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Pre/Trans Alcoholic?

A couple of my friends recently told me that they have decided to drink alcohol again. Thanks for sharing you say? Well, both of these people are self professed alcoholics. The exciting thing, for me, is that I am comfortable fully supporting them.

I have had my issues with things such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) over the years and for a long time fought hard against many of its teachings. The fact that I am not an alcoholic and had not been close enough to one was an ignorance that created one part of my problem. The other ignorance, I believe, lies within the program.

AA takes an individual with an unhealthy relationship to alcohol and teaches them to self identify as an alcoholic. It is the way you introduce yourself in a meeting and is the diagnoses you are asked to accept. For far too many this alone is a huge step towards recovery. From varying degrees of denial that there is a problem, to varying degrees of acceptance that you can control the solution, AA has helped many to move towards a functional life of clarity and happiness. I now realize just how much of a gift this can be.

What I do still take issue with is the very primary idea in AA that someone who is an alcoholic will remain an alcoholic. There is a life sentence implicit in AA’s labeling of an individual. Though you may well be able to have a healthy relationship with alcohol for the first time in your life by not drinking, you will never in your life be expected to get over this fixation. You are basically told that you have a treatable, but incurable disease and that you must live your entire life under alcohols control. Drink or not, you are taught that being an alcoholic will continue to define you as long as you live.

For most (if not all) alcoholics who have not self identified as such and then begun to control their drinking this sentence can be necessary. What I am writing here may actually make their life more difficult. Any hope of graduating from AA may allow them to see the very process of stopping drinking as a way to get back to drinking. AA makes it clear that this is not the goal, and I respect their need to do so. Drinking should never be the goal of someone addicted to alcohol.

But what about graduation? Is it not possible for someone to actually move on from this paradigm of disease/treatment, and the feeling of brokenness that is so implicit, to actually learn to have a healthy relationship with alcohol? This AA does not teach. Possibly should not. But some of my friends, after ten years of sobriety, have come to this conclusion on their own. And I am so fucking proud to here it.

They have spoken with many of the important people in their lives about this; opened themselves up to criticism and monitoring. They have sent out mass emails to other friends that they could not talk to individually. They are so obviously changed, with different motives, drives, desires, expectations and fears, that I for one have amazing faith in their decisions. They do not want to drink to hide anything. There is no pain, no fear in this decision. It shows an amazing courage. They are ready to celebrate life, to join the ranks of us ‘normal’ drinking idiots and to shed the baggage of limiting labels that they have so staunchly carried and helped others to carry, for so long.

In this pursuit I recognize the very hard path that they are beginning to walk and have offered one of my friends the following letter explaining how an Integral view of the situation might help her to understand, explain to, and coexist with all those in her life who are not in her place.


Our recent discussion led me to believe that you may appreciate hearing a little more about one of Ken’s concepts. I know how much you love Mr. Wilber! He calls it the ‘pre/trans fallacy’. It has to do with the idea I was talking about of people progressing from pre-conventional to conventional to post-conventional. The basic idea is that if you look at some of the ways that people develop over time you can recognize stages that they develop through. Bare with me, I know part of this is stating what is obvious to you. You can then look at the way that people respond to certain situations or questions and see that their actions or answers correlate quite clearly with their stage of development. The interesting thing is that some of their responses appear to be the same, even though they come from different levels and are for different reasons.

Let me illustrate one example (and remember that we’re using broad strokes to establish orienting generalizations):

America’s involvement in the Vietnam war was met with (at least) 3 different responses from college students of the time, two of which appear identical to someone without an understanding of developmental unfolding. Both the pre and the trans (or post)-conventional answers were ‘Fuck you, I’m not fighting your war.’ (protest) Conventional students enlisted.

Here’s a concrete example [of the pre/trans fallacy] based on empirical research. During the Berkeley riots protesting the war in Vietnam, a team of researchers gave a representative sample of the students the Kohlberg test of moral development. … What researchers found was that a small percentage of the students, something like 20%, were indeed operating from the post conventional stages (or “trans” conventional stages). That is their objections were based on universal principles of right and wrong, they were not based on any particular society’s standards or on individual whim. On the other hand, the vast majority of the protesters – around 80% – were found to be preconventional, which means their moral reasoning was based on personal and rather selfish motives. … And, as we would expect, there were almost no students at the conventional level, the level of “my country right or wrong” (since these students would not have seen any reason to protest in the first place). … (from

So, when it comes to morals the pre-conventional response is usually formed by a feeling of ‘I do what I need to do for myself’. The conventional response is based on an understanding of rules, laws, religious standards and other conventions that allow people to coexist peacefully. The authority comes from a higher place. The response is some sort of ‘I do what is right’. In a post conventional response both the individual and the society are taken into account and a case by case judgement can be made based on what will actually produce the greatest good for the greatest number. The response is more nuanced.

Similar tests have been used regarding abortion.

A person at a pre conventional level will say that abortion is acceptable, because it is their body and they can do whatever they want with it. Someone at a conventional level of moral development will state quite clearly that abortion is wrong because there are rules, laws, morals etc and because taking the life of another is immoral and unjustifiable. Someone at a post conventional level will take all of this into account and is most likely to come up with the answer that, at times, abortions are the best solution for everyone involved.

The pre/trans fallacy has to do with the fact that even though pre and trans reasoning look completely different, if one only looks at the end result, the answer, they can appear to be exactly the same. This creates all kinds of confusion in all different arenas (I’m just talking about moral development above).

I’m making a big deal of this because I think that you are about to walk a very difficult path and it seems to me that any understanding that you can hold of why it may very well be a healthy choice for you to drink, even though many of the people that you are surrounded by also want to drink for unhealthy reasons, is helpful. The point, of course, is not that drinking is right or wrong, but that most people who have problems with drinking are not able to accept the conventionally agreed upon guidelines that a society dictates. Many of them fail to even take their own health and well being into account in even a pre-conventional way, nevermind the well being of society and its conventions. So you are going to have to deal with people who not only won’t agree with your choices but also may fundamentally not be able to understand how you can claim to be where you are.

The difficulty will be twofold. For those at a pre-conventional level your actions may seem a justification for their own. A horizontal solidarity in action can easily be confused for a vertical solidarity in reason. A dangerous line to walk. For those at a conventional level the distinction often looks as simple as conventional and non-conventional. It is very hard for us to fully understand the stages that we have not yet embodied. To them all non-conventional actions can appear the same. They will see you as having failed in sobriety. Those at the later edge of a conventional level may be truly inspired and moved by your actions. Some at each level will probably grasp what you are doing cognitively, but not be able to consistently manifest it in their own life. You will be just fine me thinks.