I was once an incorrigible, directionless, bottom-feeding addict. I spent more than a decade of my life street-level snouting for nuggets of crack – what now seems like a lifetime peering vainly into the bottom of empty plastic deal bags and scraping out the spaces between floor boards. I lost count of the times I ignited tiny bits of toe nail or lumps of wax in the vain hope that they might be precious shards of crack cocaine. In the end I was brought to heel by a singular voice sounding through the fog. In my darkest moments it was only the dim sound of my conscience that called me back to ground level. Conscience is as primal as pain. It cannot be denied. It opens its hand and proffers the gift of free will, but it seems to me that this free will opens only briefly like a strange portal before suddenly closing again – for a very long time.
When conscience calls we should listen. I did. I made a choice and it was a very simple choice to make. Addicts must have meaning and they must have morality – or they will die. To argue the subjectivity of good and evil is a moot point for us. It is circus tricks for people with too much time on their hands. Those who have stood at the abyss understand this evil. Further, we are in no doubt that our first port of call is always to acknowledge our own shadow, which haunts us with even greater tenacity than those cast by any other antagonist. It is our own evil which eats away at us – which is the most corrosive – rotting us from the inside out. “Evil” I hear you scoff. “Evil is just a reactionary concept invented by the religious patriarchy. It has no objective standard of measurement. It changes from person to person and from culture to culture.” Really, you’re sure about that are you? Maybe you just haven’t spent enough time in crack dens.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was brilliant in so many ways, but he unwittingly ushered in this type of thinking – what we would now call postmodernism, or more obliquely, moral relativism. He feared that the average human would be too weak to uphold morality when there was no longer a God to personify those values. After The Death of God, he said, we would sink into nihilism. And he was right. Anyone who doesn’t see nihilism at large in post-industrial society needs to take a closer look at what might constitute meaninglessness. It’s not just school shooters and drug addicts who personify this malaise. It’s also clear to see in what Tolstoy called ‘The Epicurean Solution’. The idea that pleasure is the only goal worth pursuing in a meaningless universe. The idea that we should squeeze it all in while we can. This form of selfish pleasure seeking can take subtle forms. The well-heeled beautiful people who spend their lives travelling incessantly to look at impressive things – and to be photographed whilst doing so – that’s the Epicurean solution. Perennial backpackers, bucket listers and Instagram junkies are as nihilistic as any ragged-arsed Appalachian fentanyl addict. Yes, Nietzsche was right. Post-religion, we would become nihilistic. Where he went wrong, in my view, was in the solution he prescribed.
Moral Codes Are Heuristics
Nietzsche believed that we would need to re-invent ourselves to avert a catastrophe of meaninglessness. We needed a comprehensive re-boot – a “re-evaluation of all values” or what he called – transvaluation. In other words, morals are what we decide they are. They are mouldable. But there’s one major problem with this. We need a “Re-evaluation of All Values” like we need a hole in the head.
Today, thanks to the advent of evolutionary psychology it has become fairly clear that moral behaviour has some basis in our biology, and that it doesn’t differ that much across human groups. (See Robert Wright and his book The Moral Animal for what is perhaps the most lucid explanation of how our moral values are probably adaptive). In evolutionary psychology we run up against the idea that the morals we grew up with, even if they are not literally true – are pragmatically true.
Perhaps we should call moral codes by another name then. Perhaps we should call them, ‘evolutionarily shaped customs of suffering-avoidance’. Moral codes are practically true. They are true in the same way that a punch in the face is true. The immorality of adultery for example, is not objectively true. But the pain of the broken nose you will receive when her husband finds out – is true. Broken noses are very true. So moral injunctions proscribing adultery are at least as true as dangerous men and broken noses. Thus, they are more or less universal – in one form or another. Moral codes which enshrine tit-for-tat behaviour or reciprocal altruism for example, are practical techniques that do not pretend to be perfectly, logically rational. Nevertheless, they are more than sufficient to achieve their desired end which, presumably, is to keep the individual (and possibly the group) surviving and thriving. They are heuristics.
Neither should we look to Buddhism, as Nietzsche did, and assume any moral relativism in Gotama’s teachings. Although The Buddha did outline the perils of antithetical concepts such as good versus evil (known as ‘The Contemplation of Dyads’) he also promoted the importance of sïla (moral behaviour) as a pre-requisite to developing one’s powers of awareness. He saw awareness as essential in being able to perceive reality more accurately and thereby bear the suffering of life and death in the most noble and productive way possible. For The Buddha, morality was a tool – even if it wasn’t a real and enduring ‘thing’.
Human morality is not relative in the least, observable as it is in every human child. We hate freeloaders. We loath undeserved success. We despise cowardice and we reward bravery. We prefer the underdog and we admire the stoic sufferer. This is observable in all human groups.
Yes, Nietzsche was right when he said we would find new Gods, and that they would not necessarily be better Gods. And it is beyond obvious that money and political ideology are two pertinent examples of highly salient things that have risen sharply as ‘god substitutes’ over the last century. Science might be another strong contender. But Nietzsche was wrong to say we could become Gods ourselves, and to put forward the idea that a moral force could have no place in our lives, or that Christianity in particular was somehow degenerate. I put it to you that he was exhibiting arrested development (in psycho-social terms). He was the son of a pastor after all! Unsurprisingly then, his atheistic incantations have an innately spiritual tone. He didn’t seem to be aware of the fact that he was, is nothing else, a brilliant mind working firmly within the tradition of protestant thought.
He was right when he said we needed to suffer to find meaning, but he was wrong when he prescribed placing ourselves as the ultimate source of authority. We need something above us. We need something to hem us in. Our own religious tradition is no less worthy than any other. This is a fact from which the everyday sins of individual perverts hiding behind the cloth should not divert us. Now is not the time to get peevish.
The French sociologist Émile Durkheim was nearer the mark when he said that the deification and pursuit of goals which are purely individualistic would drive us to insanity (actually, to suicide). For humans to be happy, or at least sane, Durkheim argued, they must in some sense be limited. If we remove the overarching meaning maker, or rule maker, to whom even kings were formerly subjected, then we would enter a valueless state which he called social anomie.
“Irrespective of any external regulatory force, our capacity for feeling is in itself an insatiable and bottomless abyss.”
In other words, the more we look into ourselves, the more we disappear up our own arsehole.
Any end-stage addict understands the somewhat black and white nature of human morality in a direct experiential way. The hammer of life has beaten out any prejudice they ever had towards the necessity of living a spiritual life. We are ready for the moulding. And this is a sentiment which utterly disgusts modern western society. “Moulded! Who wants to be moulded”? I hear you scream. “We, are glorious and majestic individuals.” Well…yes. But what sort of individuality do we desire. Will we excel by way of ease and comfort and joy? By sitting on our arses? No, we improve only by being mangled and bashed and changed. We can readily observe our own natural tendencies toward sloth, self-centredness, or any number of other frailties – and we can decide that it isn’t anywhere near good enough. When we find ourselves at this point in our lives, addict or non-addict, then a roadmap of how to move out of such a stuck position is indispensable. We simply cannot be more intelligent than fifty- thousand years of culture. We just can’t. Even Friedrich Nietzsche, with his massive intellect, was not more intelligent than 50,000 years of combined learning.
Our cultures have moulded themselves around our natural dispositions. Their moral codes evolved for the precise purpose of taking the edge off, ameliorating, or otherwise directing our baser inclinations. In the maelstrom of modern consumer society – amidst this screaming sonata of pestilent thrills – the recovering addict stands as a fitting example of our need for moral therapy.
As I moved into a life of recovery I found that the many recovering addicts I encountered were not proselytizers. They were beacons of sanity and they were pragmatists. They had spent most of their lives engaged in amoral pursuits but this had brought them to their knees and placed them before the altar. On this altar there lay a covenant, and this covenant presented itself to them in a life or death kind of context. It said, “pick me up or take a bullet.” It re- vivified ancient teachings – those part of our heritage we thought we could do without. It revived the ancestors. Suddenly we knew why they did what they did, and why they contrived such commandments. It all suddenly made sense.
What really sticks in the craw of the average modern citizen, what really grates in my opinion, is the idea that pathologies like addiction must, in the final analysis, be resolved by moral effort. Such problems cannot be arrested by psychotherapy or pharmacology, but only by intensive action on the part of the individual. And it is this word, the word ‘moral’ that does the damage. This word is anathema to today’s generations.
We Need a Recalibration of Moral Values Not a Reinvention.
The reason we must wrestle with the concept of morality at this juncture – not just the addict, but the whole of society – is because we are emerging from an age of liberal materialism where blank slate thinking is received wisdom. But with each year that passes we are coming to understand more and more that human nature is a very real and enduring thing. It is not the sum total of arbitrary cultural constructs. Human beings are not born perfect, untarnished and free of any evil facility. Far from it. We are born with abundant potential for the selfish destruction of both ourselves and others. It’s a part of our nature that is embedded deep within our psyche. To deny this reptilian element and repress it is merely to make it unseen and therefore more difficult to detect. No, far from having our inherent perfection dented by the vicious forces of existence as the wet-eyed ones would have us believe, we must agree that we were partly damaged goods to begin with and that things have gotten worse since. If we are to change this unsatisfactory state of affairs, then it is we who must labour against all odds to re- create ourselves as more enlightened individuals. Only through intense struggle can we hope to transcend our own integral baseness. This was the part of the prescription that Nietzsche got right. It is only the base and lowly that leads us upwards. But the spiritual teachers and founding fathers of all of the world’s cultures knew this. The fact that the majority of spiritual observers don’t display true spiritual courage on a daily basis, or that religious institutions are full of hypocrites, does not give us permission to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s an immature response. We need to dig deeper. We actually need to expand our religious expressions, and bring them up to date.
Having broken our covenants, having sinned wildly, then we can understand that it is we who must change, not the world around us. There is no confessional that is going to wipe it away. No prayer wheel that will absolve our karma. This is something that every successful recovering addict finds out eventually. They don’t have a choice. Perhaps it’s time to catch up with those religious visionaries of former millennia rather than run away from them.
Bio: Alastair is a pioneer of addiction treatment in Asia. In 2010 he co-founded The Cabin Chiang Mai, the largest private treatment centre outside of the United States. He also founded and ran The Edge, the first treatment centre in the world to utilise Muay Thai and other martial arts as treatment modalities for young men. He is a proponent of physical culture and a globally recognized expert in men’s recovery issues.