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CHRISTIAN CENTURY, Vol. 66: 1264-1266, October 26, 1949
J. Maurice Trimmer
superior court judge in California recently ruled that a
woman convicted of gambling was not a criminal by intent.
She was, he said, suffering from some form of "psychomotor
disorder." The judge accordingly issued instructions
that she be given a medical examination. The specialist
to whom her case was referred gave her two "electro-encephalogram"
treatments, which in nontechnical language means electric
shocks to the brain. He declared that the treatments should
restore her sense of responsibility and cure her of the
judgement of the court in this case reflects a pronounced
trend. Human perversity is held to be a medical rather than
moral problem. The conception that a person who is guilty
wrongdoing is sick rather than sinful raises a number of
questions: If certain forms of misbehavior are sickness
than sin, why does the same diagnosis not apply to other
By what criteria are judges to determine whether the rational
individual who does wrong is willfully perverse or woefully
pathological? If addiction to gambling is caused by a psychomotor
disorder, why are not addictions to murder, adultery, stealing,
lying, and other pernicious practices also attributable
same ailment? Or does each represent a different but equally
Jesus answered the Pharisees who criticized him for associating
with sinners, "They that are whole have no need of
a physician, but they that are sick," what did he mean?
In my opinion he meant to imply, not that sin is a form
of sickness, but that sin produces a form of sickness. There
is a radical difference between these two propositions.
Certainly he did not intend to teach that all moral weakness,
or even the worst type of it, is to be included in the category
of illness over which the doer has no control. Just as the
physician must go among those who are sick in order to heal
them, so should the physician of souls go among those who
are "sick" as a result of sinning to accomplish
their conversion and redemption.
there is a disposition in certain quarters to push the
analogy much farther than Christ intended it to be carried.
hear that those who violate recognized patterns and principles
behavior should have diagnosis rather than denunciation,
rather than punishment, cure rather than conversion. To
that it is as irrational to stigmatize a person for gross
against right and decency as to stigmatize a patient for
developing tuberculosis or cancer is pure sentimentalism.
schools of thought classify alcohol addiction as a
medical rather than a moral problem and attribute it to
rather than to sin. Adherents of this attitude say in substance:
Excessive indulgence in intoxicants is a symptom rather
source of basic disorders in personality. The moralistic
that the chronic alcoholic is a sinner and a criminal is
and unscientific. Those who are uncontrollably seduced by
cannot be held responsible for the misfortunes they inflict
themselves, their families and society. The trouble is not
bottle but in the individual. Or it resides in certain structural
ills of society, such as slums, broken homes, unemployment,
maladjustments in jobs, racial conflicts, international
and war. This position not only removes all stigma from
drinking but it has the highly convenient virtue of also
completely absolving the liquor traffic from all blame for
manifold evils produced by its operations.
Borden P. Browne was professor of philosophy at Boston
University, a perplexed student asked him at the close of
his classes, "Professor, did you say it was thus, or
the philosopher: "My young friend, the longer you live
strange world, the more things you will find in it of which
cannot truly say either-or, but must learn to say both-and."
wise observation, with its implied warning against being
and deceived by false dilemmas, is certainly applicable
subject under consideration. It suggests that the following
realistic analysis of the situation.
addiction to alcohol is both a medical and a moral
problem. Neither the moral nor the medical approach is a
sufficient solution in itself. Certainly the mere detention
drunks until they sober up is deplorably inadequate treatment
their condition. To confine problem drinkers in county jails,
reformatories or houses of correction until the effects
intoxication have worn off, without any constructive effort
accomplish their permanent rehabilitation, is a medieval
Such cases should be under the care, not only of the police
authorities, but of the public health authorities as well.
Unquestionably many of them should be sent to hospitals
than to jails. A number of states, including Wisconsin,
Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusettes and Virginia,
have inaugurated enlightened programs for the treatment
compulsive drinkers. In general they substitute the hospital
the jail and place a major emphasis on medical rehabilitation.
alcoholic addiction is also a moral problem and should
continue to be regarded as such. Addiction indicates that
are basic defects not only in the constitution but also
character of the addict. To insist that drunkenness is not
disgrace but a disease, and therefore to sentimentalize
attempt to remove all reproach from it, is just as unscientific
going to the opposite extreme and declaring the drunk to
criminal and a sinner who deserves only condemnation and
punishment. Arbitrarily to remove the stigma from alcoholic
excesses while continuing to keep it on numerous other practices
which are legally and morally opprobrious would not only
inconsistency but rank injustice as well. Drunkenness is
disease and a disgrace. It deserves to receive both treatment
punishment. The problem drinker requires reformation of
character as well as the rehabilitation of his condition.
the solution of problem drinking demands both the
scientific and spiritual approaches. Excessive indulgence
intoxicants is both a source of sickness and a symptom of
correct classification of the chronic alcoholic is a
"sin-sick-soul." Making due allowance for different
problem drinkers, and acknowledging that no single type
treatment will be effective in every case, it nevertheless
profoundly true that the most effective cures are obtained
the influences of religion are combined with the techniques
amazingly successful organization, Alcoholics Anonymous,
recognizes this principle and utilizes it with highly benefical
results. For that reason the processes of rehabilitation
employs are generally considered to be medically sound by
physicians and religiously wholesome by clergymen. The
organization refers a large number of its cases to medical
practioners, especially in the initial stages of treatment.
also invokes the assistance of the dynamic forces of religion
accomplish the permanent cure. It proceeds on the assumption
in alcoholic excesses there is a reciprocal relation between
and sickness in cause and effect. Consider the "Twelve
outlined in the book, Alcoholics Anonymous:
We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol - that our
lives had become unmanageable.
2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves
could restore us to sanity.
3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over
to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human
being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects
7. We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became
willing to make amends to them all.
9. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible,
except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. We continued to take personal inventory and when we
were wrong promptly admitted it. 11. We sought through prayer
and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God
as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of his
will for us and the power to carry it out.
12. Having had a spiritual experience as the result of these
steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and
to practice these principles in all our affairs.
that the steps, which are the basis of A.A.'s remarkable
success, are predominantly, definitely and deeply moral
spiritual. They are based on the conviction that the alcoholic
suffering from both sin and sickness, and more from the
than the latter. They prove that the Christian approach
problem is of fundamental value, and that an experience
to religious conversion is vitally essential to his permanent
both the problem drinker and the beverage alcohol
business are to blame for the devastating consequences of
excessive indulgence. The contention of the liquor interests
the ultimate source of the disorder lies in the individual
than in the bottle is specious and false. The argument that
enterprises which promote and profit from the sale of intoxicants
must be absolved of all blame because many people can indulge
moderately without apparent harmful effects, is a flagrant
fallacy. Certain groups which have rendered distinguished
by their clinical study of the medical and psychological
of compulsive drinking may not be excused for their disposition
exonerate the liquor business from major responsibility
problem. Anybody who discourages militant opposition to
traffic shares in responsibility for the lives it is helping
wreck. Certainly an essential approach to the satisfactory
solution of the alcohol problem is a constant crusade to
and ultimately to abolish, the manufacture, sale and consumption
of alcoholic beverages. In addition, a persistent campaign
promote total abstinence should be waged.
is far more sensible to put a fence around a dangerous
cliff and so to prevent disastrous accidents than merely
an ambulance in the valley to transport victims to the hospital.
There are people who have become so enthusiastic about the
ambulance as a solution of problem drinking that they have
all interest in the fence. In principle both are essential,
because many people who drink moderately for a while graduate
excessive drinking suddenly, or by a series of progressions,
no diagnostic signs discernible to doctors to mark the tragic
transition. As long as such individuals have access to intoxicants
their plight will be precarious. In their cases an ounce
prevention is worth many pounds of cure. A brotherly and
compassionate spirit toward the compulsive drinker and a
concern for his moral and medical rehabilitation are entirely
compatible with an unrelenting hatred of the liquor traffic
steadfast effort to combat it, reduce it and abolish it.
are committed to the practice of abstinence and the principle
abolition should refuse to be impaled on the horns of the
dilemma of sin or sickness in connection with the alcohol