Review of Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice by Kent Dunnington

“I can’t stop”

The young man in my office was broken by his continuing lapses into the darkness of pornography.  He truly wanted to stop, at least it seemed.  He hated pornography.  But he kept going through seasons of “feast” and famine.  Sometimes he could quit for months at a time.  At other points he was engaging in sexual deviance multiple times per day. 

Did he have a disease?  Yes, it is quite true that pornography probably had changed his brain structure.  So there really is legitimacy to his saying, “I can’t stop”.  But isn’t the gospel more powerful than brain structure?  And isn’t it a little simplistic to say that just because his brain structure has changed that he now can’t stop?  If his brain structure was able to change in a deviant form isn’t it possible to “rewire” it again? 

Disease is too simplistic of an explanation. 

So it’s all his choice then, right?  This young man must really not want to change or else he would just make the choice to stop.  If that is the case then why is he in my office?  He obviously wants to stop but he doesn’t know how.  As he talks to me (and this is the case with a myriad of “addicts”) he feels utterly helpless to this problem.  Furthermore, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” doesn’t seem to be the Bible’s method of Christian growth.  (But then again, neither does a helpless “let go and let God”.) 

Choice is too simplistic of an explanation. 

Then what is it?  If disease is too simplistic and choice is too simplistic, how do we come to understand the nature and experience of addiction?  This is the question that Kent Dunnington sets out to answer in his work Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice. 

Dunnington’s Position:

Through mining the thought of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, Dunnington believes that these two giants of thought provide a solution. He believes that addictive action is fundamentally the result of habit. Habit, says Dunnington, is “a relatively permanent acquired modification of a person that enables the person, when provoked by a stimulus, to act consistently, successfully and with ease with respect to some objective”. (62)

This helps us to see that what is taking place in addictive action is something that resides deeply within the person. “Rather than being things that we have (as diseases are), addictions are more like things that we become.” (72) But it also explains why addiction is often incontinent action (approving the good, desiring the bad, and driven by this habit ends up doing the bad).

Addiction is not simply an inordinate desire for sensory goods. It is not mere intemperance, but according to Dunnington it actually is a pursuit of moral and intellectual goods. The addictive habit is an attempt to provide a “unifying rationale” (a meta-narrative) to life and thus give the addicted person at least something of necessity. This is why, perhaps, addiction is so prevalent in our contemporary society, because:

“Addiction provides a response to the underwhelming life of boredom that plagues the bourgeois in its leisure time by making one thing matter. And addiction provides a response to the overwhelming life of boredom that plagues the working class with fragmented and compartmentalized striving by making one thing matter. For those who are bored with nothing to do, addiction stimulates by entangling and consuming; for those who are bored with too much to do, addiction disburdens by simplifying and clarifying.”  (118)

Addiction, then, is an “embodied cultural critique of modernity”. And if I am reading Dunnington correctly he believes that addiction is fundamentally a worship problem. The reason we are so “addicted” in our culture is that we have rejected true worship and engaged in counterfeit worship. In fact addiction, it is argued, is counterfeit worship. And this worship problem will be fixed through the gospel coming to bear on a person through gospel-saturated communities.

My Take

I absolutely love Dunnington’s thesis and I tend to agree with him.  Addiction is something more profound than simple models of disease and choice.  These addictive patterns become such a part of us; that is why I like his model of habit.  It explains why it feels uncontrollable, like disease, gives hope that it can be overcome, while at the same time not undercutting that hope by relegating to the deterministic “disease” paradigm. 

I believe that Dunnington’s work here is very foundational and could help move the discussion in addiction and mental health issues forward.  No longer do we need to spend our time fighting about whether addiction is disease or choice, instead we can rest in a helpful third position (habit), that says at the same time it is “both/and” but also “neither/or” disease and choice. 

Personally, I believe that this work could even be used to garner some understanding in what happens with depression.  In the world of biblical counseling we spend a good amount of time arguing about whether depression is caused by biological problems that need to be fixed by medicine or whether it is a sin problem that needs to be fixed by the gospel.  Dunnington’s model would provide helpful navigation. 

This book will hopefully start a conversation.  It probably will not end it, but I believe it will further our discussions on the issue of addiction.  All those that decide to write about addiction must now consider Dunnington’s work and interact with his hypothesis. 

Something to Build On

I find this book to be very helpful in shaping a theology of addiction.  The problem is I am not sure how to apply it.  Nor do I think the technical writing lends itself to most pastors laboring through and then thinking through its implications.  Because of this I am praying that someone far wiser than myself picks up Dunnington’s work and begins to tease out its implications.  I think Dunnington wants us to read his work and flesh out our own applications.  Fair enough, but I feel he has such a good grasp on this I would have liked to have seen a chapter fleshing out the implications of his work in a church setting.

Nonetheless, I find this book very helpful.  It will not be for everyone, as some of the language is technical and the concepts at times are a little difficult to follow.  For the typical addicted person that picks this up I’m not certain that he/she will find much help.  But for those that are discussing the nature of addiction—and those that hope to help those battling various addictions this book is a very helpful addition to your library. 

I thought this book was releasing in September but it looks like Amazon may be shipping it out now.  I got a free pre-release copy from IVP in exchange for a review.  You’ll have to buy it in paperback or on your Kindle.

Tomorrow I will be posting a recent interview I did with author Kent Dunnington…

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