Herbert Fingarette, Controversial Author Of "Heavy Drinking," Dies At 97

By Maggie Ethridge 11/21/18
Fingarette argued that heavy drinking was willful and that moderation is an option in his book Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease.
Herbert Fingarette, who controversially denounced alcoholism as a disease, dies at 97

Herbert Fingarette, the well-known, controversial philosopher who wrote that alcoholism was an issue of willfulness and not a disease, died at age 97 in Berkeley, California on Nov. 2, according to the New York Times.

Fingarette was a prolific author of philosophy and law, well-known for his book Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease, which argued that despite cultural belief, there is no hard science proving that alcoholism is a disease. Fingarette believed that many people labeled "alcoholics" were actually not.

Despite this argument, Fingarette was hardly cold-blooded when it came to the suffering of people with alcoholism and those who loved them.

In Heavy Drinking, he wrote, “There is no reason to see heavy drinking as a symptom of illness, a sign of persistent evil, or the mark of a conscienceless will. Rarely do people choose a destructive or self-destructive way of life. On the contrary, we shape our lives day to day, crisis by crisis... We each share the propensity to choose opportunistically when under stress. So, on a series of occasions, a drinker chooses what seems the lesser evil, the temporarily easier compromise, without a clear appreciation of the long-run implications. 

"If our righteous condemnation is not in order, neither is our cooperation in excusing heavy drinkers or helping them evade responsibility for change. Compassion, constructive aid, and the respect manifest in expecting a person to act responsibly—these are usually the reasonable basic attitudes to take when confronting a particular heavy drinker who is in trouble…”

Fingarette was born in Brooklyn in 1921 and wed his wife Leslie in 1945. Leslie predeceased him in 2011. They had one daughter (and eventually two grandsons). Fingarette taught philosophy at the University of California, Santa Barbara for 40 years. Some of his coworkers were angered when his book on alcoholism was published; one coworker went so far as to write an entire rebuttal which was distributed as a pamphlet.

Fingarette wrote in his book that moderate drinking was ignored as an option in the recovery community, when in fact it could be a viable option for those struggling with heavy drinking.

At the end of his life, Fingarette was writing an essay on how the dead continue to shape the lives of the living. In his book Death: Philosophical Soundings, he had written, “People hope never to know the end of consciousness. But why hope! They never will.”

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Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage (Shebooks, 2014) and the recently completed novel, Agitate My Heart. She is a freelance writer published in Rolling Stone, VOX, Washington Post, The Guardian and many others. Find her at her blog Flux Capacitor or on LinkedIn or Twitter.