Alcoholics Anonymous has developed an oral tradition for teaching people to alter their relation to their own desires and their own freedom fundamentally, teaching that is done through practice rather than through ideas. Our study of AA's innovative organisational tools for building long-lasting mutual-help groups shows that the same tools that build the organisation also exemplify and embody the organisation's ethical worldview. To that extent, AA's group practices are worth studying not only from the point of view of learning about bottom-up, non-expert-led networks but also to shed light on the development of a popular pragmatist ethics in which little techniques – anonymity, the focus on the 24-hour cycle, etc. – deconstruct the Kantian distinction between means and ends.
This study of the everyday ethics of AA members argues that AA's unique role in the history of popular ethical practices can be traced to several original features. First, AA incorporates elements of the disease model of alcoholism while remaining fundamentally a spiritual programme, thus mapping an important hybrid terrain often ignored by students of medicalisation. Secondly, AA was able to steer away from the political controversies about temperance, prohibition, and control of alcoholic beverages that had made the old temperance movement founder. Thirdly and most importantly, AA uniquely managed to combine the once-in-a-lifetime experience of total transformation that is characteristic of religious conversion with the development of a series of slogans and mental techniques for dealing with the ‘trivial’ details of life. This paper first outlines the hybrid terrain of AA, between medicine and religion, and then examines a few of the techniques that are at the core of AA's success, including anonymity, the Higher Power, and the twenty-four hour cycle.