Alcohol Ethicists, do they exist?
October 15, 2008 9:50 PM   Subscribe

What are some definitive scholarly sources on the ethics of alcohol?

I have been wondering over the past few weeks about what scholarly work has been done on the topic of the ethics/morality of inebriation and other altered states of consciousness.

Do actions carry different moral weights depending on whether or not the were done under the influence of alcohol?

In what ethical framework should we view actions carried out while someone has (intentionally) drunk enough to not remember their actions?

How should we analyze the initial choice to drink to excess?

(I am not trying to analyze any one situation in particular; these are just a spattering of questions on the tropic I had wondered about.)

I am not interested in alarmist articles with little backing evidence about how evil alcohol is. I am more looking for scholarly philosophical analysis (i.e. more phd's and fewer pop ethicists). Still would be interested if the analysis were not specific to alcohol, but instead analyzed states of (voluntarily-induced) altered consciousness.

I realize that this is a topic that many people feel strongly about, but I am less interested in peoples' personal opinions, than in influential published articles/books.
posted by vegetableagony to Religion & Philosophy (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I took a look for online texts on ethics from the Temperance Movement, without luck, but it does seem that there was a category "Temperance Ethics" in the early Dewey Decimal Classification which might have some of what you're looking for.
posted by XMLicious at 10:24 PM on October 15, 2008

Well, preeminent ethicist Socrates was famous (?) for being able to consume indefinite alcohol without succumbing to apparent inebriation. That strikes me as a more typical relationship to altered consciousness than the overriding drugs = bad philosophies that are dominant in the West (and especially the USA) today.

Since many thinkers, priests, shamans, writers, philosophers and the like throughout history were imbibing in mind-altering ("consciousness-awakening") chemicals more often than not -- see almost any religion for examples -- I suspect the very foundations of discussions re ethics thereof will be... tainted.

I'm not holding forth, here, just providing root-guidance, I hope: Start with the Greeks, who were dealing with issues of ethics and Bacchus from the very get-go.
posted by rokusan at 11:07 PM on October 15, 2008

Timothy Leary has some work around the ethics (or otherwise) of giving people mind-altering substances without their knowledge, or giving people mind-altering substances outside of the proper mindset and physical setting. (I'm thinking The Psychedelic Experience, A Manual Based On The Tibetan Book Of The Dead but there may be others.)
posted by skylar at 11:16 PM on October 15, 2008

You may want to check out this book. I haven't read it myself, but I've heard that it's pretty good. Of course, it's not about alcohol specifically, but more about drug use in general. If nothing else, it's bibliography would probably be quite useful.
posted by Ms. Saint at 11:30 PM on October 15, 2008

Wolfgang Schivelbusch's A Taste of Paradise for social history, if you take it as I do that ethics are informed by culture and historical context.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 11:56 PM on October 15, 2008

In traditional Christian ethics this is treated as a branch of temperantia (temperance or temperateness). Thus the Roman Catholic Catechism declares that 'the virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco or medicine'. (This idea of 'avoiding excess' is of course rooted in the Aristotelian idea of the golden mean between the two extremes of excess and deficiency.)

Personally I don't find this a very helpful approach; at least I think it needs quite a lot of unpacking to make sense. The best discussion of temperantia that I know is in Herbert McCabe's little book On Aquinas (2008), where he argues that temperance is emphatically NOT a question of regulating the amount of pleasure that we have, as if too much pleasure was intrinsically a bad thing. 'It is not that we should have only a moderate amount of pleasure, but that the pleasure we take should lead us to doing the right thing, and what the right thing is is decided by the needs of our bodily life .. It is a matter of integrating the pleasures of sensation into a complete life-story.' This strikes me as a much more sensible approach to the ethics of alcohol. (McCabe himself was famous for his love of spirituous liquor. This may not be totally irrelevant to his interpretation of Aquinas.)

An alternative approach would be to reframe this in terms of legal ethics, and to look at the legal question of 'responsibility', particularly the diminished responsibility that comes with being under the influence of drink or drugs. There is a huge literature on this, which you can explore for yourself by Googling for 'diminished responsibility'. The essays in Winston Davis (ed.), Taking Responsibility (2001) are quite interesting. Davis argues in his introduction that the whole notion of responsibility (even the word itself) doesn't really exist before the mid-nineteenth century, which interestingly is just the time when the notion of diminished responsibility starts to get established in English law via the M'Naghten Rules and the distinction between murder and manslaughter.

Davis then argues that the modern era has seen a shift from a (basically Christian) ethics of obedience to a (basically secular) ethics of responsibility, to the point where responsibility is now seen as the supreme civic virtue. (We don't necessarily expect our political leaders to be paragons of virtue but we do expect them to behave responsibly.) At which point I say 'plus ca change' because this ethics of responsibility looks uncannily like a return to the Stoic virtue of self-control.
posted by verstegan at 2:10 AM on October 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

A significant portion of JS Mill's On Liberty is devoted to the question of government intrusion into the drinking habits of the American population. He considers it a legitimate use of governmental power, because excess drinking harms others.
posted by klangklangston at 11:38 AM on October 16, 2008

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