Radical Sobriety: Situating the Discussion


Wade Craig initiated this wave of the discussion of sobriety among individualists and anarchists, and introduced the position I have subsequently termed “radical sobriety,” in this post. His ideas, like my own, are the product of many discussions within the community of radical individualist teetotalers and with opponents of our approach. I sought to clarify our position in this post here. Our friend Max LaFave, another individualist anarchist, raised some concerns about the connection between our radical critique of inebriation and rights in a post responding to this one. I offered my own response to him, attempting to clarify my view that inebriation can be seen as a loss of one’s humanity in one sense, but not in the sense relevant to the possession of rights contingent on one’s humanity. Wade Craig offered more thoughts on the relationship between sobriety and rationality, which I posted, and then he expanded on those thoughts on his own blog. Most recently, I have added some reflection on “accidental virtue,” and on the nature of rationality underlying our central claim—that recreational drug use ‘takes rationality itself not to be a good.’

Why “Radical Sobriety?”

I will leave this here in anticipation of a larger, more thorough explanation and defense of the position I am calling “radical sobriety.” I choose to call this position radical sobriety for a handful of reasons.

  1. It places sobriety at the center of ethical action and discourse.
  2. It addresses inebriation as a root of social problems, especially in a drug culture (a concept which is itself sure to be controversial).
  3. It is about a principled commitment to sobriety and teetotalism, in contrast to the timid, highly personalized reasons often given by those who abstain but do not challenge the drug culture or drug use.
  4. It is part of a larger radical critique of the status quo characterized by fierce opposition to confinement, limitation, subordination, and deceit, and respect for human dignity, justice, and reason.

Setting the Scene

First and foremost, it should be stated without hesitation or ambiguity, radical sobriety is political and ethical abstinence from recreational drug use. It stems from a commitment to sobriety, or sobriety as an ethical ideal.

Some sober and teetotal folks like to defang their position by calling it “personal,” thus (apparently) divorcing it from the realm of ethics and politics. There are many given reasons why people choose to live teetotal lives, most of which gravitate toward some version of an argument against addiction—highly particularized, of course, for good measure. Substance addiction is something which should concern us, but in the opinion of this teetotaler, it is not the primary problem. Concerns about addiction, while worthy of our consideration, are not strong enough to justify any kind of robust commitment to sobriety, or principled abstinence from recreational drug use.

Holding the World in Contempt

What, then, is the reasoning behind radical sobriety? For most, the notion is antiquated, and reserved for right-wing Drug Warriors and Christians. We are neither. As our aesthetic friends and ideological enemies at CrimethInc put it in their unexpectedly perceptive pamphlet “Anarchy & Alcohol,”

…partisans of Rebellious Drunkenness and advocates of Responsible Abstinence are loyal adversaries. The former need the latter to make their dismal rituals look like fun; the latter need the former to make their rigid austerity seem like common sense. An “ecstatic sobriety” which combats the dreariness of one and the bleariness of the other – false pleasure and false discretion alike – is analogous to the anarchism that confronts both the false freedom offered by capitalism and the false community offered by communism.

While full of interesting insights and a characteristic flair for the dramatic, this pamphlet does not actually make a case for ethical sobriety as a basis for teetotalism. Their case addresses several relevant political concerns, some of which deserve clarification and refinement—though this will be set aside for the moment. In short, this pamphlet discusses several ways in which recreational drug use (particularly alcohol, in this case) can be the root of social problems, ones that reinforce power structures and exacerbate the evils they generate. As far as radical sobriety is concerned, this provides much of the context for our abstinence. I encourage people to read the pamphlet (at least the first part. No one has time for that crazy primitivist nonsense in the second half) to get an idea of the kinds of issues we see in the drug culture. However, we seek to defend a much harder-hitting conclusion.

The Broken Foundation

Granting that there are all kinds of social problems associated with recreational drug use, we can begin to address the deeper issue. Our view is that sobriety is central to morality. Put another way, the whole idea of rationality—in this situation, as my friend Wade Craig puts it,

The foundational ability that is necessary for humans, and indeed any creatures, to have rights and moral standing is self-reflection. Those who cannot even recognize their own existence and are not aware of their ability to impact the world do not have moral responsibilities and cannot have rights. To remove or hamper the ability to reflect on one’s own actions and thoughts is to abdicate the responsibilities inherent in being a living individual. Any drugs that, for any length of time, impair cognition so much as to impair one’s ability to reflect on the morality of one’s actions strip their users of their humanity.

From our perspective, accurately perceiving one’s circumstances, deliberating on one’s actions, and cultivating virtuous habits is the very basis of morality. In order to live a good life, one must constantly navigate a social, political, and physical environment with constantly changing terrain and full of delicate intricacies. This navigation—the conversation, perception, and willpower that comprise the life of the individual—is the basis for all human virtue and, indeed, a constitutive part of human flourishing. This leads us to an inevitable conclusion: sobriety is necessary for morality. Without some conception of sobriety, it is impossible to distinguish between accurate and impaired perception, between rationality and irrationality. Additionally, the desire to impair, rather than cultivate, one’s ability to reason rightly about the world and about oneself, is a vicious desire. It is to prefer immediate pleasure to true satisfaction. But what exactly is the pleasure that recreational drugs provide? Again, according to Craig:

The drug creates a temporary Nozickean experience machine that simply generates good feelings and/or false experiences. To take joy in what is not real, to intentionally seek out false pleasures is to give up one of the most important parts of being human, the ability to experience what is real. To seek out false pleasures is to lie to oneself, to decide that the real person one is or wishes to be is not good enough, not even potentially good enough. It is to hide in the sand and willfully ignore all the possibilities of the entire universe in favor of lies and smokescreens. Perhaps most terribly, it is to choose the illusion over the dream.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that the social problems that attend to the drug culture are in some way related to the abdication of responsibility and impaired reasoning that characterize recreational drug use. The extent to which that is the case should inform the urgency with which we challenge the drug culture, but it is not the primary concern. What is of primary concern is the health and well-being of the individual actor, which we contend are better served by a sober lifestyle.

While it may be the case that recreational drug use is in fact based upon a preference for illusion, that is to say, it is self-deceit, there are surely reasons that people have such a preference. The motivations for recreational drug use range from social anxiety and insecurity to self-hatred and alienation. It is important that we understand these motivations and not arrogate to ourselves the ability or the right to speak for others on their own experiences. If sobriety is to be meaningful, it should be based upon a desire for personal liberation. Radical sobriety, and teetotalism, should have nothing to do with purity and everything to do with autonomy and empowerment. As such, we should encourage sobriety among our friends as part of a larger project of supporting and empowering them to live well. This also means that advocates of ethical sobriety should commit themselves to larger projects for liberation—after all, the prison isn’t just in our mind.

Not All Drug Use Involves Impaired Rationality

One common objection to radical sobriety is that it arbitrarily “bans” the use of certain substances while allowing for the use of others. This is complicated by the Drug War, which has more or less done exactly that (or perhaps not so arbitrarily, depending on the motives one attributes to the relevant political figures). This kind of objection typically evolves into another common objection, namely, that what constitutes “sobriety” is not clear—or, even more dangerously, that “sobriety” as a concept doesn’t even make sense. For this reason, I’ll focus on that objection. Before I address that, I should note that ethical sobriety does not entail “banning” or “limiting” one’s choices any more than a concern for righteousness “limits” one’s ability to dominate others and use them for the satisfaction of one’s own desires at their expense. Sobriety rightly conceived should not be puritanical, nor motivated by submission to some external authority—God, the state, one’s parents, etc.—but by personal liberation from inebriation and self-destructive hedonism. This is a delicate point, but it is an important one.

The Meaning of Sobriety

I will say upfront that I have not engaged with relevant neuroscientific and psychopharmacological literature. While those fields are certainly relevant for ironing out the details of this position, I do not think it is necessary to appeal to them to reach a robust commitment to sobriety as an ideal. Minimally, I feel confident taking the position that substances and activities affect one’s rational capacity differently in different circumstances—sometimes impairing, and sometimes strengthening, rationality.

The implication of this assumption is that sobriety may not be clearly defined, but it is not meaningless. If we orient our actions around the cultivation of rationality and sobriety, we will at least have a framework for navigating the realm of substance use. And to be clear, it’s not just substances that concern us. It’s important to consider the way that all kinds of things influence our ability to reason. Some suggested problem areas are romantic and familial love/passionsleep deprivationfurysocial isolationin-group bias, etc. The important thing is that we approach these issues, and substance use, from the perspective of wishing to see and appreciate the world as it really is, to dispense with illusions and overcome irrational emotions and prejudices. The way to do this is to cultivate good habits, which empower one to act virtuously with limited time to deliberate in the moment, and more specifically, to abstain from the recreational (as opposed to medicinal—context and motive are key) use of mind-altering substances which provide illusory pleasure or hinder one’s reasoning ability.

A brief note: it might be objected that our argument paints an unfair picture of recreational drug use. It is certainly the case that many instances of recreational drug use do not involve severe crimes or injustices. There are plenty of people who drink and do not lash out violently or recklessly endanger others. In fact, it is possible to conceive of plenty of bounded scenarios in which one has “taken precautions” to prevent just that kind of trouble. While this should temper our approach to the issue of recreational drug use—how we ought to interact with people in a drug culture and confront intoxication could warrant a post all to itself—it doesn’t touch the central thesis, that recreational drug use is vicious, and not conducive to human flourishing. It’s not merely about whether or not one’s drug use harms others; it’s about whether or not it harms oneself, in terms of one’s own life and eudaimonia.

Keeping Your Head Above the Surface

To wrap things up, it’s worth addressing an important question. While radical sobriety should remain a threat to the drug culture and all systems of confinement, we should still take proportionality, compassion, prudence, and charity into account in our response to the drug culture. Our abstinence is not motivated by smug self-righteousness or social mobility. It’s not to put others down, but to raise ourselves up and bring others with us. This is a common refrain for champions of various moral causes, but to take it seriously means to present our position when it is timely, not to force unnecessary confrontations; It means interpreting our critics with charity, and being considerate of the circumstances of those who choose to use drugs recreationally. Of course, we should never shy away from our convictions, but it is best to remain conversational. After all, part of what we seek to empower through sobriety is our uniquely human capacity for reasoning, and there is a very significant social element to our reasoning. In general, we don’t need to organize massive campaigns through which we condescend to pull others out of the hell of alcoholism and vice. Sobriety is first and foremost about self-help, and the cultivation of one’s own character; through our thoughtful and lucid engagement with others, we will uphold discourse and right-reasoning.


Addendum: A Second Look at Our Premises (Sobriety as a Virtue)

Sobriety is proper consideration for the process of right-reasoning and the habits of thought, intellectual practices, and trained prejudices that constitute the ‘vital organs’ of that process.

The reason that specifically recreational drug use can be said to ‘take rationality not as a good,’ is because it is, in practice, not properly considerate of the process of right-reasoning (which is at the heart of intelligent living, or rationality). In seeking to subvert the vital organs of right-reasoning for sensory pleasure, it performatively degrades rationality.

What happens when one uses drugs recreationally is that the ‘bigger picture’ of the good is obscured, either through disorientation—where sensory pleasures take up one’s attention from other features of the good—or through a disabling of one’s “rational faculties,” or the necessary pillars of right-reasoning—grounding in personal history, deep understanding of interpersonal relationships, inarticulable body of knowledge, prejudices and presuppositions, sophisticated, interpretive “mind-reading” capacities, ‘passing’ theories,’ and so on—and this impoverishes one’s ability to really find fulfillment through intelligent, rational, reasoned living.


2 thoughts on “Radical Sobriety: Situating the Discussion

  1. This is FANTASTIC.

    I have been trying for years…probably very nearly a decade, to philosophically articulate my moral opposition to substance usage, and this presents it in a logically sound, concise manner. I think this position is very important, especially given our current drug climate here in the US.


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