Two blocks from my home in Prague is my local pub. Once a week on average, I take a little table in the corner, converse with the owner and bartenders, and have a nice burger and beer. It is a part of my life, a pleasurable, brief escape from my 50–55-hour work week.
There are those who say I am wrong to do so. They contend that alcohol is evil, and that the consumption of it should be prohibited. I understand where they are coming from, but for multiple reasons, I have to disagree.
Obviously, one does not need to drink alcohol to have a good time, but the connection between alcohol and social occasions is one of the strongest elements of human society. Weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and almost every other human ritual includes alcohol. Beer, wine, and spirits are an unnecessary, yet integral, part of human life.
Despite its ubiquitous presence, alcohol is a subject little discussed by philosophers. That’s surprising because it reflects so much both positive and negative about humanity. I cannot hope to take on the vast subject of alcohol in its entirety, but I will share some thoughts.
The Dark Side
Yes, alcohol consumption has a dark side. The most obvious being the harsh reality that alcohol can be abused, and it can be addictive. We cannot ignore this dark side.
How many lives have been ruined by alcohol abuse and addiction? Way too many. Excess consumption causes people to lose rational capacity, motor skills, and ethical judgment. Chronic abuse of alcohol causes people to lose their money, jobs, families, friends, and lives.
It is no wonder that in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a large-scale campaign to ban the production, sale, and use of alcohol. The temperance movement, as they called themselves, argued that alcohol was a scourge damaging society — an evil that must be stamped out. The movement for prohibition had significant successes in Europe and the United States, as this video illustrates.
The main mistake made by many prohibitionists was treating alcoholism as a moral failing rather than a disease. Sermonizing and stigmatizing alcohol made the temperance campaigners feel superior, but didn’t solve the problems. Alcohol use disorder (as the medical establishment now calls it) is being unable to limit the amount of alcohol one drinks. It is a disease or disorder. It doesn’t just go away because one wants it to. Making access to alcohol more difficult only sounds like a solution. It does not deal with the underlying disorder.
Another mistake made by some prohibition campaigners was to ignore the social conditions that fueled alcohol abuse. People trapped in poverty and hopelessness turn to alcohol and other addictive substances as a means to deaden or escape their feelings. Karl Marx wrote that it should not surprise us that when society treats workers as animals, those workers, in what little spare time they have, behave like animals.
The US temperance movement of the early 1900s often decried the saloon culture in working class neighborhoods. This was a time when every urban neighborhood had a corner saloon where men gathered. In Chicago, they were called “Schlitz bars,” after a popular regional beer. Many men after work would drop by for a drink or two and talk with friends.
On the one hand, it was true that some working men spent too much time and money in the saloons. They neglected their wives and kids, blew too much of their paychecks, got drunk, got into fights, came home, and abused their wife and kids. All these things happened and these animal behaviors (Marx was correct) were big inspirations for those calling for prohibition.
On the other hand, those same saloons served as important social resources for working class men. The neighborhood saloon was, in the words of sociologist Royal Melendy — “the clearing-house for the common intelligence — the social and intellectual center of the neighborhood.” (“The Saloon in Chicago,” 1900) The saloon was where men could get advice, get legal help, make connections, and find work. One could argue that the alcohol was unnecessary, but it was wrong to argue from the abusive behavior of some men who frequented them that saloons should be banned.
Prohibition backfired. It drove the production, sale, and use of alcohol underground, greatly facilitating the growth of organized crime. Its effects were felt far more by the working class than by the upper class. The wealthy could more easily access illicit alcohol, and a network of producers and venues illegally serviced them. Within a few years, public opinion changed, and prohibition was reversed. Legal alcohol returned, but only after the loss of many businesses and jobs, and an erosion of law and order and social life.
Prohibition didn’t solve the dark side of alcoholism, but neither did legalization. Some people continued to abuse alcohol, though most did not.
Another negative effect of prohibition was the consolidation of the beer brewing industry. Before prohibition, there were hundreds of small brewers serving local markets. Most were killed off because they were banned from doing business. Only larger, more well-funded brewers had the resources to pivot to producing other items not covered by the ban. Root beer and molasses among them. A great history of how prohibition affected the brewing industry is The History of Beer and Brewing in Chicago.
Of course, prohibition was not the only force for industry consolidation, but it was a big push. By the 1960s, there were only a small handful of mega-corporate brewers. They dominated the market through massive advertising. Craft brewing was lost… but only temporarily, and that leads us to the bright side.
The Bright Side
In an earlier article, I wrote about the differences between big business (capitalism) and small business (free enterprise).
Those differences are sharply delineated in the production of alcohol. There are some mega-corporate producers–ABInBev, Bacardi, and Diageo being the three largest. It is not that the corporations produce nothing of quality, it’s that most of what they produce is crap. And they know this. They just don’t care. In every country there are one or two beer brands that dominate market share. They achieved market dominance through advertising, to convince people to buy their crap out of reputation rather than quality.
Then there are the hundreds of small artisan producers. These artisan craft producers are a large part of the bright side of alcohol. From the family business that has been creating fine beer, wine, or spirits for decades or even centuries, to the group of friends who recently started an artisan brewery or distillery, these true craftspeople create things of beauty. I won’t name any to avoid playing favorites, but there are so many innovators who craft alcohol that is a delight to savor.
That is the real bright side of alcohol: enjoying an expertly crafted beverage. Enjoying the finer things in life is a wonderful thing. Fine food, fine drink, fine literature, fine philosophy, these are meant to be enjoyed, and not just enjoyed, but savored.
You either drink to get drunk or you drink to experience the flavor. Getting drunk is the dark side. Savoring the complex flavors of a fine alcoholic beverage, with a good book or a good friend, is the bright side of alcohol.
I drink to enjoy the flavor. I don’t mind the effects of alcohol, but I wouldn’t mind if it had none — that would be nicer actually, because then I could enjoy more drinks in one sitting. I was drunk only once in my life, and I hated the experience and never want to feel that way again.
The corporations manufacture cheap beer and spirits for people who are more interested in getting drunk than in enjoying their beverage. Those corporations, with their lite beer and cheap vodka, feed the dark side of alcohol and the harms it causes. It is also an exploitation of the poor, who can’t afford quality alcohol and are inundated with manipulative advertising.
I am fortunate to be able to afford craft beers, fine wines, and artisanal spirits. I am fortunate to be able to enjoy them responsibly. One of my grandfathers suffered from alcohol use disorder and he ruined the lives of him and his family. I respect that alcohol is not without dangers, but I respect those people who craft quality beverages for people to enjoy responsibly.
Alcohol as Philosophical Touchstone
There is no single litmus test for a philosophical attitude but there are a number of ideas and realities that are useful in gauging where people are at. I’ll be slightly Aristotelian in advocating that the proper attitude toward alcohol lies in a rational mean between extremes.
If you drink to get drunk and especially if you ignore the consequences of alcohol abuse, that’s bad. Just plain not acceptable. Anything in excess is a harm, as Aristotle wisely said, and excessive alcohol is more harmful than many other excesses. Reveling in “getting wasted” is immature and irresponsible.
If you want all alcohol to be banned, that is an extreme of deficiency, even if there are some good intentions behind it. Not all alcohol use is harmful. Almost everything can be enjoyed in moderation, and alcohol is one of them. Attempting to ban alcohol is an attempt to hold people to one particular vision of behavior that is an unsupportable extreme. Consuming alcohol is not unethical; abuse of alcohol is unethical.
The mean, the middle path, is to recognize that alcohol is in itself neither good nor bad, but our attitudes and uses of it are. Respect its power, respect those who respect it, and respect those who use it for good. Because, yes, alcohol can be used for good.