Practicing Virtue

By Steve K.

Virtue, defined as a quality or trait of character considered to be morally good or desirable, is fundamental to the practice of the Twelve Step program of recovery originated by Alcoholics Anonymous.

I am particularly interested in the application of Aristotle’s Virtue Theory of moral philosophy, which can be described as a humanistic approach toward an ethical life, to AA’s program of recovery which is based upon basic Christian principles. In deciding ethical behavior, virtue ethics focus upon the character of the person rather than a particular act.

Simply put, practicing such cardinal virtues as courage, temperance, wisdom and justice leads us to live a good, moral or “flourishing” (happy, serene, wellbeing, a life well lived) life. By practicing virtue, one becomes virtuous. The way one is or one’s being is what’s important, not necessarily what one does.

Aristotle’s understanding of virtue was the mean between two extremes of a character trait – courage as a point between cowardice and foolhardy, or humility as between prideful and low self-esteem (being right-sized).


 The Twelve Steps

The aim of AA’s Twelve Step program, as originally conceived by cofounder Bill Wilson, is to bring about a spiritual experience or awakening within the alcoholic, sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism. Based upon Christian principles, it is considered by members of AA to be a spiritual program. The fundamental belief behind the Twelve Steps is that alcoholics cannot recover by relying upon their own resources and need a Power Greater than themselves in order to do so. The practice of the Steps invites this Higher Power into one’s life and brings about inner change and growth or psychic change.

Regardless of whether or not the alcoholic accepts a traditional understanding of God or Higher Power in relation to the Steps, virtue is needed in order to practice them.

The Steps can be understood from a humanistic perspective – through the prism of reason, experience and shared human values – without the necessity of a belief in God. AA is a diverse fellowship built upon liberal as well as spiritual principles, which has from its inception always included members of different world views, including agnostics, atheists and humanists. A Power Greater can be understood in terms of the collective power and inspiration of the fellowship and the wisdom, love and spirit of humanity within its members.

The AA Steps are often referred to as a “Way of Life,” and spirituality as a way of being. Virtue ethics value the way one is, one’s character or way of being and the way one lives overall. The example of virtue in others, the understanding and practice of it, can bring about ethical and spiritual change and growth within the individual.

Understanding AA’s Twelve Step program from this perspective and using the liberal principle of freedom to choose one’s own concept in relation to God or Higher Power, enables a more humanistic or broadly spiritual interpretation of the Steps.

The First Step requires an admission that one lacks control in relation to their drinking. Humility, honesty, acceptance of the truth and a surrender of the ego are needed in order to take this Step. Honesty with self and others and the humble admission of one’s limitations are neccesary. These virtues require ongoing practice in order to maintain sobriety.


Humility is also required for Step Two and is common to the practice of all Twelve Steps. This Step requires an understanding that the individual is “Not-God” – is not the center of the universe, doesn’t know everything and can’t control all things.

Humility is having an accurate view of oneself as a limited, imperfect human being and being honest without pretence in the portrayal of oneself to others. Humility acknowledges the need for others and reaches out toward them. Pride/ego denies this need and results in an inner emptiness; it cuts one off from others due to a sense of being “better than” in comparison, and therefore lacks identification and compassion for others.

Low self-worth is the opposite extreme of pride and also prevents humility. It cuts one off from a healthy connection with others as one feels “less than” in comparison. It also prevents identification and creates feelings of rejection, anger and bitterness toward others.

The humility required for Step Two allows for an open-minded attitude, as one doesn’t assume all knowledge and power, as opposed to a closed-minded ego that already knows the “truth.” Humility allows for the willingness to believe in something greater than oneself.

In addition to humility and willingness, Step Three requires the ongoing practice of faith, deciding to turn one’s will and life over to a Power Greater, and the self-discipline to practice a Higher Power’s will. Or in my case, turning my will and life in the direction of the Good Within or my conscience as inspired by the principles and practices of the Steps and the collective wisdom within the fellowship of AA.

Humility, honesty, courage, willingness, compassion, forgiveness and empathy are required for the genuine practice of Steps Four and Five. It takes humility and courage to look at oneself honestly and admit one’s faults and failings. The ego and its defenses always get in the way of this practice in the forms of pride, arrogance, resentment, denial, rationalization and justification. Therefore, the willingness to step outside of oneself, to transcend selfcenteredness and be objective, is paradoxically needed to take one’s own inventory effectively.

Compassion, forgiveness and empathy are required to admit one’s faults and failings and their impact upon others. Compassion and forgiveness towards one’s own faults and failings as an imperfect human being and both empathy and compassion in relation to how one’s faults and failings affect others.

Hopefully, the awareness of one’s character defects and their effect upon oneself and others creates the acceptance and willingness required in Step Six – acceptance of the need to change and the willingness to let go of character defects with the help of a Higher Power.

Humility and faith are the key virtues of Step Seven – the humility to understand the need for change, to rely on help from something greater than oneself, and to reach toward moral and spiritual growth. Active participation is essential – prayer, meditation, service, work with a sponsor and consistently practicing the rest of the Steps.

In relation to prayer and the removal of shortcomings, what about those who do not believe in a personal God? Can they pray for the removal of shortcomings? It’s up to the individual, but for me the answer is yes. I pray in order to connect with the moral and spiritual values I aspire to live by, to affirm my conscience or higher self. The following description of Buddhist prayer in the book Experiencing Spirituality by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, expresses my interpretation of non-theistic prayer and how it can relate to Step Seven.

“Buddhist prayer is a practice to awaken our inherent inner capacities of strength, compassion and wisdom rather than to petition external forces based on fear, idolizing, and worldly and/or heavenly gain. Buddhist prayer is a form of meditation; it is a practice of inner reconditioning. Buddhist prayer replaces the negative with the virtuous and points us to the blessings of life.

For Buddhists, prayer expresses an aspiration to pull something into one’s life, like some new energy or purifying influence and share it with all beings.  Likewise, prayer inspires our hearts towards wisdom and compassion for others and ourselves. It allows us to turn our hearts and minds to the beneficial, rousing our thoughts and actions towards Awakening. If we believe in something enough, it will take hold of us. In other words, believing in it, we will become what we believe.” (p. 228)

Again humility, honesty and courage are required for Steps Eight and Nine, and a rising above pride and any resentment held toward others who may have done harm to the alcoholic. Forgiveness is the antidote to resentment and so often needs to be practiced. Empathy and compassion for others’ difficulties and character defects allow for forgiveness. A sense of justice is also needed for making amends.


Willingness and perseverance are essential for completing Step Ten, the daily practice of all the Steps, as are all the virtues identified in Steps Four through Nine.

The necessity for ongoing effort as part of Twelve Step recovery is well-summarized in the following passage from The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous:

“AA is not a plan for recovery that can be finished and done with. It is a way of life, and the challenge contained in its principles is great enough to keep any human being striving for as long as he lives. We do not, cannot, outgrow this plan. As arrested alcoholics, we must have a program for living that allows for limitless expansion. Keeping one foot in front of the other is essential for maintaining our arrestment. Others may idle in a retrogressive groove without too much danger, but retrogression can spell death for us.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd Edition, p. 311)

Step Eleven develops spirituality and requires humility, willingness and a degree of faith. For me, it plays a big part in developing moral virtue and awakening me to the “good within.” It helps me reflect upon my relationship to others, the mystery that is life and the universe we are part of, which is greater than I am.

As the result of practicing the Steps and their inherent moral virtues, one should be awakened enough morally and spiritually to be willing to be of service to other alcoholics and people in general. One will have become more outward-looking and less self-centered, a more virtuous person who is willing to carry this message to other alcoholics and practice the virtues and principles in all their affairs. This is Step Twelve. This Step includes the practice of altruism or unconditional love, which is the giving of oneself without expectation of reward. This high ideal is the primary characteristic of Twelve Step recovery and is not easy to live up to.

Thus the idea within Twelve Step fellowships of a good, contented recovery, or being spiritually well as the result of practicing the Steps, is similar to Aristotle’s idea of “human flourishing” – a state of wellbeing, happiness and emotional balance, which is the result of living a good or virtuous life. 



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