I’ve put what I was writing about on hold because I’ve got so spectacularly good at avoiding completing it that I’m clearly not going to do it for a while. However, I can at least get some posts done about other things. The thing that has been irritating me philosophically recently has been the surfacing of proposals for a minimum price of alcohol to tackle of alcohol abuse in its various forms from ‘binge drinking’ to true alcoholism.
My particular encounter with this debate that has occasioned this blog post was yesterday’s The Big Questions, which I watched today on iPlayer. As I’ve said before, I love this debate programme because it gets me all wound up and angry at the people debating. Today I realised the source of that irritation; it is my frustration that no one ever approaches the topic of the debate with a philosophical question (or at least I haven’t seen an episode where they do), or more specifically it is my frustration that no one is asking the question I want to ask the people myself. The debates for this took quite a binary and typical form; some people said ‘we shouldn’t have to be punished for the actions of the few’ others pressed the urgency for action against this social problem. Some people said it wouldn’t work, some people said there were studies that it would work. People took sides against each other but no-one called into question the underlying presupposition that alcohol abuse itself was the problem to be solved, they simply debated whether the minimum price would solve it.
Now, I personally do not think the price will stop ‘problem drinkers’ drinking but will simply make them poorer. However, according to some campaigners, apparently there are studies to show that it will stop them drinking. I don’t know, I’m not particularly interested either way (at least as far as this post is concerned). I’ll hypothetically allow that a minimum price will reduce problem drinking, however it will not solve the underlying problem that has been missed, as is evidenced by the fact that the problem is posed in this way at all.
To show this I want to draw on Kierkegaard’s categories of ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ truth. In a nutshell, the ‘objective’ is the ‘that’ of the action and the ‘subjective’ is the ‘how’ of the action or ‘the way in which’ the action is performed. Take the action of a problem drinker buying alcohol. The objective truth of this is simply ‘that’ he bought it and consumed it in such quantities to be deemed a problem by society. This is as much as is captured by statistics, the simply blatant, obvious and banal fact of the affair. What about the subjective state of the individual? What is the way in which he bought and drank it to a ‘problematic’ level? Alcoholics are alcoholics for a reason, binge drinkers binge drink for a reason. Each problem drinker has his own subjective and intimate reason for drinking in an unhealthy way, perhaps depression for the alcoholic and a lack of interesting friends or a care for his heath in the case of the binge drinker. These reasons themselves will have their own ’cause’ outside of the individual, some to do with events in the individuals life and some to do with inadequacies and maladies in contemporary society that do not fully cater for the needs of the human being.
This intimate reason will still remain even if the individual’s coping mechanism is taken away from him by raising its price ‘out of problem drinkers’ reach’ in the same way we’d keep medicine ‘out of children’s reach’ on a high shelf, trying to avoid the consequences of the child’s curiosity and naivety. Yet, the child’s curiosity and naivety remain until they grow into a more mature and educated state that is aware of their safety. However, problem drinkers are not children and their problem is not one of curiosity or of an ignorance of the harm a substance can do to them; it will not simply go away with time.
A minimum price for alcohol addresses the objective and obvious fact of people reaching out to alcohol unhealthy, while completely ignoring the subjective and intimate cause of its occasion. Assuming it is completely successful, these people would slip out of social concern simply because they could not afford to drink any more and therefore wouldn’t be problem drinkers. While the mechanism of support for ‘problem drinkers’ used to at least partially cater for their needs, there will be no such recognition of their problems for years. They will be swept under the carpet and forgotten, until, in a few years time, some new buzzword takes over the role of ‘problem drinker’ that partially encompasses their issues. Alternatively, they will just find some other coping mechanism to replace alcohol, and in a sequel of social ineptitude this new mechanism will be targeted and removed and we’ll be back at square one, but not before they have done a few more decades of damage to their lives and those around them through it.
This society needs philosophical thinking, or rather it needs any sort of thinking at all. We’re too fast paced and reckless, thinking slows us down and forces us to stop and reconsider the implications and consequences of what we’re striving for. This is a desperate need because, alongside the casualties of this stampede of thoughtlessness in the public sphere (such as the closing of philosophy departments, the proposed addition of ‘business awareness’ to every MA programme, the result of an election determined purely by spin) there are consequences in the private domain of homes and families.
To have a philosophically inappropriate approach to our solution of the issues surrounding ‘problem drinking’ could have as terrible affect on families and children’s childhoods as doing nothing about it at all. Perhaps an even terrible effect if there is still logic behind the saying ‘better the devil you know’.