#257: The Utility of Alcohol

#257: The Utility of Alcohol

The target of today’s comic is psychological studies like this one that says “blood alcohol concentration predicts utilitarian responses in moral dilemmas“. A number of articles in the media have run with this idea, for example with the Atlantic declaring “the more intoxicated the subject, the more utilitarian she was likely to be“. These studies typically rely on trolley scenarios; what they actually find is that drunk people are more likely to say that you should push the large guy off the bridge in order to stop the train and save five others.

The problem with the popular interpretation of these studies (as many have pointed out) is that by itself this result doesn’t tell us much about whether the intoxicated subjects are actually reasoning as Utilitarians. There are any number of other possible explanations – maybe intoxication just makes people less empathic (which some of the researchers suggest), or makes them care less about social norms (like ‘don’t push people off of bridges’). But this by itself isn’t Utilitarianism, of course – there’s no indication that the drunk people gain a new level of concern for the greater overall good. Indeed, it wouldn’t be surprising if drunk people are thinking less about the greater overall good than they would be otherwise – that would still be consistent with a diminished compunction about pushing people off of bridges. Or it could be that drunk people are just amused by the story, and are more likely to try to give funny or offensive answers. Who knows. If we really want to know whether alcohol makes people more utilitarian, we need better designed studies – preferably, ones involving utility monsters.

For a fun discussion of this topic, you should listen to this episode of the Very Bad Wizards podcast (which was what first made me aware of the flaw in these studies, and so is a direct inspiration for this comic).


Discussion (2)¬

  1. Bunny says:

    I don’t know whether drinking makes me more empathic or not, but it definitely activated my third eye.

  2. Sam says:

    This is a really interseting one. Thanks for the pointer to Very Bad Wizards, that is going to be a new favorite podcast.