Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice

January 21, 2012 — 3 Comments


In Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice, professor of philosophy Kent Dunnington takes the traditional ways of thinking about addiction and flips the paradigm. That probably tells you little about what the book really talks about, but as the subtitle bears out, people typically conceive of addictions as either the result of a genetic disposition (disease) or the end result of some bad choices. The former implies the person lacks responsibility for the predicament, and the latter implies they are entirely responsible and just need to get it together and quit making a mess of their lives.


According to Dunnington though, this is a false dichotomy that “arises from a failure or an inability to conceive of a genuine space between compulsion and choice, between, in philosophical terms, determinism and voluntarism” (p. 31). The balance of the book then attempts to parse out this “space between” that is neither biologically determined for the individual nor merely the result of repetitive voluntary choice.

Chapter 1 consists of some ground clearing in the arenas of science, philosophy, and theology. With respect to the neurological and genetic bases of addiction, Dunnington points out that “unless we are content to reduce  all human behavior to pathology, we must reject the assumption that genetic influence entails biological determinism” (p. 24). He goes to say that if addictions were purely biological in their orientation, then we would expect high success in medical treatments of addiction. Unfortunately, that’s not what we find:

Most persons with addiction recover in non-medicalized contexts, and furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that medical treatment improves the chances of recovery from addiction (p. 26).

From there, Dunnington goes on to set the stage for his primarily philosophical discussion that follows in chapter 2, which starts with resources in Aristotle. It is here that Dunnington attempts to narrow the focus and “attempt to locate addictive experience within a broad spectrum of descriptions of human actions” (p. 37). Using a lengthy trek through Aristotelian ethics to focus in on what is the most perplexing aspect of addictive behavior, Dunnington then concludes:

However, insofar as most addictive behavior is recognized by the addicted person to be destructive, and insofar as most instances of addictive behavior are remediable through nonmedical recovery models, most addictive behavior falls within the category of incontinent action (p. 55).

Incontinence can be of two types: (1) rash impulsive actions possibly related strong appetites/abnormal bodily states, (2) clear-eyed, thought through actions. The latter is perhaps the most perplexing since the person is generally fully aware of what they are doing and still do it anyway. To further explore this aspect of incontinent behavior, chapter 3 turns to examine the nature of habit. This also moves the torch of the main discussion partner from Aristotle to Aquinas. The end result is a discussion of habit the creates a mediating category to fit into that “space between” mentioned above. The category of habit accomplishes this in three ways (p. 63):

  • It mediates between instinct and disposition
  • It mediates between determinism and voluntarism
  • It mediates between involuntary and voluntary

After discussing these in more detail, Dunnington concludes that much of human action is largely in the domain of habit so much so that “not only how we respond, but also the way in which we see the situations we confront and the alternatives open to us are thoroughly drenched in habit” (p. 79). Because “human action is often the confluence point of passion and rational judgment,” then we should find that

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

Having reached this point, Dunnington moves the discussion forward by turning in chapter 4 to a discussion of the similarities and differences between addiction and intemperance. Dunnington states his thesis up front:

In opposition to this standard view, I contend that addiction is in fact a deeply moral undertaking directed toward the attainment of particular moral and intellectual goods (p. 83).

In other words, rather than seeing the addict as someone who has “checked out” on life in order to get “strung out” on some new kind of high, Dunnington sees addiction as an active and passionate engagement in the pursuit of the good life. On the face of it, this is almost counter-intuitive, since many people consider the addict to be pursuing anything other than the good life. Usually, addict are thought of as people who can’t control their desires, which is usually thought to be textbook intemperance. But in order to build his case, Dunnington differentiates between intemperance and addiction:

Intemperance is the inordinate love of certain objects because of the sensory pleasures they provide whereas addiction is the inordinate love of certain objects for reasons other than sensory pleasure (p. 91).

In this light, the intemperate persons is just someone who can’t control his desires and so makes bad choices from time to time. The addict is something much more than that according to Dunnington.

In chapter 5, Dunnington beings mounting what will become an incisive critique of our culture. After first noting the concept of an “addict” is distinctly American, Dunnington contends that addiction is “the definitive habit of our time exactly because it offers the most powerful available response to this perculiarly modern lack” (p. 101). The “lack” that he is referring to is a lack of agreement in our society on what constitutes the good life. As he’ll go on to argue, addiction provides a transcendent pursuit in a culture that has denied the existence of anything beyond the here and now.

As a result of our quintessential modern boredom and loneliness, the habit of addiction emerges as a strong alternative for organizing all your energies toward a transcendent pursuit. In the absence of any kind of cultural agreement on what the good life is that we should be pursuing, addiction, especially to drug and alcohol, offers something to fill the void. Or, as Dunnington concludes:

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

With this in mind, chapter 6 turns to a more theological focus and discusses addiction in the context of the Christian doctrine of sin. Dunnington begins by noting that similar language is used with respect of “sin” and “addiction.” As he will conclude, “the language of sin is not only compatible with the phenomena of addiction but is also necessary to a characterization of addiction in all of its profoundly destructive power” (p. 139). Using this principle he can then say “when we speak of addiction in the theological category of sin, we draw attention to the way in which addiction constitutes not a moral deficiency but rather a falling away from our perfect good of eternal friendship with God” (p. 140).

This leads naturally to the next chapter which turns to a discussion of the similarities between addiction and worship. Essentially, as Dunnington proposes, addiction is a form of counterfeit worship. In this light, addiction is counterfeit way of life that is centered the wrong transcendent pursuit. It is an all encompassing habit of seeing the world a certain way and living within that world in a certain way.

Having reshaped the paradigm this dramatically, Dunnington’s concluding chapter turns to the church and the power of the gospel in helping addicts recover. Given his above analysis, it should be a little clearer now how some people can make such a quick and legitimate 180 when they move from deep drug addiction to a vibrant Christian life. In short, they had already acquired the life habit of centering all the activities around a transcendent pursuit, they were just pursuing the wrong thing. Once they’ve been realigned to pursue Christ, their habituated lifestyle allows them to enter into a depth of Christian living that many people never even experience.


Overall, this was a fascinating book on both the power and nature of addiction. Dunnington writes clearly and is easy to follow. I found his sociological analysis of addiction most interesting and really want to further pursue the connections between addiction as synchronized transcendent pursuit and how we typically construe the Christian life. If you are looking to grow in your understanding of addiction because of its effect on someone close to you, I would highly recommend this book. While it does stop short of suggesting how to help someone recover from addiction, it does present the power of Christ in the gospel the only real hope for recovery.

Kent Dunnington, Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice, (Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology), Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, September, 2011. 199 pp. Paperback, $30.00.

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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

3 responses to Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice

  1. Nate, Thanks for a thorough review. Based upon your recommendation, I ordered the book and started reading it this week. I’ll be interested to compare your thoughts to mine. Did you have any concerns that one result could be to minimize personal responsibility (I have not seen that…yet…as I’ve not read far enough). Also, although the book was not designed as a “how to” or “a recovery manual,” did you sense an overall “gospel-centered focus” even with his sociological and philosophical perspective? Bob

    • Bob,

      I didn’t feel like he minimized personal responsibility. You may be a better judge of that than I am, but it seemed like he wanted to create a separate category for true addiction that isn’t a disease (and so determined) and wasn’t just pure choice (and so could be changed at will). In some ways he gives the addict more latitude, but in doing so he also removes a lot of people from that category and instead classifies them as those who just lack self-control.

      If there is an underlying “gospel-centered focus” it is not readily apparent in the first four, maybe five chapters. He seems to doing mainly philosophical work and only turns to explicit theological concerns in the chapter on sin. Once there though, he did stay in that arena. The gospel as power to transform really isn’t brought up until the final chapter. I felt he could have said more, but given the focus of the book, I didn’t think it was a deficit, especially if you use this book in tandem with Welch’s book on the same topic.


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