How do you justify calling alcoholism an illness, and not a moral responsibility?
Early in the Alcoholics Anonymous history, very natural questions arose among theologians.
There was a Mr. Henry Link who had written “The Return to Religion (Macmillan Co., 1937). One day I received a call from him. He stated that he strongly objected to the A.A. position that alcoholism was an illness. This concept, he felt, removed moral responsibility from alcoholics. He had been voicing this complaint about psychiatrists in the American Mercury. And now, he stated, he was about to lambaste A.A. too.
Of course, I made haste to point out that we A.A.’s did not use the concept of sickness to absolve our members from moral responsibility. On the contrary, we used the fact of fatal illness to clamp the heaviest kind of moral responsibility on to the sufferer. The further point was made that in his early days of drinking the alcoholic often was no doubt guilty of irresponsibility and gluttony. But once the time of compulsive drinking, veritable lunacy had arrived and he couldn’t very well be held accountable for his conduct. He then had a lunacy which condemned him to drink, in spite of all he could do; he had developed a bodily sensitivity to alcohol that guaranteed his final madness and death. When this state of affairs was pointed out to him, he was placed immediately under the heaviest kind of pressure to accept A.A.’s moral and spiritual program of regeneration — namely, our Twelve Steps. Fortunately, Mr. Link was satisfied with this view of the use that we were making of the alcoholic’s illness. I am glad to report that nearly all theologians who have since thought about this matter have also agreed with that early position.
While it is most obvious that free will in the matter of alcohol has virtually disappeared in most cases, we A.A.’s do point out that plenty of free will is left in other areas, It certainly takes a large amount of willingness, and a great exertion of the will to accept and practice the A.A. program. It is by this very exertion of the will that the alcoholic corresponds with the grace by which his drinking obsession can be expelled.
Written by Bill W. a co- founder of Alcoholics Anonymous
(N.C.C.A. ‘Blue Book’, Vol.12, 1960)