Morality, Altruism and Spiritual Growth

By Steve K.

Spiritual development, or awakening, and reduction of our fear based ego is the main aim of the 12-Step approach to recovery from addiction. The belief is that if we change in this respect we’ll be able to let go of our addictions and live more fulfilling and satisfying lives. We will move away from negative and self-centred behaviour, towards a positive and virtuous lifestyle.

The practices of moral virtue and altruistic behaviour are important paths towards spiritual awareness and growth. As we pursue these ways of being we gradually become less self-centred and more connected in a harmonious way with ourselves, others, and the world.

The practice of moral principles as part of a program of recovery is necessary in my view. It’s a means of managing our instinctual needs in an aware and self-disciplined way. Addicts, in general, develop dysfunctional strategies and behaviours in an attempt to meet their material, emotional, social, and sexual needs. Addiction itself is one of these dysfunctional behaviours.

Historically, addicts’ needs have often been neglected, abused, and unmet, and so they acquire fear based excessive needs and defensive ways of being, that are, in the end, harmful to themselves and others. 12-Step literature refers to these excesses and ego defense mechanisms as “character defects”, which is an attempt to convey their harmful nature.

12-Step recovery aims to uncover these dysfunctional ways of being and make us fully conscious of the harm they cause to ourselves and other people in our lives. Inherent within the 12 Steps are moral and spiritual principles that help us to meet our needs and emotional difficulties in a healthy and more fulfilling way.

Moral or Virtuous Actions

Why is ethical behaviour considered to be so important in relation to our spiritual development?  I would like suggest the following reasons:  firstly, behaving ethically promotes an inner state of well-being and serenity. In practicing moral virtue we will become more content and at peace within ourselves and in our lives. Inner peace is a foundation for spiritual growth.

Behaviour that is unethical and selfish creates inner disturbance and anxiety, a dis-ease with self. In general, it also brings us into conflict with others and results in harmful consequences for ourselves and them. Unethical behaviour such as dishonesty, greed, and the exploitation of others is fundamentally self-centred, and a barrier to both self and spiritual development.

Practicing moral principles also requires self-discipline, which is essential to furthering our development and spiritual growth. Self-control is necessary to act outside of our egotistical impulses and desires, which becomes increasingly important as we develop along our spiritual path.

Altruism and Service

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Service to others is another common principle and practice in relation to spiritual growth. Altruism and compassion are characteristics of being spiritually awakened, but also encourage its development. Service is a principle common to all of the major spiritual traditions.

Altruism is giving to others without the expectation of reward. It’s transcending our self-centred ego; practicing love without attachment.  Our attachments increase the ego’s sense of identity, separating and disconnecting us from our true-selves and others.

Spiritually speaking, the practice of love is quite often viewed as a way of connecting us with our true nature, or the God, or Good, within us. The connecting nature of altruism is expressed by Steve Taylor in the following quote:

“Practicing self-sacrifice and altruism opens us up to God, because the nature of God is love. Our own nature becomes attuned to God’s, and we become one with it.” (1)


We also become one with others. Altruism is an expression of our empathic higher nature, and a connecting aspect of our humanity. It takes us outside of our fear based ego, and towards others with feelings of love, kindness, and compassion. Service to others leads to well-being and happiness within, by reducing our sense of isolation and separation. We feel increasingly fulfilled in our lives, developing a meaning and purpose.

Our inner wisdom knows that happiness and connection comes from giving of ourselves, rather than seeking worldly possessions and attachments. ‘We will do well if we heed the wise words of the American Indian, Ohiyesa, speaking of his Sioux people:’

“It is our belief that the love of possessions is a weakness to overcome. Its appeal is to the material part, and if allowed its way, it will in time disturb one’s spiritual balance. Therefore, children must early learn the beauty of generosity. They are taught to give what the prize most, that they may taste the happiness of giving.” (2)

Altruism is a core principle and practice of 12-Step recovery from addiction. It’s expressed explicitly through AA’s Step Twelve and also the Fellowship’s Tradition Five. Service to others has been a key factor in my own spiritual growth and awakening. There is a mutuality in giving to others and so we gain as much as we give. The practice of “carrying a message of recovery” to others commits me to my own sobriety and the principles contained within the Twelve Steps. This form of service helps me to develop my character and evolve my emotional and spiritual awareness and growth.

The reciprocal nature of giving is expressed well by the writer Marya Hornbacher, in the following quote from her book, ‘Waiting – A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power’, p.137.


“…what comforts me is comforting someone else when I can; what gives me strength is giving strength to another; and when I need, I try to give. I return to the prayer of St Francis: “…Grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted; to understand than to be understood; to love than to be loved. For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.” 

Altruism and Self-Interest

Some people believe that altruism doesn’t exist, arguing that human beings are always driven by self-interest. It’s very difficult, and probably impossible, to prove that some form of self-interest isn’t involved in our altruistic behaviour. However, according to the scientific method, a theory that’s not falsifiable isn’t valid theory. 

The belief that a self-interested motive negates altruism is mistaken in my view. We often have mixed motives for our actions, but this doesn’t mean that they aren’t true. I can genuinely make efforts to help another for their benefit, at some cost to myself, and also be motivated by feeling good about myself for doing so. I can feel empathy and compassion for someone’s situation and wish to help them for its own sake (the primary motive), and at the same time be fulfilling my desire to live by moral values, enhancing my self-esteem and feeling good about my actions in the process. The altruistic action and benefit to my self-concept are often intertwined and natural.

The natural benefit to our self-esteem, sense of well-being, and the moral integrity gained from service to others, is familiar to those of us in 12-Step recovery. By helping others we help ourselves. In recovery we are bound together in fellowship by our common suffering. Identification in our shared experiences creates genuine feelings of empathy and compassion for each other, and a willingness to serve. Yes, we benefit from our service, but this doesn’t lessen our altruistic feelings for one another, and in my view, service and feeling good about ourselves is something that we should all applaud.


  1. ‘The Leap – The Psychology of Spiritual Awakening.’ By Steve Taylor, Ph.D.

  2. ‘Happiness Comes from Giving, Not Buying and Having.’ By Steve Taylor, Ph.D.

       Further Reading: Is Pure Altruism Possible? By Prof Judith Lichtenberg.

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