Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Is it prudent to start drinking alcohol?

Here is an interesing exercise in decision theory.

Suppose (as is basically the case for me, if one doesn’t count chocolates with alcohol or the one or two spoonfuls of wine that my parents gave me as a kid to allay my curiosity) I am a man who never drunk alcohol. Should I?

Well, 6.8% of American males 12 and up suffer from alcoholism. And 83% of American males 12 and up report having drunk alcohol. It follows that the probability of developing alcoholism after drinking is around 8%, whle the probability of developing alcoholism without drinking is around 0%.

Family history might provide one with some reason to think that in one’s own case the statistics on developing would be more pessimistic or more optimistic, but let’s suppose that family history does not provide significant data one way or another.

So, the question is: are the benefits of drinks containing alcohol worth an 8% chance of alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a very serious side-effect. It damages people’s moral lives in significant ways, besides having serious physical health repercussions. The moral damage is actually more worrying to me than the physical health repercussions, both because of the direct harms to self and the indirect harms to others, but the physical health considerations are easier to quantify. Alcoholism reduces life expectancy by about 30%. Thus, developing alcoholism is like getting a 30% chance of instant death at a very young age. Hence, the physical badness of facing an 8% chance of developing alcoholism is like a young child’s facing a 2.4% chance of instant death.

At this point, I think, we can get some intuitions going. Imagine that a parent is trying to decide whether their child should have an operation that has about a 2.4% chance of death. There definitely are cases where it would be reasonable to go for such an operation. But here is one that is not. Suppose that the child has a condition that makes them unable to enjoy any food that has chocolate in it—the chocolate is harmless to them, but it renders the food containing it pleasureless. There is a childhood operation that can treat this condition, but about one in forty children who have the operation die on the operating table. It seems to me clear that parents should refuse this operation and doctors should not offer it, despite the fact that chocolate has great gustatory pleasures associated it. Indeed, I think it is unlikely that the medical profession would approve of the operation.

But I doubt that alcohol’s morally legitimate pleasures exceed those of chocolate.

I said that the moral ills of alcoholism are larger than the physical, but harder to quantify. Still, we can say something. If the physical badness of an 8% chance of alcoholism is like a young child’s facing a 2.4% chance of instant death, and there is a worse moral effect, it follows that the overall badness of an 8% chance of alcoholism is at least as bad as a young child’s facing a 5% chance of instant death. And with a one in twenty chance of death, there are very few operations we would be willing to have performed on a child or ourselves. The operation would have to correct a very dangerous or a seriously debilitating condition. And alcohol does neither.

This suggests to me that if the only information one has is that one is male, the risk of alcoholism is sufficient that the virtue of prudence favors not starting to drink. If one is female, the risk is smaller, but it still seems to me to be sufficiently large for prudence to favor not starting to drink.

There are limitations of the above argument. If one has already started drinking, one may have additional data that goes beyond the base rates of alcoholism—for instance, one may know that in twenty years of drinking, one has not had any serious problems with moderation, in which case the argument does not apply (but of course one might also have data that makes alcoholism a more likely outcome than at the base rate). Similarly, one might have data from family history showing that the danger of alcoholism is smaller than average or from one’s own personal history showing that one lacks the “addictive personality” (but in the latter case, one must beware of self-deceit).

I am a little suspicious of the above arguments because of the Church’s consistent message, clearly tied to Jesus’s own practice, that the drinking of alcohol is intrinsically permissible.

It may be that I am overly cautious in thinking which degree of risk prudence bids us to avoid. Perhaps one thing to say is that while there are serious reasons of prudence not to start drinking, I may be underestimating the weight of the benefits of drinking.

I also think the utilities were different in the past. If spices and chocolate are unavailable or prohibitively expensive, wine might be the main gustatory pleasure available to one, and so the loss of gustatory pleasure would be a more serious loss. Likewise, alcoholic drinks may have health benefits over unsafe drinking water. Finally, even now, one might live in a cultural setting where there are few venues for socialization other than over moderate alcoholic consumption.

Of course, in my own case there are also hedonic reasons not to drink alcoholic drinks: the stuff smells like a disinfectant.


Martin Cooke said...

Nice argument, especially its consideration of its own flaws. With respect to which, another benefit of drinking is that it relaxes our inhibitions. It can help us to be social animals, and it can also help us to be ourselves. It encourages us, and in particular, it encourages us to tell the truth. (The moral ills you refer to may be closely related to these benefits.)

Martin Cooke said...

I don't drink much alcohol, incidentally (I used to love alcohol, almost as much as chocolate, but about twenty years ago it got suddenly boring (and a couple of years ago I started to find chocolate boring (newer interests seem to have pushed those old ones out of my finite mind))).

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am somewhat sceptical of the alleged social inhibition decrease benefit. I've been at many dinners with people who had moderate amounts of alcohol. Here are my observations. People get a little louder. They laugh more, but with Jess discernment (e.g., they laugh more at my jokes, a clear sign of less discernment).

I don't think I've seen an increase in honesty, but generally the people I talk to seem pretty honest already. At the quantities of alcohol that I've observed, there is no effect in either direction on the intellectual quality of the conversation.

Here is my suspicion: the perceived quality of conversation increases (just as the perceived quality of my humor does), but the actual quality as seen by a nondrinking observer is unchanged.

But I'm not a very good observer. It would be good to have some blinded experiments, with observers ranking the intellectual and moral quality of transcripts of conversations. Maybe such studies exist?

Alexander R Pruss said...

This looks interesting and relevant;

Alexander R Pruss said...

There is one study on the effects of moderate consumption of alcohol on lying, but it confirmed the null hypothesis:

And here's a summary of a review of studies on social behavior and alcohol:

Martin Cooke said...

Thanks for the links; it's good to have data to consider. Perhaps alcohol makes liars more likely to lie, in riskier ways, and honest people more likely to be honest, when not amongst potential enemies. The benefits would arise in both cases, as liars would be more likely to be found out, and honest people would be more likely to rise above whatever social restrictions they had grown into; with most people being in between. (Your own experiences are probably quite exceptional, as would be my own.) For such reasons, I think that alcohol might have a good effect on cultural evolution over the long term, which might help to explain its position within Christianity, but which would be hard to test empirically (and about which skepticism would therefore be reasonable).

Unknown said...

I think that beer, especially Belgian beer, is a craft mediated sensory experience of the deepest complexity. I hold it second only to French and Italian cheese in this regard.

Chocolate is a much smaller cultural achievement. You could include the entirety of the patissier's art along with chocolate and still not come close to the sophistication required to master a fraction of ancient art of beer making.

I'm not trying to talk you into anything, mind. But there is more to some alcoholic beverages than alcohol. I thought I should say something.

Oh, and I like your blog.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Oh, there definitely is more to alcoholic beverages than alcohol. But is what is there worth a physical danger equivalent to a 2.4% chance of instant death, especially given the (admittedly incommensurable) aesthetic alternatives?

These days, there are so many varieties physically safer aesthetic goods available to people who can afford fine beer: prose, poetry, music, the visual arts, theater, film, video games, many varieties of food (though admittedly not all equally safe), outdoor activities (some sorts are more dangerous than others, and prudent discernment is needed; apart from the especially dangerous outdoor activities like alpinism and motorcycle riding, though, the physical health benefits are likely to outweigh the physical dangers), etc.

It's interesting to think which of the types of aesthetic goods are of sufficient importance that it would be worth having a surgery with a 2.4% chance of death to remedy an inability to have an uptake of the aesthetic good in question, if one was able to have uptake of many other aesthetic goods. I doubt that a surgery with a 2.4% chance of death to correct an inability to have uptake of music would be prudent, if one was able to have uptake of the other aesthetic goods instead. (But if one lived in a time and place where very few non-musical aesthetic goods were available, the surgery might be prudent.) On the other hand, it seems to me that dangerous surgery to correct an inability to have uptake of literature would be worth it. But even in the case of literature, I think the justification would need to involve something more than the aesthetic goods as such--say, the insights into human nature that one misses out on by an inability to read novels. I think if one had the insights into the human condition apart from literature, a 2.4% of death wouldn't be worth it for the ability to have uptake of literature, if one had the other aesthetic goods available. But that's a close call, I think.

BTW, I once was talking with a grad student about alcoholic beverages, and he told me that at some point in his life he took up the drinking of wine. I asked him whether the pleasures of wine exceeded those of Coca Cola. The answer took the form: "No, but...". Hmm.

Walter Van den Acker said...


You definitely have never tasted Belgian beer.
But, on a serious note, I don't think you "should" start drinking alcohol. Drinking or not drinking is a personal choice and a personal choice is to be respected.

Alexander R Pruss said...

If there were no potential bad effects of drinking beer, and if the aesthetic goods of beer were as great as they are claimed to be, then it would be hard to justify not drinking beer, except as a cost-saving measure or an ascetical gesture. I think that aesthetic goods do generate imperfect duties.