AA is NOT a "Selfish Program" - the FACTS

Version H 7/4/2000

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Well, we are hearing it again. What we are hearing in meetings is "Alcoholics Anonymous is a selfish program". No, we didn’t believe it either, the first time we heard it. But,. we are facts oriented folk. So, we undertook a study of what our founders and AA approved literature might have to say about "selfishness"

Ernest Kurtz noted author on AA topics reports in his book "Not God" a totally relevant discourse with co-founder Bill Wilson on precisely our topic:

How Bill W. refuted that 'A.A. is a SELFISH program.'

.... Another correspondent complained directly that he had been "disturbed to hear some A.A. speakers say, 'A.A. is a selfish program.'" The co-founder's response was eventually published in "The A.A. Way of Life":

I can see why you are disturbed.... The word "selfish" ordinarily implies that one is acquisitive, demanding, and thoughtless of the welfare of others. Of course, the A.A. way of life does not at all imply such undesirable traits.

What do these speakers mean? Well, any theologian will tell you that the salvation of his own soul is the highest vocation that a man can have. Without salvation - however we may define this - he will have little or nothing. For us in A.A. there is even more urgency.

If we cannot or will not achieve sobriety, then we become truly lost, right in the here and now. We are of no value to anyone, including ourselves, until we find salvation from alcohol. Therefore, our own recovery and spiritual growth have to come first - a right and necessary kind of self-concern.

From "Not-God, A History of Alcoholics Anonymous", pp. 243-244, by Ernest Kurtz.

Bill focused in right away upon the meaning of the word "selfish", because our offense to the expression lies in the inappropriate use of this word to describe AA. Bill confirmed that selfishness does not in any way have a place in the AA way of life. Moreover, he affirmed that placing one's own sobriety first is in no way a "selfish" act. It simply enables them to be useful to others.

So, what does the word "selfish" really mean? Here is what our dictionary says:

self-ish (sel'fish) adj.

the definition of SELFISH

1. caring only or chiefly for oneself; concerned with one's own interests, welfare, etc., regardless of others.

2. characterized by or manifesting concern or care only for oneself: selfish motives.

Derived words

--self'ish-ly, adv.

--self'ish-ness, n.

Now, let’s ask ourselves this. In view of the meaning and synonyms of " selfish", would we be complimented if somebody called us "selfish"? Would we be the proud members of a "selfish" program? Of course not!

Selfishness means not only preoccupation with self, but often to the detriment of others. Is this what we learn in Alcoholics Anonymous, to be obsessed with ourselves, to possibly injure or deprive others because of our concern for ourselves? Is there just so much sobriety available, so that we have to fight for our share? Does your getting sober make my sobriety the less? Anybody who reads the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous and has taken the steps of AA knows unequivocally that AA teaches us exactly the opposite. We get out of self, and we are never to harm other people.

synonyms of SELFISH

1. You must learn to share and not be so selfish: self-seeking, self-concerned, self-centered, egocentric, egotistic; greedy, rapacious, avaricious, covetous, venal, mercenary, grasping; uncharitable, ungenerous, illiberal, grudging, stingy, parsimonious, miserly, mean; Informal tight.

antonyms unselfish, selfless, considerate; generous, bighearted, magnanimous, giving; altruistic.

As a matter of investigation we searched the Big Book [from inside the front cover through page 164, (plus Appendices 1 and 2), and we found that the root "self" is used 221 times in 41 different words. This was a pretty shocking finding, making it abundantly clear that the disease of alcoholism has a lot to do with self. Our search results are in Appendix 1. In summary, we found the words fell into 4 groups:

With so much material in the Big Book on the subject of "self", we find ample evidence of precisely what its authors felt about "selfish, selfishness and selfishly", the three words used that relate directly to the topic of inquiry. These three words appear 15 times, and the context of each usage is set forth below.

synonyms of selfish in the Big Book

Word Group

Word countTimes Used
Character Virtues (desirable traits) 6 8
Character Defects (undesirable traits)1449
Other 1325
Prepositions (himself, myself, etc.) 8139
Total 41221

What the Big Book has to say about selfishness - 15 quotes.

  1. Best of all, I met a kind doctor who explained that though certainly selfish and foolish, I had been seriously ill, bodily and mentally. [Big Book page 7, line 13].

  2. He is often perfectly sensible and well balanced concerning everything except liquor, but in that respect he is incredibly dishonest and selfish. [Big Book page 21, line 28].

  3. On the other hand, he may be mean, egotistical, selfish and dishonest. [Big Book page 61, line 9].

  4. Selfishness—self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. [Big Book page 62, line 7].

  5. Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of the selfishness. We must, or it kills us! [Big Book page 62, line 19].

  6. Where had we been selfish, dishonest, self-seeking and frightened? - [Big Book page 67, line 17].

  7. Where had we been selfish, dishonest, or inconsiderate? [Big Book page 69, line 14].

  8. We subjected each relation to this test—was it selfish or not? [Big Book page 69, line 21].

  9. We remembered always that our sex powers were God-given and therefore good, neither to be used lightly or selfishly nor to be despised and loathed. [Big Book page 69, line 24].

  10. Selfish and inconsiderate habits have kept the home in turmoil [Big Book page 82, line 28].

  11. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows [Big Book page 84, line 6].

  12. Continue to watch for selfishness, dishonesty, resentment, and fear. [Big Book page 84, line 25].

  13. Were we resentful, selfish, dishonest or afraid? [Big Book page 86, line 7].

  14. We are careful never to pray for our own selfish ends. [Big Book page 87, line 18].

  15. We wives found that, like everybody else, we were afflicted with pride, self-pity, vanity and all the things which go to make up the self-centered person ; and we were not above selfishness or dishonesty. [Big Book page 116, line 23].

First of all, note that not one example above shows selfishness to be a positive trait. Moreover, its frequent companion is dishonesty. There is no question but that selfishness is one of the gross defects of character in AA.

Is Alcoholics Anonymous a "selfish" program? Of course not.

Now that we are armed with the facts, how could any sane person ever say that AA is a selfish program or that we are taught selfishness as part of our recovery?

Our founder responded to the improper use of "selfish" in a truly compassionate and constructive way. (A way, for sure, that we would like to be able to replicate with greater ease.) He turned "selfishness" into a new set of priorities—the AA principle that we must clean up our own act before we can be good for anything.

Knowing this, we have pondered what prompts otherwise sober-appearing fellow members to say that AA is a "selfish" program. They usually respond with the same idea that Bill pointed out, that their own sobriety has to be their number one priority in AA. And, we absolutely agree that sobriety must be each member’s #1 priority.

So, why would one ever want to make a false statement to convey a truth? We ask why they cannot simply state what they really mean, that their own sobriety is their #1 AA priority. This statement is certainly much clearer, requiring no explanation, and it cannot delude newcomers into false beliefs about AA.

Let us make a suggestion. The next time you hear somebody say in AA that "this is a selfish program", point out to them that AA is not a selfish program. Enlighten them with the facts set forth in these paragraphs.

If they then persist in their error or want to argue with you, the explanation may fall into one of these categories:

  1. They simply do not know what the word "selfish" really means, and they don't want to find out.
  2. They are mentally deficient
  3. They are uneducated and unwilling to use words correctly
  4. They are terribly stubborn
  5. They are preoccupied with other things
  6. They are in the habit of saying it, and they just haven’t thought it through
  7. They hadn’t realized they could make their point without lying
  8. They are attention-starved, and they need the opportunity to explain themselves
  9. They really need a justification for selfish behavior.

Now, within these nine alternatives lie some of the deeper character defects that we in AA are prone to have. You just may hear it said again, but sally forth with the facts!

Appendix 1.

A tabulation of words in the Big Book which contain the root "self".
Word Group Self-Word Count
Character Virtues self-control 1
self-discipline 2
self-respect 1
self-searching 1
unselfishness 2
Character Defects self-centered 3
self-centeredness 3
self-deception 1
self-destruction 1
self-esteem 7 *
selfishly 1
selfishness 3
self-justification 1
self-pity 11
self-pitying 1
self-seeker 1
self-seeking 4
self-supporting 1
Other self-appraisal 3
self-confidence 2
self-confident 1
self-conscious 1
self-consciousness 1
self-evident 1
self-imposed 1
self-propulsion 1
self-reliance 3
self-revealing 1
self-sacrifice 2
self-sacrificing 2
self-sufficiency 1
self-will 5
Prepositions herself 2
himself 75
itself 7
myself 22
ourselves 1
self 5
thyself 2
yourself 25
Total 221

* the first definition for self-esteem is "pride", which is a defect of character. Use self-respect if a virtue is intended.

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