I explain in Addiction-Proof Your Child that teaching children basic values like responsibility to others -- such as paying debts - lessens their risk of addiction. Step 9 in AA's 12 steps asks recovering alcoholics to make amends to those they've harmed, including paying debts.

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The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, October 22, 2008. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Paying Debts Prevents Addiction - Oops, we're in trouble

ShylockI explain in Addiction-Proof Your Child that teaching children basic values like responsibility to others -- such as paying debts - lessens their risk of addiction. Step 9 in AA's 12 steps asks recovering alcoholics to make amends to those they've harmed, including paying debts.

When people think: "I need to pay back the money I use for drugs, alcohol, gambling, shopping. . . ," they are unlikely to reach the harrowing heights of all-out, abandoned addiction. They just can't keep consuming without regard for consequences - they are anchored by the reality of their finances and their obligations to others. My Life Process Program thus emphasizes people's duties to others as a way of helping people reorient their values and behavior.

In today's New York Times, the great Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood says: "We cannot recover from the crisis of 2008 simply by watching the Dow creep upward. To heal our wounds, we must repair the broken moral balance that let this chaos loose." We must repay what we spend.

Atwood reviews what might be called moral economy. If someone you know lends you money, you have to pay them back. If you agree to a loan with interest, that's a contract you made. If someone gives you a loan with no interest and they're not a friend, then you must realize they want something from you. These things are true of human relationships now, they were true in the bible, they have been true throughout history.

But we are losing these truths, as most evidenced by the idea that people who made foolish loans to get things they wanted should have the rest of us pay up for them. I'm not going to argue whether some people have been cheated and deserve to be relieved of their obligation to repay usurious loans.

I am going to point out that, culture-wide, people have less of a sense that they are obligated to pay for their meals (as when Miss Teen Louisiana was arrested Tuesday for skipping out of a restaurant without paying - and, oh, they found marijuana in her purse).

If you want to see the relationship between bad debtor values and dysfunctional lives, watch Judge Judy or any of the other innumerable TV court shows. Regular appearances are made by people whose explanation for not repaying a loan is, "I needed the money more for other things."

Other times they say the lender has hassled them, so the offended debtor decided to welch. One man explained another friend really needed the money he was going to use to pay a debt, or another said he didn't have all the money, so he spent the part he did have.

These cases are "no-brainers" - typically, the judge asks: "And you think that's a defense against this claim?" But what interests me is that the judges are representing all humanity in these cases. Because if we lose the sense that when someone gives us something on loan we have to give it back, we lose a fundamental building block of civilized behavior, personal discipline, and self-respect.