The Ethics of Alcohol


By Michele Bacigalupo

Photo courtesy of Fredrik Rubensson.

The question of whether alcohol intoxication can impact ethical decision-making has been investigated by researchers in Grenoble, France. Conducted in an ordinary bar by Aaron Duke and Laurent Begue, the study consisted of approaching people who appeared to be moderately intoxicated. These people were asked if they would mind participating in a study by answering a few philosophical questions.

Duke and Begue handed out a questionnaire, which asked participants about their opinions on well-known philosophical quandaries. The questionnaires also included drawings, and asked about the participants’ present state of mind. Upon completion of the survey, each subject’s Blood Alcohol Content was measured in order for the researchers to know their true levels of drunkenness.

The two questions given to the participants concerned the trolley problem and the footbridge problem–both are notorious in the realm of philosophy. Each is considerably difficult to answer, and have puzzled and aggravated great minds since they first entered the philosophical discussion.

Philippa Foot first devised the trolley problem in an essay published in 1967. It can be explained through various scenarios, but the basic dilemma is that you are witnessing a runaway trolley heading toward one of two ways. The trolley is going to reach a split in the tracks. On one track, there is a group of people talking and eating. On the other track, there is only one person, taking an afternoon nap. You are near the track switch, and therefore are given the choice of saving either the group or the solitary person. In this situation, what do you do?

The decision that the majority of people agree upon is to opt to save the larger group of people, and sacrifice the single man. This choice is purely utilitarian. The solution benefits more people, and is therefore a matter of logic.

The researchers found that the more drunk people were, the more quickly they were to reach the same utilitarian conclusion. Most intoxicated people had no qualms about killing one hypothetical person in order to rescue five equally hypothetical lives.

The footbridge problem is largely similar to the trolley question. Except in this one, more direct action from the participant is required. One common description of the problem explains that a fat man is looking over a footbridge. You are standing next to him, and see the runaway trolley about to kill the group of innocent people down below.

The man next to you is so large that he will certainly throw the trolley off its course. You have the choice, once again, of killing the one person in order to save the more significant number of people. Do you choose to follow through with your original decision, now that you run the risk of directly taking the blame for causing this one man’s death?

Once again, the answers of the subjects in the study proved to be consistent. The greater their level of intoxication, the more rational thought they applied to their decisions. Most of the participants chose to let the man die for the sake of saving the group of people on the tracks below.

The results of the study proved that higher alcohol consumption had a positive correlation with the increased speed of solving the moral dilemmas, and reaching the utilitarian conclusion. Previously, ethical decisions were thought to be made by people who had extreme levels of determination, and little vulnerability to emotional sensitivity. The study shows that the previous beliefs on how people make decisions may not be accurate after all.

It’s likely that the alcohol had a numbing effect on the participant’s range of empathy. The trolley and footbridge problem are also rather absurd in nature. The situations are too complicated and far-fetched for a person to seriously consider the consequences of his or her answers. The inebriation of the participants may have caused the problems to be presented as more simplistic than they would sound to a sober person. To the minds of the intoxicated people, the philosophical questions may have seemed more straightforward, which explains why they provided their solutions so quickly.

The sample size of the study included 103 men and women, an amount too insignificant to have much impact in the world of research. However the researchers have brought to light that inebriation has a strong effect on ethical reasoning. Their findings beg the question of whether people’s morals can differ depending on how much alcohol is in their system at a given time.

One thing is for certain–the drunk participants cooperated seamlessly with the researchers. The field of psychological research is alive and well, especially when cocktails are involved.