It has often been said that substance abusers are selfish, and there was a time when I believed and indeed embraced this notion, but I eventually realized this is wrong. Let’s consider a real life example, a friend of mine.
Jonathan, a heroin abuser from a single parent home, got himself kicked out of school in the 9th grade, and he never returned to school. He stays living at home for years, and makes some cash by selling weed. When he gets in trouble with the law every so often, he begs his mother and grandparents to pay for lawyers and fines. While living at home, he’s lazy, he never cleans up after himself or helps his mother out in any substantial way. Occasionally, when he doesn’t have enough money for heroin, he manipulates his mother into giving him money under the threat that if she doesn’t, then he’ll probably go rob somebody. She and the grandparents send him through many treatment programs, but it just never sticks. One of the programs he attended actually hired him and gave him a cushy office job, a place to live, and most importantly, a chance to get real professional work experience that could lead to a very successful life. Within a few months, he starts selling weed in the community and inevitably loses the job. He goes back home to mom and gets a job at the mall, where he quickly becomes a manager. He then uses his position to steal thousands of dollars in order to pay for his revived habit. He gets caught, and the cycle starts again. He’s done many more hurtful things to people along the way, but this is his story in a nutshell.
Now when we look at this story in one way, it seems that Jonathan is indeed self-centered. He repeatedly holds his personal desire for drugs, above the needs and even legal rights of others. He cons his mother, his employers, and anyone else he comes in contact with, to feed his self-indulgent habit. He puts his drug use, his desire for a high, before and above everything else. Isn’t that selfish behavior? Not really.
The exact definition of selfishness is “concern with one’s own interests”, and I posit that none of the behavior described in the example above is actually in Jonathan’s self-interest. How can loafing around at your mother’s house, into your adulthood, actually be in your self-interest? While Jonathan should be practicing earning a living, providing for himself, and building an independent life – he’s actually just siphoning everything he can from his mother. What happens when she isn’t around anymore? What about selling drugs, and constantly worrying about being caught by the law? That certainly isn’t in one’s self-interest. Building up a lengthy criminal record certainly isn’t good for Jonathan either, it will likely plague him for the rest of his life. And when I saw him throw away a great job opportunity, the kind of job that is very rare for for a high school dropout with a criminal record – I felt truly sad for him. That move was not in his self-interest. Furthermore, the goal he is chasing – to be constantly high – although it’s something he currently wants, is still not in his self-interest at all, it runs counter to his self-interest. On the most basic level, Jonathan’s goal of staying high is bad for him because while he’s high, he is avoiding dealing with reality and growing up; he’s trading the potential of a long fulfilling life, for the thrill of short term pleasures.
So in reality, Jonathan may have been acting in a way that dismissed the needs and rights of others, and in a way that holds his whims up as the center of the universe, but he wasn’t behaving “selfishly” in the true sense of the term at all. He’d been acting in opposition to his own self-interest the entire time. He was not simply worshipping himself, for if he was, he never would have behaved in such a way that repeatedly dismissed all of his true needs in life and long-term well-being – he was worshipping his irrational whims and shortsighted desires for cheap thrills and an escape from reality. (I’m not saying that Jonathan is inherently bad or evil, I’m saying that he’s been misguided and making mistakes)
Now at this point, some may say that my disagreement with the diagnosis of selfishness is simply a matter of semantics, but it actually goes deeper than that. To come up with the proper solution to a problem, we must accurately understand the problem. Thus when we inaccurately label the substance abuser as selfish, we logically come up with the inaccurate recommendation that the substance abuser should practice selflessness or altruism in order to solve their problems. When we recommend this, we are sending them down a confusing path.
The terms altruism, unselfishness, and selflessness all refer to a moral code of self-sacrifice, a code of denying our own needs and desires so that we may serve the needs and desires of others. For a time, in the early stages of substance abuse cessation, being altruistic may actually seem to work. You may drop all of your needs and desires, and put the needs and desires of others first, thus, ignoring your desire for a high, you will stay sober. But the problem is that we have many needs which must be attended to, including our basic survival needs of food, shelter, etc., and we have psychological needs, such as the needs to feel happy, independent, and productive – and ultimately, true altruism, because it tells us to ignore these needs, becomes impracticable.
The inherent problems of altruistic morality are glaring. To really practice it, you must ignore the very life force that drives all human progress, your own desire for personal happiness – and hope that someone else is invested enough in your happiness to take care of all your needs and make your dreams come true. All supposed altruists eventually realize this, and if they still stubbornly stick to it as an ideal, they end up living or endorsing half measures and contradictions such as: you need to put others first, but you can only do that after you’ve paid your own bills. Well you’re really putting yourself first then, aren’t you? They’ll also make claims with a mystical flavor, either promising that God will take care of you in the afterlife or that your needs will magically be met here on earth as long as you keep denying your self, and have faith. These promises ring hollow to many believers and non-believers alike.
In the early days of AA, there was much talk of unselfishness, and it was held up as an absolute principle of spirituality which must be followed for success. This then showed up all over the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, the official textbook for the group. There are at least 15 instances throughout the book where selfishness is referred to derogatorily. One quote is particularly explicit in its disdain of selfishness – “Selfishness—self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles”. They also recommend that we “lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows”. The author also refers to his drinking behavior as selfish, and portrays selfishness as a “character defect” several times. Yet, if you attend 12-step meetings, you will be reminded constantly that “this is a selfish program”. The meaning of this statement is clear, it advises that you make your own well-being a priority. Nevertheless, this is an example of the glaring contradictions which must come up when you demonize selfishness and recommend an altruistic path. The problem is even more evident upon examining the Big Book’s recommendations on helping others and “passing it on”. This, the 12th step, is prescribed as the way to stay sober. So you are told to help other substance abusers as a means to help yourself, but then you’re told that you must only think of their well being, with no motive of helping them as a way to help yourself. So why would you have ever started helping others if you hadn’t been taught that it is to your benefit to do so? Why teach it at all? They give you an explicit reason/motivation to help other substance abusers, then they tell you to forget that reason, but still go ahead and do it. Do you see how confusing and self-contradictory these messages are? This is because of the problematic nature of the altruistic moral code. We could go in circles discussing this all day long.
Ultimately, you can’t accurately attribute a substance abuser’s problems to selfishness, at all. Likewise I can’t endorse unselfishness, i.e. altruism, as the solution. The idea that substance use and the behavior surrounding it is selfish, may at worst be very harmful, but at the least, it’s extremely confusing and counter-intuitive. It reinforces the view that being under the constant influence of drugs is actually in the users self-interest, that it is good, and desirable on a personal level – when in fact it’s not. Substance abuse, by definition, is to misuse substances in way where the benefits fail to outweigh the costs – it is not in anyone’s self-interest. The root of substance abuse more accurately lies in the irrationality and poor decision-making caused by misplaced values or priorities.
What would Jonathan’s life be like if he valued independence and achievement more than he valued cheap thrills? What if instead of constantly making choices which satisfy him in the short term, he made more choices to achieve long term goals? What if he truly focused on building a better life for himself? If he did these things, then he would stop abusing substances, and he would stop conning people and committing petty crimes. He would build a good reputation for himself by dealing fairly with others, and this would increase his self-efficacy and self-esteem. With each new goal he worked towards, he would build confidence and skills for dealing with reality and the demands of life. He would no longer be dishonest, because it really isn’t in anyone’s self-interest to be dishonest. Dishonesty is the practice of faking reality, and an attempt to live outside of it’s laws. As one practices this, they become less equipped to deal with reality, but as they practice honesty, they become better equipped to deal with reality, and find success. To live selfishly, by definition means to do what’s truly good for yourself, to live with honor, to meet the demands of reality. As a side effect, this includes treating others well and with justice.
So we needn’t practice a watered down and contradictory version of altruism in order to get along in society and treat others well – we can be truly selfish, and that is ultimately a good thing, that we can practice forever, without contradiction. I encourage you to practice true selfishness, to care for yourself and invest in your long-term survival, prosperity, mutually beneficial relationships with others, and personal happiness.
This is an unedited chapter from my upcoming book.