Moral Judgement Only Hinders Addiction Recovery

One of the fantastic things about recovery is that I finally beat the personality quirk of caring what people think. Sure, I postured like I didn’t care because I thought it gave an edge to my public persona. In reality, I know I cared about what people – especially strangers – thought more than almost anything else. I learned how to stop caring the way I learn most things: by reaching an objective, intellectual conclusion by accident. That’s almost always how my perspective changes. I fully believe moral judgement has no place in addiction recovery.

My History

The change came like a bolt of lighting. Back when I was a politician, magazine publisher and film festival creator, I probably had 15,000 total “friends” on Facebook. Almost all of these people thought I was doing great work for my community and, by extension, was a great person. It was easy to blur the line between “You’re doing good work” and “You’re a good person” for someone like me who struggles with issues of self-worth and imposter syndrome.

Then came the fall. The disclosure of my pornography addiction was fast and frantic. Two years later, I’d openly tell a judge that I urged a teenage girl to perform a sex act in an online chatroom. I never hid that fact. However, in the beginning there were some charges of possession of underage pornography that were simply untrue, and that eventually came out in court…but it took a long while, and the charges of possession were published. People believe what they want to believe and don’t need proof, just an accusation. We’re seeing that in our American political system today with so many doubting the outcome of the election.

Some of the exact same people who, just days earlier, were lauding me as a pillar of the community were now ready to put me on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List. The thing that struck me the most, however, was that the things they were now saying were incorrect. I’m not talking about their opinions. They were stating facts about me or the less-than-a-few-days-old charges that were wrong. They were simply not true. It was right there things changed. If these people could spew their venom from such a place of illogical ignorance, could it possibly be that their praise and assertions of the positivity I brought to the community were wrong as well?

The answer is yes. My need for praise clouded my ability to recognize that these people had no standing to judge me for good or bad. If that’s the case, and I could allow myself to not care about what they thought when the chips were down, I’d have to let it go when people said nice things as well.


As I’ve detailed on this website, I’m wading back into the world of social media. I’m not ready for Facebook, but I’m on Twitter and Instagram. I’ve been on LinkedIn for a while, and am finally starting to post things I write here and am also cross-posting between the platforms. Yesterday, I posted this on my Instagram and cross-posted to LinkedIn:

Call me crazy, but I don’t think it’s controversial. I didn’t see moral judgement oncoming. There are some who don’t think pornography addiction is an actual addiction. There are some who don’t think addiction is a brain disease. When I come up against these types, I find they either don’t/won’t believe in the science or have a financial incentive to take the other side. There is money in telling people they don’t have pornography addiction. There is also money in pushing the idea it doesn’t exist. There’s really not much you can do with these types of people.

I stumbled upon a new kind of person, though. After this LinkedIn post had been up for around 10 hours, with little response, everything changed. A woman who, according to her profile, is a prison chaplain, simply wrote “It’s both.”

It’s both.

Pornography addiction is a brain disease AND a moral failure.

What the fuck?

Further history

In my former life, I made many immoral decisions of my own free will. My priorities were out of whack in numerous ways and if it wasn’t for so many people needing me for what I could offer them professionally, I don’t think many would have interacted with me willingly. Moral judgement didn’t exist. As news of my arrest hit the media, there was rejoicing among many, because it was me getting taken down. I get it. I really, really do. We all like seeing the narcissistic guy fall. It’s karma.

My pornography addiction, as I have come to accept, has its roots in deep childhood trauma. For the people who don’t know my story, I was sexually and mentally/emotionally abused by a babysitter for several years before entering school back in the late 1970s, early 1980s. Around 12 years old, I was introduced to pornography and it was like finding the cure for the negative feelings in my brain. Justify your moral judgement there. Around 14, I also discovered alcohol. I used both almost daily and by 16 or 17, I had successfully repressed what happened to me a decade earlier.

Unfortunately, unresolved trauma is an ongoing condition. The addiction is an ongoing symptom of that condition. Whether I was consciously going to church and helping the homeless or consciously tripping children and calling them fat (which I didn’t do), my addiction and trauma lived outside of my everyday life and decisions. It was as much a part of my DNA as my intellect or lack of coordination when it comes to sports.

I have made plenty of immoral decisions in my life. Moral judgement didn’t have the place it should have in the first 3.5 decades of my life. Hopefully, 99% will remain prior to recovery. I made many of those decisions weighing my options and choosing whatever fit me best in the moment, aware it was not the “right” thing to do, but picking it anyway. Addiction never felt like a calculated decision. It was more of a necessity. The mindset that went into my sometimes immoral decision making was not the same mindset that went into addiction. Engaging my addiction was like a diabetic taking insulin. My brain told me I needed it to survive. There was no ulterior incentive.

It’s Both

No, close-minded lady, it’s not both. I don’t have a problem if you view pornographic material as immoral. I certainly think it’s unhealthy for even the most casual user, but I’m not going to impose the opinion of my values onto anybody else suffering with a disease. Is it a disease of my own making? Perhaps, but I’m not going to blame a 12-year-old boy for developing a porn addiction, especially when he became an adult who had never been introduced to the concept of “pornography addiction” until after he entered his first rehabilitation facility. That’s the kind of moral judgement that shouldn’t exist.

Was my porn addiction more or less immoral than my alcoholism? What if I had been an intercourse addict who cheated on my wife? Is that worse? What if it was a girlfriend, but I slept around a lot? I think that when it comes to morals and addiction, the person who splits hairs just doesn’t get it. It’s not a matter of levels of morality, it’s levels of illness. I can honestly say that a moral debate never entered the picture for me while I was suffering.

Why This is Important

We know that people who feel embarrassed, judged and shamed do not seek help and treatment to the same levels as those who feel safe doing so. Why would anybody speak up about their problem if they knew that they were going to be called immoral? Let’s recognize that moral/immoral is a judgement. It’s an opinion. Nobody who wants to seek help should hear that they are not a good person.

Thankfully, there are far more therapists and religious people who have agreed with the meme I posted on LinkedIn. While a few seem to straddle the line (or at least understand calling an addict “immoral” is bad form) no others have outright said that pornography addicts are immoral. This is good. We need more people saying it’s not a moral issue. Trust me, porn addicts feel bad about their situation. They don’t need the righteous intellects pointing fingers. That will NEVER help.

We need to foster a society that encourages others to seek help for their addictions and doesn’t judge the addict’s problem. I don’t understand why people smoke, but that doesn’t make me a better person for not doing it. I hope that those people get help before it’s too late, but my guess is if they are ridiculed for being smokers by those who should be helping, it’s not going to encourage them to quit.

This is not just my opinion. While I can’t find any studies that quantify people staying away from recovery for fear of judgment and shaming, almost every article I’ve read lists it as one of the main reasons for not seeking help, often quoting experts much smarter and experienced than myself or the LinkedIn woman who feels addiction is immoral.

The Takeaway

Think about it. If I, who thought I successfully stopped caring what people thought about me, still has this kind of reaction nearly seven years after entering recovery, what is a person who is new to recovery, or still an active user going to have as a reaction to hearing they are an immoral person?

Remove morality from the equation. They are not a bad person for being an addict. They are not a bad person for seeking relief in the only way their brain knows how. Their situation stinks and the last thing we should do is make them feel worse about themselves.

It’s Both.

No. No, it’s not. Addiction is not a moral failure.

Lead Image by John Hain from Pixabay


Twitter: @paddictrecovery
Instagram: @paddictrecovery
LinkedIn: @joshua-shea

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10 thoughts on “Moral Judgement Only Hinders Addiction Recovery

  1. Huh, interesting. There’s a fair bit of research to show that presenting mental illness in general as a brain disease actually increases stigma. It appears to be because people interpret the illness as being inherent in the individual and therefore unlikely to change. Hard to say if that relates to the chaplain’s comment at all.

    Obesity and addictions seem to be some of the last bastions where people feel fully entitled to moralize others’ behaviour.

  2. When I went to Celebrate Recovery for my first small group meeting I opened up completely about my porn addiction because I didn’t care one iota what the other guys in the room thought about me. I wanted help more than I feared being judged by a long shot. I still don’t care what folks think about me, my faith or my political leanings but that doesn’t mean I don’t love them for who and what THEY are. A whole lot more love and a whole lot less judgement would solve a lot of problems in this world. The only one I truly care about their opinion of me is my Lord and Savior and, believe me, that takes a big load off! Great insights here, bro.

    1. Just when I think I don’t care at all, something like this happens. I think it’s as much the shock as anything else. Somebody saying to me “porn addiction isn’t real” doesn’t phase me anymore. It’s being essentially told I was immoral that threw me for a loop. I guess I don’t care, but I can’t hide being offended and can’t say nothing when somebody is clearly so wrong.

      1. I hope you don’t think I was calling you immoral. I’m as immoral as they come so I have no right to judge anybody else’s personal “code of morality.”

      2. Not at all. And if you did call me that, I’d listen because I respect you and you’ve been there. I might not agree, but I’d listen. I don’t like when people who have no basis for calling me immoral, especially a prison chaplain, does.

  3. Thank you for your post Josh. Recognising my sex addiction as an illness/disease was major step forward for me finding the appropriate recovery and prolonged absitence. It helped me to look at myself in a kind, fair and compassionate way and not to be constantly burdened with the guilt, shame and condemnation of others. In a number of areas of my life, I was functioning purposefully in a way that was a healthy benefit to society when in addiction as I am now in recovery. This was the case for many recovering addicts I know. Sex addiction for me is coping mechanisim to deal with difficult feelings and trauma. Unfortunately in the UK, there is an ignorance displayed by the authorities, the media and society when look at sex addiction. The moral position tends to be that anyone who has a sex addiction has departed from all acceptible standards in society, which isn’t always the case. I accept that my Sex Addiction has been responsible for me making many mistakes and poor judgements however I try not to loose sight that I am ‘Mark who has a job, I am a Father, I have volunteering responsibilities and a safe peaceful home who has a terminal illness (sex addiction).’ This was the case for me and other functioning sex addicts who were not in recovery. Keep up the good work….

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