The Psychology and Philosophy of Excessive Drinking

Both disciplines have something to say about it.

Posted Sep 16, 2018

In the 19th century, psychology and philosophy were viewed as the same subject matter. But the 20th century pulled the disciplines apart. As the body of knowledge in psychology became large, it was necessary, as a practical matter, to split the discipline in two.

This was unfortunate, as philosophy left practical matters behind and often veered off into abstractions too abstruse for the average person to understand or care about. Psychology moved center-stage as it filled the void, moving beyond simply looking at behavior to offering guidance for living, which historically belonged to the field of philosophy.

Let’s take the example of a person who drinks to excess. Most of what has been written about alcoholism in the last century has been from a psychological point of view. But when the temperance movement began, in the 19th century and before, it was largely framed as a moral, i.e. philosophical issue. In part, because we confuse morality with being moralistic, the philosophical dimension of the discussion is frequently absent.

If we tease apart the discussion around alcohol, I think you can see what I mean.

If someone asks, "Why am I addicted to alcohol?" she is raising a psycho-biological question that confronts motivation, cause and effect.  

If the person asks, "How do I stop from drinking?" she is raising a practical question. An adequate answer rests upon a good understanding of psychology.

But if the person asks, "Ought I to stop drinking?" she is asking a moral question. Ethical considerations arise when you try to evaluate actions in terms of "right" or "good." Is drinking to excess the right thing to do? Is it a good thing to do? The vocabulary of ethics revolves around matters of right and wrong, good and bad. Ethics also helps to distinguish between something which is a social norm and that which is an ethical principle.  

The question becomes ethical when the person wonders whether drinking is desirable. Certainly, the person desires to drink. The implicit question is, are all desires worthy of indulging; i.e. is that which is desired desirable? To answer this question, a series of other questions follows, such as: What effect does drinking have upon the person? How does it affect his health and character? What effect does it have upon others? Is this the best way to spend money? What pleasures are solitary and private? Whose business is it, anyway, that the person chooses to drink?

The simple question, "Ought I to stop drinking?" is entangled in a web of other questions that become progressively philosophical.

Many other topics tackled by psychology can be looked at the same way, by examining both descriptions (psychology) and prescriptions (philosophy).

Recently some philosophers have re-entered the practical world of advice-giving, most notably Kwame Anthony Appiah, who holds positions in the NYU’s philosophy department and law school. He also writes a weekly column for the New York Times in which he responds to readers’ query about problems they face. His book, Experiments in Ethics, is a favorite of mine.

It isn’t easy to apply both psychological and ethical reasoning to a situation. But unless we tease out our assumptions about what is desirable and what is not—and are clear about why we think so—we are likely to go about leading an unexamined life. And you know what Socrates said about that.