This article is based upon ideas originally presented at the 1985 NASW Professional Symposium: "The People, Yes!" on November 9, 1985.

The morality of alcoholism is a topic seldom on the agenda of workshops concerning alcoholism, or dealt with as a topic by itself in the literature. And yet moral issues regarding alcoholism are often talked about among professionals and is a topic in many counseling sessions. Morality is a difficult subject to deal with in any context. Issues of right and wrong, shame and guilt are brought up in almost every group or individual counseling session. The powerlessness, helplessness and angry feelings the worker experiences doing this work are often related to basic moral issues. The newly detoxed alcoholic is flooded with affect and is supersensitive to how others present themselves. The worker’s understanding of moral issues and alcoholism is essential to effective helping. If the worker blames the alcoholic, or has an attitude of blame, the worker and alcoholic often don’t connect and the work will be stuck.

Much confusion exists about the morality of alcoholism. Alcoholics are often confused when they enter treatment full of shame and remorse then are told they are not responsible for their alcoholism. Family members are confused when the alcoholic enters treatment Athe bad guy@ and somewhere in treatment becomes Athe good guy@. Workers are confused when alcoholics bring feelings out in them unlike no other population. Philosophers are confused when they hear "disease concept" and then think what is being said is the alcoholic is not morally responsible.


The problem is clear - there exits two very opposing moral views of alcoholism. The immoral view has a long, documented history and persists strongly in society to the present day. The immoralists view the alcoholic as not having morals.   They also use words such as "sinful" or "moral weaklings" when describing alcoholics. (1)  At the other extreme, amoralists divorce morality from alcoholism citing the disease concept as evidence. The amoralist tells a patient/client:  "you=re not a bad person trying to get good, you=re a sick person trying to get well!"  (2)   Neither view is an accurate perception of reality. Workers and others holding either view are unable to effectively tune in to the alcoholic=s struggles regarding moral issues.

Despite what many people observe, many alcoholics must endure a profound and constant internal struggle regarding morality. The morning after a drunken episode can be a horrific time for alcoholics - the feelings of guilt, shame and powerlessness can be overwhelming. Many alcoholics feel these feelings because they are moral beings and their actions from the previous evening do not correspond to their value system. Again, in the midst of guilt and self-loathing, they will make a heartfelt promise to not repeat the actions of the previous evening. However, they are doomed to act immorally until they begin recovery. The immoralists are unable or unwilling to tune into this moral struggle (the alcoholic should simply choose to not drink!). The amoralists are accepting and aware of the struggle, but fail to explain the process.


The alcoholic has a long history of being viewed as morally inferior. Aristotle, while he did not write specifically using the work alcoholic, wrote that a person who drinks to excess is responsible for whatever happens. (3)   He used an example of two blind men. One was born blind, the other became blind after a long period of drinking alcohol. Aristotle said the man born blind is in no way responsible for his blindness and should be helped and pitied by others. He said the drunkard should be condemned because he brought it on himself. The drunkard’s blindness is a logical and deserved consequence of his wrong choice of behavior. It could be safely said that this attitude towards the alcoholic still exists today.

Other philosophers, all of whom have helped to form our system of morals and values, share beliefs similar to Aristotle. Kant=s views are the most explicit. He, and many other philosophers, view alcoholics as having a choice over whether or not they drink - the action of becoming drunk is a voluntary one, so the person who gets drunk can be held responsible on a moral level.

Society has ascribed to these views as evidenced by the fact that alcoholics have been jailed just for being alcoholics in the past. (4)   At worst, alcoholics have been killed or left to die because of society=s views and from a lack of knowledge concerning treatment of alcoholism as well. At best, alcoholics have been laughed at, scorned, pitied and/or run out of town. Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease (5) illustrates the current day immoralists who aren’t so much concerned with labeling alcoholics "sinful" as they are in denying the possibility of alcoholism as a disease.

A very real and potentially fatal consequence of holding an immoralist view of alcoholism concerns the difficulty of getting help for the alcoholic. The alcoholic may have been socialized in a home where alcoholism was viewed as a moral failing and the alcoholic viewed as a "sinner" or moral weakling. Being raised with such a set of beliefs will strongly inhibit that alcoholic from admitting their alcoholism and from seeking help. Family members will not seek help for themselves or the alcoholic, except in extreme cases, to avoid the shame and disgrace. This scenario has been played out many, many times over many years. It is particularly difficult for a family member to reconcile their view of alcoholism with the fact that their family member, whom they love and respect, could be an alcoholic and thus a moral weakling. Alcoholics with this view would logically hold onto their system of denial more strongly than an alcoholic who was raised to view alcoholism as a treatable disease. Although the alcoholic who believes in the immoral view towards alcoholism will be less likely to seek or be involved in treatment for alcoholism, he or she will seek medical attention for secondary physical problems. However, alcoholism cannot usually be arrested without being treated directly.

The newest form of the immoralists also can result in the alcoholic not seeking services as well because they often espouse the view of moderation to the person with the problem with alcohol. While there are many people who drink excessively and then moderate their drinking, this discussion revolves around those people who have been unsuccessful in moderating their drinking despite attempts to do so.


 The Amoralists

Two proponents of the amoralist view of alcoholism are James Milam and Katherine Ketcham.   Milam and Ketchem are quoted below:

The alcoholic must also understand that he is not responsible for the things he said or did when he was drinking. The physical addiction controlled his behavior, and because he is powerless over the addiction, he cannot be held responsible for it. When the alcoholic looks back at his life as a drinking alcoholic, he should learn to say, "That=s what alcoholism did to me", not  "That=s what I did." Saying the words "I am an alcoholic" should convey the same moral overtones as the words, "I am allergic to pollen". (6)

Milam and Ketcham are correct when they state that the alcoholic should not be held morally responsible for actions during active alcoholism. However, they and most authors in the field fail to give any justification for the lack of moral responsibility beyond the disease concept. It is felt that a blanket statement such as "The alcoholic... is not responsible for the things he said or did when he was drinking" is inappropriate. If the alcoholic is not physically responsible for actions while drinking, several questions immediately come to mind. Who is responsible for the bad checks the alcoholic wrote while on a spree? Who is responsible for repairing the next door neighbors= car he ran into while drunk? Who ought to apologize to his son for not going to the son=s graduation as promised and instead goes to the bar? Why should the alcoholics feel guilty if they are not at least physically responsible? How can alcoholics be motivated towards recovery if they are not responsible? These are questions that the amoralists do not answer.

The problem with amoral point of view usually becomes evident on an individual basis during treatment. Often alcoholics enter treatment at least partially aware of their inappropriate behaviors during active alcoholism. As alcoholics are detoxed and progress in treatment, much of the time they become more aware of their inappropriate behaviors from the past, and are often filled with shame and remorse. At this point, alcoholics hear something like this from the worker:  "you=re not a bad person trying to get good, you=re a sick person trying to get well!" or "it=s a disease, it is not a moral issue!"  Alcoholics understandably become confused. If I have not done "bad" things, why do I feel so guilty about the things I have done? How can what they are saying be true when I know I have done "bad" things while drinking?  They may think the disease concept too convenient or just something made up to help him or her with guilt. To abruptly dismiss the moral issues of alcoholism can place additional pressures or stress on the alcoholic and does not provide enough information for alcoholics to be able to successfully resolve their guilt and shame.

Acceptance of the disease concept is placed in jeopardy by the amoralists. Immoralists tend to feel angry when the amoralists state the alcoholic is not responsible because of the disease. This anger probably prompted one person to write:  "the disease concept gives reprieve to the odious alcohol sinner."   The divorce of moral issues from alcoholism also reinforces the immoralists in their view of alcoholism. When a worker in a family service agency sees children emotionally scarred because of an alcoholic parent, they will say "there is something wrong or bad going on." When a physician has to wrestle with a drunk in an ER, they will say "there is something wrong here". When a family hears their daughter has been killed by a drunken driver, they know something is wrong. It is wrong for innocent lives to be taken. The reality is this rightness and wrongness (Morality) needs to be talked about in the context of alcoholism - to not do so is being unrealistic. If moral issues in the context of alcoholism are not talked about, the immoralists and amoralist will continue to exist in their absolutes.

Another side to the amoral view is the alcoholic who is actively drinking and telling friends and family "I can=t help it, I=ve got a disease". This person is correct in that he has a disease, but like the above examples, he does not possess all of the appropriate information concerning morality and alcoholism. And the reality is that society will hold this person legally responsible, at the very least, for his actions.

The immoralists are right in the fact that alcoholics commit wrong or harmful acts while actively alcoholic. This piece of information can be verified by almost anyone with personal or professional experience with alcoholics. But the immoralists are misinformed in their belief that drinking by the alcoholic is voluntary (a matter of choice), or that drinking or not drinking is a question of lack of moral development or "willpower".

The amoralists are correct when they infer that the alcoholic is not morally responsible for actions in active alcoholism, but they fail to explain to colleagues and clients why this should be so, beyond stating it is a disease. But the amoralists are incorrect when they infer that the alcoholic is not physically responsible. All members of society, whatever their impairment, are held responsible to at least some degree of their action.


The problem concerning the two opposing views of morality and alcoholism is held in place by several factors. The immoralist view, which states the alcoholic is morally deficient, is firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of many, and has been for centuries. Such a firmly entrenched view has been and will be very difficult to change. Social workers will readily attest to the difficulty in changing views developed over a very small part of a lifespan. The view that alcoholics are immoral is also held by some helping professionals. All the techniques and skills developed by professionals over the years had been inadequate to treat alcoholism (7) until the advent of Alcoholics Anonymous and the knowledge base and skills concerning alcoholism as a primary disease. And yet the disease concept is clearly not universally accepted by members of the helping professions.

Another factor that holds this problem in place concerns a common characteristic of many human beings - a characteristic that social workers are trained to overcome. That characteristic is that many of us have a tendency to think that everyone is on the same psychological wavelength as we are. (8)  Another way to state this phenomenon is to say we believe that people are able to do the things that we are able to do. A person who doesn't have a problem with alcohol may drink too much on an occasion. That person wakes up, feels uncomfortable or embarrassed and makes a decision not to drink that much anymore and doesn=t. He has a friend who is alcoholic (diagnosed or undiagnosed) and tells that friend to "just drink a couple, and you=ll be OK". It worked for the first man, but didn=t for the second, because the second man has a disease. The first man notices a big difference between the two and uses the following logic: A. I=m a good, moral man who stopped drinking when I saw it as a problem. B. Good, moral men can stop drinking when it=s a problem. C. You must not be a good, moral man because you can=t stop drinking after two like me.

The alcoholic drinks more than two because of an irresistible inner compulsion. It is very difficult for most people to understand compulsion unless it has been personally experienced. Compulsion doesn=t make sense because it bypasses logic and rationality. However, when compulsion is understood, the unpredictable actions of the alcoholic begin to make more sense. When the worker understands compulsion, he or she is able to connect with the alcoholic.


Morality in the context of alcoholism can be viewed as a moral/physical dualism where alcoholics are not morally responsible for their behavior during the active alcoholism, but they are always physically responsible for their behavior. Each piece of the moral/physical dualism will be explained below.

That alcoholics are not morally responsible for their actions can be expressed in other ways: not blameworthy on a moral level; not morally culpable; or morally excusable. Each of these ideas will be discussed in more detail later in this article.


This article has four specific arguments for workers and others to adopt the dualistic concept or moral/physical responsibility in their work with the alcoholic. These are explained below:

Argument # 1. Biochemistry "To behave morally is to have internalized control over behavior that inhibits harmful act and facilitates beneficient acts". (9)  One of the first effects of drinking alcohol is disinhibition. Disinhibition is an effect noticed in all drinkers; it is not confined to alcoholics. As the blood alcohol level rises in the drinker, reason and judgment are progressively more affected until the drinker is physically unable to be rational or to use his or her judgment. The drinker at this point is unable to act morally.

Mention should be made at this point of two studies done to determine if there exist significant differences in Kohlberg=s moral reasoning levels between alcoholics/addicts and socioecomonically matched controls. Both studies discovered there is no significant difference. (10)   Also, both studies pointed to the problem being located in what Kohlberg called "ego controls"(11) rather than in the ability to reason morally at a socially acceptable level. It is these ego controls which are sedated by the drug alcohol. Rationality and judgment are what separates human beings from other animals. Indeed, systems of thought regarding morality are based upon the premise that the agent is rational and can use judgment (choose between alternatives). It is easy to understand why Kant states: "....when a man is drunk, he is simply like a beast, not to be treated as a human being..." (12)    The lack of ability to be moral (to be reasonable, to use judgment and make a right choice of action) is easily observable in an intoxicated person. Kant and other philosophers (and mankind in general) have made this observation. Kant=s anger seems to be caused by his belief that the drunkard chooses to place himself in such a state. However, research is showing that the alcoholic does not choose to drink; in fact be definition, the alcoholic is powerless over drinking alcohol. In treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous, alcoholics learn skills for dealing with their powerlessness over alcohol and so can arrest the disease. The concept of choice in alcoholism will be further examined under the next argument.

When drunk, a person is experiencing a drug induced organic brain syndrome, which is reversible after the alcohol has been metabolized, and is similar in its effects on behavior to Organic Brain Syndrome (OBS). As a society, we do not hold persons with OBS morally responsible for their behavior. But because of society=s lack of understanding of the biochemistry of alcohol on the CNS and because of their long held belief that the alcoholic chooses to put himself in such a state, society holds the alcoholic morally responsible for his actions.

The reader at this point may say, "OK, I know enough to realize that when a person drinks enough they are physically unable to act morally. But I=ve seen plenty of social drinkers who get drunk and don=t beat up their kids or other people, or they aren=t obnoxious like most of the alcoholics I=ve run into. Why the difference?" This point is well taken. A specific reason exits for the difference - the amount of emotional pain in the drinker. As with all drugs, set and setting affects how alcohol affects the drinker. While the social drinker may be in emotional pain before drinking, that is not usually the case by definition. The social drinker drinks to be "social", to have a good time with others. The social drinker does not drink to relieve emotional pain. However, the alcoholic almost always is in emotional pain. The alcoholic has a realization of previous inappropriate behaviors while drinking (and the guilt associated with that). The broken promises and dreams in the alcoholic=s life is a source of ongoing emotional pain. The huge gulf between the ideal self and the actual self in the alcoholic is a source of tremendous emotional pain. If one assumes the inescapable link between pain and anger, and one tunes into the sources of emotional pain cited above (to say nothing of the shame/stigma and the physical pain brought on by the medical consequences of alcoholism), it is easy to understand why the alcoholic acts out in an angry manner. The social drinker does not have this pain, so does not act out in the same manner.

Society must hold the alcoholic physically responsible for his or her behavior, much in the same way it holds the criminally insane responsible for their actions (not to imply that alcoholics are criminally insane). When a criminally insane person (one who is unable to distinquish right from wrong) performs an act which society considers harmful, that person is isolated from society (to protect society and the person) and treated until such a time when professionals can make a judgment that this person will be able to conform to the rules of society.

Argument #2. Aristotle clearly delineates when a person is not morally responsible for his or her actions.(13)  He uses two concepts to judge whether or not a person should be held morally responsible for an action. Both concepts are applied to the moral/physical dualism of responsibility. The reader should keep in mind these two concepts are not use by Aristotle in regards to alcoholism; Aristotle holds the drunkard morally responsible for actions because he considers the act of drinking to drunkedness as voluntary.

Aristotle describes two basic types of actions - voluntary and involuntary. He further states: is only voluntary actions for which praise and blame are given; those that are involuntary are condoned, and sometimes even pitied.... It is generally held that actions are involuntary when done a) under compulsion or b) through ignorance.(14)

Aristotle further divides ignorance into avoidable and unavoidable ignorance. The agent is morally responsible if he is avoidably ignorant; he is morally excusable if he is unavoidably ignorant. An example of avoidable ignorance is a person who shoots another with a gun saying "I did not know the gun was loaded".  He should have avoided ignorance by taking the time to check the gun. He would be held morally responsible. An example of unavoidable ignorance would be if a person invites another for a ride in the car and during the drive, the car is hit by another car. The driver was unavoidably ignorant of the fact that they were going to be involved in an accident. There is no way the driver could have informed himself about the accident before he asked his friends along. He is unavoidably ignorant and thus morally excusable.

The alcoholic is unavoidably ignorant of the presence of a predisposition to become alcoholic. As of this writing, there is no test to determine whether or not a person will become alcoholic. There is absolutely no way alcoholics in treatment centers today could have informed themselves concerning whether or not they would become alcoholic when they first drank. Along this line of thinking, several facts need to be kept in mind. One is the fact that most drinkers do not become alcoholics, in fact, most people do not drink excessively. The statistics used to show that ten percent of the drinkers drink half of all the alcohol that is consumed. This fact would imply less obligation for the potential alcoholic to inform himself of his predisposition to alcoholism if a tests were available. Another fact is that in our society, drinking is a normal adult activity. The vast majority of people drink at some point during their lives, unless they are prohibited to by their religion or some diagnosed medical disorder.

That the alcoholic is unavoidably ignorant of his disease seems also to be true because of the logical absurdity of the reverse (that he takes his first drink knowing he will become an alcoholic). In my experience with alcoholics in a variety of settings, I have yet to hear an alcoholic say Ayes, I knew I was going to become an alcoholic, lose my wife, children, job and almost my life; end up in jail filled with shame and disgust and eventually end up in treatment.@

Aristotle states an action is involuntary and morally excusable if it is done under irresistible compulsion. The alcoholic, in the midst of the disease, eventually is ruled by the compulsion to drink. Father Martin puts it eloquently in his film AChalk Talk@ when he states; AThe alcoholic drinks the way he does because he cannot not drink that way.@(15)  He goes on to say, when a person came to him aghast that the mother went to her daughter=s graduation drunk, Aof course she did, that=s the problem!@ That women=s compulsion to drink was irresistible - no other explanation seems possible.

The alcoholic is morally excusable for actions during active alcoholism because of unavoidable ignorance. If he knew before the disease became evident that he would become an alcoholic, he could have chosen to do other than what he did. Once he did become aware of the problem, he was under irresistible compulsion to continue to drink. The only manner in which irresistible compulsion can be dealt with is through treatment and AA. While the alcoholic is morally excusable for actions, he is still physically responsible. Increased physical responsibility helps motivate the alcoholic to get into treatment.

Argument #3 Utilitarianism .  This argument deals with the blameworthiness of the alcoholic. The proponents of the theory of utility are concerned with results - that action which brings the greatest good or the least amount of harm for the most amount of people is the right action. Actions are judged on their consequences; if the consequences are good, then the action is good. The Utilitarians believe that blaming is an action people take in order to change other=s behavior.

.....blaming is a practice which is justified only by its results in changing behavior. We blame people in order that they will refrain from doing similar acts in the future, and we praise them in order to reinforce similar behavior in the future. When these devices do not have these effects, as often happens, we should refrain from using them. (16)

The Utilitarians make several distinctions when talking about blame. The separate the action from the agent, and also separate the action of blaming from the original action. The rightness or wrongness of both the original action, and the action of blaming, are judged by the utilitarian.

If Mr. A. is a social drinker and after a night of drinking he hits Mr. B=s parked car, it would be right to blame Mr. A. for that wrong action (hitting the car) because it could very well result in Mr. A. changing his behavior (because Mr. A is a social drinker, he could stop drinking solely because of the consequences of his behavior while drinking).   However, if Mr. C., who is an alcoholic, hit Mr B’s car while drunk, it would be wrong to blame Mr. C because blaming him could not result in changing his behavior. Thus, blaming the alcoholic is immoral in itself from a utilitarian point of view, particularly because blaming the alcoholic can have harmful consequences, namely causing increased anxiety in the alcoholic which causes an increase in drinking. The most frequent blamers of alcoholics are coalcoholics. It appears coalcoholics should not be held morally responsible for blaming alcoholics for their actions, because the coalcoholics= act of blaming is a symptom of their issues related to being affected by the alcoholic's drinking.   The coalcoholic cannot not blame the alcoholic, until he or she understands the disease of alcoholism, and develops other skills beyond blaming for coping with the alcoholic. These skills can be developed through treatment and using the principles of Alanon.

The worker must be sensitive to the fact that blaming often does not involve words at all; one can have an attitude of blame. It is easy for an alcoholic client/patient to sense when a worker has an attitude of blame. (17)  Newly detoxed alcoholics are often more aware than they have been in years. They are very sensitive to how others are presenting themselves. A cold handshake, an aloof or disgusted look, are very powerful messages to the alcoholic. The worker with an attitude of blame will be unable to connect with the alcoholic. This may account for the fact that professionals who are also recovering alcoholics are often accepted more quickly than non-recovering professionals by the alcoholic. The recovering professional is most instances will not have an attitude of blame towards the alcoholic and so can easily connect with him or her (although it must be said that is not always the case). However, any worker with an appropriate attitude can connect with the alcoholic. The attitude the worker must develop is one of not blaming, but at the same time holding the alcoholic physically responsible.

The alcoholic=s actions are often wrong because of their harmful consequences, by a utilitarian standard. Thus, alcoholics must be held physically responsible for their actions. Society demands that whatever the case, members of society must be in some way responsible for their actions. At the same time, blaming the alcoholic for wrong actions is wrong in itself, as it has no good, and usually harmful, consequences.

Argument #4. Alcoholics Anonymous. The last, but most certainly not the least, argument for the moral/physical a dualism of responsibility in alcoholism in the teachings of AA. Members of AA greet new members with acceptance rather than blame or judgment. But along with this accepting attitude, the Twelve Steps suggest alcoholics need to take responsibility for their behavior. (18)  Alcoholics need to admit and accept that their lives has become unmanagable and takes responsibility for the harm they have done to others by making amends.

Recovery from alcoholism through treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous sets the stage for righting the moral balance sheet. The wrong actions of the past are owned by the alcoholic and righted by direct amends to persons harmed (when not further harmful), and/or by service to others.   In recovery, the alcoholic needs to take a Asearching and fearless moral inventory@.(19)     Kant, who said the drunkard should not be Atreated as human being@, would probably admire the alcoholic who takes the fourth step. Later in the article quoted above, Kant said: AMoral self knowledge, which tries to fathom the scarcely penetrable depths of the heart, is the beginning of all human wisdom.@(20)

Much could be written (and indeed has been) regarding the effectiveness of the principles of AA.   AA is the single most important and effective entity in helping the alcoholic recover. These principles are also effective in helping people deal with a myriad of other problems. The importance of AA is such that any worker in the field is obligated to become familiar with the principles of AA.

Practice Implications

The first priority for workers in alcoholism is to discover exactly how they view morality in the context of alcoholism. If the worker consistently feels he or she is not connecting with alcoholic clients/patients, moral issues may be at the heart of the problem. The worker may say, Abut I don=t ever blame the alcoholic".  Then the question becomes, do you have an attitude of blame towards the alcoholic? The author has met a workers in various settings who seem quite angry at the alcoholic. These workers were unhappy and the clients did not receive the service and treatment they deserved.

It is very easy for the workers to develop an attitude of blame the longer they work with alcoholics. While work with alcoholics is extremely rewarding in that the worker can see very drastic and positive changes in clients at times, at other times the work is very frustrating.   If workers uses all of their skills and energy to help the alcoholic recover, and the client/patient does not, the tendancy is to blame the alcoholic for the treatment failure. We hear Ahe wasn=t ready@ or Ashe couldn=t get honest@. The worker begins to blame the alcoholic and may start to take away consequences for the alcoholic. At this point, the worker becomes like a member of the coalcoholic family, and effective treatment for the alcoholic is compromised.

The worker must do two things. First, the worker must examine his or her skills and knowledge base in relation to treatment failures. If a pattern emerges, then the worker needs to correct whatever deficiencies which come to light. (e.g. if a worker consistently cannot connect with court referred clients, then it would be appropriate to consult the literature or find a workshop that can help the worker better deal with that population.) Beyond that, a part of the Code of Ethics for both Social Workers and Certified Alcoholism Counselors required continued education to keep pace with the technology and developments in the work.

Second the worker must own his or her feelings of anger, powerlessness and inadequacy which are often brought up in work with alcoholics. A peer support group or an Alanon meeting for professionals are appropriate places to deal with these feelings. Stillson and Katz suggest a Supervisory Group Process Approach for dealing with countertransferential issues and burnout in alcoholism treatment.(21)   Worker support groups are necessary for the alcoholic's sake because if good workers get burnt out and leave the field of alcoholism, the alcoholic loses.

The alcoholic comes into treatment full of pain. Most treatment centers use many modalities for treating this complex disease. The ideas expressed in this article can be used in any format - lecture, individual or group. When the worker is non-judgmental, talking to the client about morality is a good point of entry to deal with the most powerful issues of addiction - denial, shame, guilt and remorse. There is no magical answer, method or framework to quickly alleviate the suffering the alcoholic experiences during active alcoholism and treatment. The alcoholic will feel the pain. With the help of the worker and an increased understanding of why what happened did, the alcoholic can effectively work through that pain and began recovery. The framework proposed can help facilitate that understanding.

The worker may need to modify these concepts based on the patient=s ability and phase of treatment. It is important to always link Anot morally responsible@ with Aalways physically responsible@ when using this framework; if not, the framework becomes polarized and inaccurate. The modified concepts can be directly presented to patients and families followed by the worker reaching for feedback.

The non-blaming attitude for workers which is expressed in this article in generalizable to multiple populations. With any addicted population, the specific arguments listed above apply (with some changes in the biochemistry argument). It is well known in the field of mental health that blaming the schizophrenogenic mother for her child=s schizophrenia was an ineffective method for treatment family members. It is also well known that whether or not workers verbally blamed the mother, workers often had an attitude of blame - which created a personal obstacle to the helping relationship.

The reality is this: Social Workers do not see clients/patients for whom blame is an effective modifier of behavior. If blame were an effective modifier of the symptom, disease or problem, the person would no longer have the symptom, disease or problem, because if the behavior is socially unacceptable, they have been blamed many times before. This is not to say that the worker can never get angry, frustrated, disappointed or whatever with the client or patient. But it is the obligation of the worker to take care of him or herself outside of the helping relationship.


The alcoholic has long been viewed as an immoral being. That they have been so viewed is understandable when it is realized that no one understood the disease of alcoholism, and that alcoholics don=t have a choice over their drinking until they receive some type of treatment and develop recovery skills. Only recently in the history of mankind has effective treatment for alcoholism existed. Attitudes held over centuries are difficult to change in decades. But when one realizes that: 1) drinking alcohol is a normal adult activity: 2) no test has been established which of us have the potential to become alcoholic; 3) when signs and symptoms of alcoholism are evident, the alcoholic no longer can control his drinking: 4) no one, if they drink enough, is able to act morally by definition because of the disinhibiting effects of the drug alcohol and (5) blaming the alcoholic in an effort to stop or cure the alcoholism doesn=t and won=t work (again, by definition), thus viewing the alcoholic as morally responsible for his alcoholism is both inappropriate and absurd.

On the other hand, society demands each individual to be responsible for their behavior. Even those we don=t hold responsible in the usual manner (e.g. legally), we force into some type of treatment modality. The alcoholic must always be physically responsible for their behavior.

The worker has the responsibility of appropriately treatment the alcoholic and cannot do so if they overtly or covertly blame the alcoholic. Covet blame can be evidenced by having an attitude of blame, which is very easily sensed by the alcoholic because of their working with alcoholic, because of the phenomenon of coalcoholism, to which every worker is prone.

The solution for this problem is in education and awareness for alcoholics, the workers and others. The issue is addressed presently in most treatment settings, but usually not as openly or as focused as in this article. Recovery for families and affected workers begins when they stop blaming the alcoholic, start holding the alcoholic physically responsible for their behavior and begin to own the need for their own recovery. The miracle of recovery for the alcoholic begins when he or she admits and accepts their disease. This admission and acceptance is much more likely when the shame and stigma of this disease are dealt with in an open manner. Continuing recovery depends in a large part on the resolution of guilt and shame over past behaviors. Therefore, continuing recovery depends on the alcoholic and the worker becoming attuned to the moral issues of alcoholism.



 1. Several passages in the Bible address this issue: See Deuteronomy 21: 18 to 21; 1 Corinthians 5:11 – 13 and 6:9 – 11.

2. James R. Milam and Katherine Ketcham, Under The Influence: A Guide To The Myths and and Realities of Alcoholism (Seattle: Madrona Publishers, 1981). , p 137.

3. Aristotle, trans. J.A.K. Thompson, The Ethics of Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics Translated, (London: George Allen and Univin, Ltd., 1953), pp 74 – 75.

4. See, for example, James P. Spradley, You Owe Yourself a Drunk, (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1970).

5. Herbert Fingarette, Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

6. Milam and Ketcham, p 137.

7. Henry M Tiebout, M.D., "The Direct Treatment of a Symptom", condensed from Problems of Addiction and Habituation, (Grune and Stratton, Inc., 1973).

8. John Hospers Human Conduct: Problems of Ethics (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972), p 402.

9. Myra Windmiller, Nadine Lambert and Elliot Turiel, Moral Development and Socialization, (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1980), p. 138.

10. David F. Bush, Clark Power, Arthur I Alterman and Robert Connolly, "Moral Reasoning In Alcoholics and Addicts: Structure vs Content", Perceptual and Motor Skills, (1981) 52, pp 269 – 270.

11. Ibid, pp 269 – 270.

12. Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, trans. James Ellington, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1964), p. 88.

13. J.A.K. Thomson, The Ethics of Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics Translated, (London: George Allen and Univin, Ltd., 1953) p. 75.

14. Ibid

15. Father Martin "Chalk Talk"

16. Hospers, p. 399.

17. Ibid, p. 404.

18. Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, Third Edition (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1976), p. 58.

19. Ibid, p. 59.

20. Kant, p. 104.

21. Kathy Stillson and Carole Katz, "A Supervisory Group Process Approach to Address Staff Burnout and Countertransference in Alcoholism Treatment", Psychosocial Issues in the Treatment of Alcoholism, (New York: The Hawthorne Press, Inc., 1985), pp 117 – 134.

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