Moral Reasoning In Recovery


By Terence .T. Gorski

Moral reasoning and developing higher levels of moral development is important to the addiction recovery process. Progressive recovery should be defined in part by developing improved moral reasoning skills. This is based upon the assumption that the recovery process should produce people who are more likely to make good decisions based on high levels if moral development and less likely to make bad decisions based upon lower levels of moral development.

The application of the principles of moral development to the recovery process is an area that needs more in-depth exploration. I mention it briefly in this blog to put the area of moral development in recovery on the table for future discussion.

Here are my initial assumptions:

Assumption: Low levels of moral development increase the risk of addiction. If this assumption is correct it could explain recent research indicating that:

– The use of addictive substances in childhood and adolescence increases the risk of substance abuse and addiction while
– Abstinence from the use of addictive substances during childhood and adolescence is related to significantly lower levels if abuse and addiction.

During childhood and adolescence levels of moral development are low because they have not yet been developed and integrated into personality and lifestyle processes.

The effects of the use of addictive substances can block on a biological level the emotional integration process needed for the development of conscience (the inner moral compass) and empathy (a sense if caring and sensitive reaction to the feelings of others and a caring response to the suffering if others).

Assumption #2: The progressive symptoms of addiction can impair judgment and impulse control as measured by the capacity for behavioral self-regulation. This can lead to a regression in moral development.

In treatment/recovery there is a big difference in the evidence of improved levels of moral development between:
– Individuals who had high levels of moral development that declined as a result of the progressive symptoms of adult onset addictive disorders; and
– Individuals who never developed age appropriate moral development skills because if child/adolescent onset addictive disorders.

Doing Good and Feeling Good

Sometimes it doesn’t feel good to do the right thing. Determining the right thing to do in specific situations can be challenging.

Many people define the recovery process as “learning how to do the next right thing and then doing it even if it doesn’t feel good in the moment.”

Knowing what the next right thing is requires:

– Accurate information about addiction, recovery, and relapse management;

– Skills in rational thinking, emotional management, impulse control, self-motivation, and basic communication, relationship and life skills;

– Intuitive awareness; and

– Making distinctions between what we feel and the results systematic moral reasoning.

These skills are often not specifically addressed in treatment/recovery.

The Distinction Between Right and Wrong

The foundation of moral reasoning must be based upon a clear distinction between right/good and wrong/bad. I suggest teaching basic moral reasoning using the following criteria.

The standard to evaluate the morally right/good is related to:

– Life,
– Health,
– Energy/Vitality,
– Abundance/Increasing access to resources, and
– Individual Freedom.

The standard for morally wrong/bad is related to the opposites of the morally right/good:

– Death,
– Illness,
– Lethargy/Depression,
– Deprivation/Lack of and decreasing access to resources, and
– Lack of freedom.

The following open ended questions can be used in making basic moral judgments.

1. To what degree does the proposed action lead to the protection of human life, as opposed to increasing the risk of death? (0 – 10).

Note: Progressive addiction leads to high risk of endangering human life through accidents and illness.

2. To what degree does the proposed action contribute to developing greater levels of health, as opposed to the symptoms of illness? (0 – 10)

Note: Progressive addiction leads to declining health and progressively more severe symptoms of illness.

3. To what degree does the proposed action contribute to a increasing feelings of energy/vitality (as opposed to lethargy/depression).

Note: Progressive addiction leads to a declining sense of energy and vitality and progressively more severe feelings of lethargy and depression.

4. To what degree does the proposed action contribute to an increasing access to resources related to making valuable contributions to others.

Note: Progressive addiction leads to progressive inability to gain access to resources because if the progressive irresponsibility related to progressive addiction.

4. To what degree does the proposed action contribute to an increase in personal freedom, as opposed to reduced levels of freedom.

Note: Progressive addiction leads to loss if freedom caused by:
– The progressive enslavement to the addiction caused by the progressive pattern of compulsive use (loss of control) that consumes more time, energy, and resources as the addiction progresses; and
– Restrictions on personal freedom imposed by other people and society as a protection against the progressive dangerous and destructive consequences of addictive use.

Sometimes doing good doesn’t feel good (i.e. Doing what is morally right doesn’t always produce pleasant feelings).


Early Childhood Moral Development:

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development:

One Response to Moral Reasoning In Recovery

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