Addiction is Not a Failure of Moral Will

Last Updated: Feb 24th 2020

Reviewed by Brittany Polansky, MSW, LCSW

Addiction is Not a Failure of Moral Will

So much stigma still exists surrounding addiction—and because so many of us are reluctant to speak openly about this topic, we also tend to harbor misconceptions and misunderstandings. Perhaps none are quite so serious—quite so dangerous—as the misconception that addiction is somehow a failure of moral will; that people who struggle with addictions have made bad, immoral decisions, and that is where their addiction stems from.

This is dangerous thinking: Those who struggle with addiction often deal with high levels of shame, as well. Telling them that they are moral failures can intensify that guilt, which becomes a sort of deadly cycle—making the struggle with addiction that much more severe.

Not only is it dangerous, but it simply is not true. Addiction is a disease; scientists who map the brain can identify visible, physical variations between the brain of someone who struggles with addiction and someone who does not. It is not a moral choice, but rather a physiological distinction.

To be more specific, addiction affects the dopamine receptors, located at the front of the brain, which allow all of us to exert self-control, to be measured in how we seek pleasure—but for those who have addiction, these receptors do not work the way they are supposed to. This explains why someone with addiction might be more vulnerable to compulsive or impulsive substance use.

You do not necessarily have to understand all of the science in order to have empathy for those struggling with drug addiction; all you really have to understand is that addiction is a struggle, not morally but physically, mentally. It is a disease. No one ever chooses addiction, though anyone can choose recovery. Even those with the physiological markings of addiction can seek treatment, and ultimately find freedom from this disease and its effects.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Brittany Polansky, MSW, LCSW

Brittany has been working in behavioral health since 2012 and is the Assistant Clinical Director at our facility. She is an LCSW and holds a master’s degree in social work. She has great experience with chemical dependency and co-occurring mental health diagnoses as well as various therapeutic techniques. Brittany is passionate about treating all clients with dignity and respect, and providing a safe environment where clients can begin their healing journey in recovery.