Ethics Quiz: Alcoholics Anonymous and Judicial Abuse of Power

Uh, wrong meeting, Barney…

A friend who is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous flagged an interesting ethical dilemma involving the huge, loosely-affiliated alcoholism recovery and support group.

Judges often order mandatory attendance at AA meetings as conditions for leniency in alcohol-related crimes, like DUI, spousal abuse, and others. The problem is that AA is system of commitment and trust, and someone who only comes to meetings under threat of jail time have neither. It is the AA attendee’s acceptance of the reality that they are helpless against alcohol and willingness to commit fully to the program with others like than that allows AA to be as successful as it is, and the assurance of anonymity the group provides makes its existence possible. “Court-ordered attendees slink in here, roll their eyes, do their time and leave,” he told me. “How do we know that they aren’t regaling their friends with hilarious tales about what does on at meetings? What right does a judge have to make AA host someone who doesn’t really meet the group’s criteria?”

Good question, and it’s the Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Is it ethical for judges to force a non-profit, non-government, voluntary organization to assist the justice system at the risk of their own integrity and their members’ confidentiality?

This time I’m going to let everyone weigh in before I show my cards.

Here is a link that discusses some of the related issues.

52 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Alcoholics Anonymous and Judicial Abuse of Power

  1. Your friend is on to something, but his aim is off. According to 12 step literature, the purpose of anonymity is not to protect one’s identity, but rather to emphasize the importance of principles over personality; in other words, to prevent individuals from proselytizing on behalf of of AAA in their own name. It is about humility, not about security.

    The bigger issue for judges is not ethical, but practical.  Since a hallmark of alcoholism is a refusal to take others’ advice, it seems paradoxical to force someone to go into a voluntary association. It arguably reduces the odds of it being effective for the individual, and as your friend notes, annoys everybody else.
    I think you could say the jury is out on whether it’s a good practice.

    • Don’t you think the anonymity has a dual purpose, Charles? Most members I know do—the idea of only identifying by first name, etc., is to give security to those who might fear being exposed. I’m in DC…imagine some of the people who show up in these meetings. Yet there are no leaks.
      Maybe the White House needs more alcoholics.

  2. I say No. What’s next? A guy is responsible for a hiking buddy losing a leg, so the Judge orders him into the Boy Scouts?

    What about a 2nd issue? Isn’t AA a bit of a Religious organization? Would the sentence be fair to Athiests?

    • Some groups seem to be “religious” — Serenity Prayer begins meetings, Lord’s Prayer at end of meetings, etc.

      Others are not. My Hollywood group is called “We Agnostics”. One can find whatever one wants. There are all-women groups, all-gay groups, Hispanic-language groups,etc.

      • I’m not gay but I’ve attended gay meetings several times. Why? I needed a meeting, and it was available. There is no “Gay AA”, nor “Female AA”, there is only “AA”. “The only requirement for membership is a desire to quit drinking” — it doesn’t even say “a sincere desire”, since nobody can judge that except one’s self.

  3. There are some AA groups that refuse to sign the paper attesting to the attendance required by court orders. Too many of those who are required to attend are not serious and cause disruptions. It’s sad because those who really want to work at it must find a group that will sign-off which in effect means that the more rowdy ones that attend in order to get the signature become too much of a distraction.

  4. As im sure your friend is well aware of , there are open and closed meetings. If the meetings they are going to have too many court appointed people coming close the group and dont let them attend. I personly think too many people blame their problems and their crimes on the use of alcohol. The abuse of alcohol isnt the problem its the symptom of the problem and just becuase someone stops drinking doesnt mean the other problems are going to go away.

  5. Wow! This is a tough one.
    First of all, I think the issues of religion and confidentiality are off the table.
    Religion: There are plenty of groups that don’t use Bible study or try to push religion. An individual in search of help can find any number of sources for inspiration/higher power– the U.S. Constitution, Confucius, Machiavelli, Lao Tzu, or Walt Whitman. The possibilities are endless. AA members or members of any anonymous group can take what they can use and leave the rest.
    Confidentiality: I don’t think a person who doesn’t believe he is an alcoholic is going to go to his friends and share stories about the AA meeting he was forced to attend. Alcoholics are secretive and in denial. There would be too much shame in admitting they attended.

    I do believe that sharing with a group of individuals struggling with similar issues can be one of the strongest tools in a battle with any problem, be it trying to diet, exercising, mental illness, or physical addiction. AA’s way is a time proven method to assist in recovery and anyone could benefit by just knowing that the groups are there, how they work, and that there is help when they are ready.

    That being said, individuals will be disruptive when they are forced to attend groups whether it’s AA or psychiatric group therapy. These individuals may monopolize group time or generally hinder the effectiveness and progress of a group meeting to the detriment of those looking forward to a successful session.

    AA is free– a cheap way for the government to encourage treatment. I think forcing a volunteer group moderator to be the strong arm of the law is unfair. Does a group sign off on a judicially mandated attendee just to get rid of them? Does a group moderator say, “John, you seem to be a bit uncomfortable. Would you like me to help you find another group?” I’m betting on the generosity of the AA spirit to make a sincere effort to welcome or find a better meeting for these forced attendees.It is not a failure of AA, but of the individual not ready to accept help. Any counseling or anonymous group will always have disruptive members and failures. It is the nature of the beast. If one life can be saved from the destructiveness of alcohol, it is worth the inconvenience.

    I think the government is using AA to the advantage of the community at large. That is ethical and that is its job.

    Of course what I really think should happen is individuals with insurance should get a 72 hour psych commitment. That is enough to scare anyone straight!

    • Name one AA meeting that doesn’t include a “higher power”. Your examples are just setting up other objects or people as a religious concept.

      • They all include the “higher power”, but increasingly AA groups make it clear that God is not the mandatory one. Many AA members will tell you that AA is a higher power. There are plenty of atheist/agnostic AA groups. When I attended an open meeting, a large percentage of the members who spoke specified that they were not religious.

              • That may be, but I speak from experience on this, knowing several atheist and agnostic AA members who find their groups open to non-believers, supportive and comfortable. Bill W clearly attributed his own recovery to a belief in God, and his various tenets and statements reflect that. But the organization has evolved, and is very adaptive.

                • Individual meetings may be open, but doing so threatens their standing as AA groups. The organization is not adaptive on the topic of God.

                • Actually, AA has evolved very little. The program of AA(the 12 steps)is overtly religious. The groups that are supportive and comfortable to atheists and agnostics are the exception. I don’t see any reason for courts to mandate anyone to AA. Not only is the program religious in nature, it is ineffective.

                  • With some respect, you don’t know what you’re talking about. AA’s steps and rhetoric presume religious involvement, but the meetings are accommodating to non-religious sufferers. Those that are not are the exception, and are out of step with the organization’s values. And it is more effective than anything else, which is why rehab clinics recommend it. There is no basis to say it is ineffective. Alcoholism has no cure, but AA helps people keep it in remission for years, months and decades. This is like saying that cancer treatments are ineffective.

                    • Uh-huh. You are ignorant and reality-resistant. There are few things I know more about than alcoholism, and not by choice. And “you are wrong” is no argument. Comment elsewhere on another topic, or go away. You have nothing but superstition to contribute here.

                    • The AA organization is intended to be evangelical. Of course the doors are open. That said, gigi is off. AA is effective for many.

        • I had a “power greater than myself”. His name was John Barleycorn. I traded him in for sobriety and joie-de-vivre.

        • How does that thought possibly follow from my comment?

          Also, I have never said that prayer does not help individuals; it clearly can. That doesn’t stop faith from being counter to reality and extremely dangerous.

  6. I think it is just wrong, tyrannical, for a public official to order an independent entity like AA to take on involuntarily the burden of inclusion of a particular person in the entity’s activities. That kind of dictatorial authority should not be respected or allowed. I would rather see the offenders doing hard labor, like picking up litter in public places, or cleaning windows on police cars. If an offender is somehow physically debilitated – well, he didn’t seem to have any difficulty tipping beverages into his face, did he? – then surely there are alternatives which would deprive the offender of further opportunity to offend while simultaneously extracting performance of a public good, even if the offender is unrepentant. But judges should not be permitted to compromise AA’s fundamental organizational principle of voluntary attendance.

  7. It’s just plain wrong. Alcoholics Anonymous is not a government organization and should not be a dumping ground for societal malcontents. It’s a brotherhood of people who have RECOGNIZED their problem and have come into voluntary fellowship with others in affecting a self-cure. Prayers have a lot to do with it as well. When you get an influx of “members” who are still in the “rehab-is-for-quitters” state of mind, it can only work badly for all.

    • Steven, yours of 6-17-2012 @ 10:44 am: inaccurate on 3 points. (1) “It is a brotherhhod of people…” And sisterhood. (2) “…affecting a self-cure.” In the present state of medical knowledge, there is no “cure”, but people can and do recover. (3) “Prayers have a lot to do with it…” True for some, not true for all. There are many atheist and agnostic sober AA members for whom prayer has never been part of their recovery.. I do not think you are an AA member, as you seem to have so much misinformmation about it.

      • I meant “brotherhood” in the generic sense. Obviously. “Self cure” was meant in the sense that the members act together to sustain one another in abstinence. I’m well aware that this is an ongoing fight. I also stated that prayer “helps”… and it does. Don’t disparage those who have turned to God for sustenance. I very much doubt anyone in your sessions tried to convert you at gunpoint.

  8. Has anyone done any research on how successful AA is? A quick Google search showed me reported success results of between 3% and 95%. I know doing research on an anonymous organisation would be difficult, but it would be also good to know how success rates may be changed in groups with court ordered attendees.

    • There’s no way to do research, since members are anonymous. There is a general consensus, however, that 12-Step programs work better than anything else, though not for everyone. And since alcoholism has no cure, and even successful recovering sufferers have relapses, there’s really not even a definition of what “success” is.

      • A general consensus does not equal fact. AA is as effective as no treatment at all. Alcoholism has no cure because it is not a disease. This whole mindset needs to change.

        • Medical consensus, treatment specialist consensus and case studies do equal fact. Your position ruled the world for hundreds of years, ruined lives, and did nothing but harm, frequently killing people. It is an illness, not a disease, and you are a visitor from the 19th Cnetury. Please grind your old axes someplace else; you’re wasting my time.

  9. In Virginia, anyone convicted of DUI is statutorily mandated to attend an Alcohol Safety Action Program. Almost invariably, at some point (since ASAP doesn’t really do much but monitor the progress of the people sent there), participants are required to begin attending AA or NA meetings. Those that fail to do so wash out of the program but later discover, to their dismay, that the Division of Motor Vehicles requires successful completion of the program, even if the statutory period of the license suspension has expired. [That’s not in the statute–it’s in the DMV regs] So what you have here is legislators and bureaucrats ultimately mandating AA and/or NA attendance. The judges, at least for DUI cases, don’t have any choice.

  10. Pingback: Ethics: Alcoholics Anonymous and Judicial Abuse of Power |

  11. Even the idea that most alcoholics are helpless where concerns alcohol is something that deserves to be challenged. The fact is that women go to bars, bars serve alcohol. Alcohol has been used as a social lubricant since the dawn of western civilization. There aren’t water bars, just like there aren’t Atheist churches. People are basically force fed alcohol in many parts of the world because of religious, political and sexual discrimination. Enough of these three things creates a compulsive personality.

  12. Judges require court orderd attendance to aa and want signatures if you ask to sign i sugest sigN ANONOMOUS ACROSS THE BOARD

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