Responsibility and Alcoholism

There’s always been a controversy regarding responsibility and alcoholism. I’ve had this conversation over and over through the years. Many see the disease concept of alcoholism as a cop-out. This side of the argument says that we’re all responsible for our actions, and calling alcoholism a disease doesn’t excuse the behavior or consequences. Another side says that no one sets out to be an alcoholic. This side of the argument states that alcoholics gradually lose control of their drinking and that the mental compulsion to drink is beyond their control. Science doesn’t take a side when it comes to responsibility. Science simply states that alcoholism exists and it affects about 1 in every 10 who drink alcohol.

I try to take a nuanced approach to this argument. Yes, we’re all responsible for our actions. If someone is an alcoholic and while drinking they murder someone, to use an extreme example, then they should face justice in court like everyone else. The alcoholic’s lawyer can make a case, and the prosecution can make a case, then a jury decides. But this is an extreme example. Let’s look at a more common example. An alcoholic gradually loses control of her drinking, the drinking affects her job performance and her boss has to make a decision. Does the boss fire her straight out because of her deteriorating job performance or does the boss confront her and demand she seek treatment, giving her a chance to solve the problem and return to her previous good work?

It’s situations like this that are most common when dealing with alcoholism. Research has shown that companies which have an Employee Assistance Program that deals with employee problems like alcoholism pays off in the long run. Given a chance many employees who receive treatment come back to work with an attitude of gratitude and do a great job going forward. It’s better to address and treat a problem like alcoholism than to ignore it or punish it. Most large employers have found out that simply firing people with alcohol problems isn’t helpful — retraining and losing experience has consequences too.

In general, the way I look it is that once a person realizes they have a problem with alcoholism they must face all the consequences and never use the disease concept as a crutch or an excuse. Once an alcoholic realizes they have a problem it’s their responsibility to do something about it. As far as dealing with someone who has an alcohol problem, well, each person has to decide — do they try to understand, or do they judge and punish? There’s an old saying about casting the first stone that often helps when trying to decide. There’s also another saying — Judge and prepare to be judged.

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