisting that morally upright people like him exercise willpower, and that's why they don't mess up their lives with addictions. He also bragged about drinking and being able to reliably stop after 2 or 3 drinks.
I've never had any problems with alcohol, nor does alcoholism run in my family, but it has never occurred to me that the lack of alcoholism in my family arises from familial moral strength or willpower. Alcohol just doesn't exert any pull on the X family.
Now I freely admit that I did my share of college-age drinking along with my friends, but there was never a moment that I craved alcohol or even thought about alcohol unless it was part of our social activity. One of my college friends did become an alcoholic, just like his father. Of my other close friends, none came from homes with alcoholic parents and none became alcoholics.
I know that some people from families with a history of alcoholism are wise to the possibility of increased risk of addiction, so they make a conscious decision that they won't drink. But I suspect that for most people who aren't alcoholics, there is no decision, no willpower and no virtue involved because moderation comes as naturally to them as it does to me.
While I'm certainly not suggesting that conscious decisions and moral considerations play no role in personal fate, I think it's easy to underestimate the power of influences beyond our control. It's no accident that only ten percent of people who will attempt to quit smoking today will be non-smokers one year from now. And only five percent of alcoholics will be non-drinkers one year from now. The numbers are just as gloomy for those who are determined to lose weight.
And influences beyond our control exert powerful effects on behavior extending well beyond addictions and compulsions. We regard hard work as a virtue and laziness as a vice, but when I think about people who work like animals and people who are lazy, I can't escape the feeling that the constitutional playing field is far from level. Most workaholics can't stop themselves from working their tails off. Is it a virtue to do what one can't help doing? Can we be sure it's a moral failing when a person can't seem to rally the resources to persist at difficult endeavors, or might that better be understood as something of a misfortune?*
Practically speaking, we can't throw accountability out the window, but the relationship between accountability and psychological reality is, at the least, a bit shaky. Perhaps we must pretend that the relationship is rock solid, lest we allow ourselves go to hell in a handbasket, but I think a little less self-congratulatory back-patting and and a little more appreciation for human frailty wouldn't hurt.
*Also see the Stanford Marshmallow experiment.