In many societies whether to drink alcohol is straightforward: it is forbidden. But it isn’t at all certain what to make of drinking here. For some it is a matter of free choice, while for others it is a social poison. Some view it as a social lubricant and for many teenagers it is a rite of passage.
The difficulty is deciding whether drinking should be condoned or condemned is, in part, because of the morally ambiguous environment in which we live.
Some turn to a single text for answers, a clear-cut, no-nonsense guide. But which book? After Socrates‘ death, two of his students took divergent paths. Plato and Aristotle disagreed about ethics, the former believing in eternal values and the latter in the need for judgment in particular situations. Jesus broke with the Jewish establishment of his time, placing the spirit of the law above a strict interpretation of it, emphasizing motive over consequence.
Of course there were people in traditional societies who were bothered by uncertainty and moral conflict. Abraham must choose between obeying God and the life of his son. Antigone must choose between the laws of state and the religious and familial duty to bury her brother. However, moral uncertainty is more urgent for so many today because so few customs exist to which everyone agrees .
Some matters are at bottom psychological, not moral. 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. 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 wrong, good or bad? What this the right thing to do? Was it a good thing to do? Once the ethical dimension is admitted, then there is the matter of taking into consideration the interests of others. Ethics implies a social connection and attempts to situate the individual in the proper social context.
In the drinking example, the question becomes ethical when the person wonders whether drinking is desirable. Certainly, the person desires to drink. The ethical question is whether what is desired is 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? Is the activity simply solitary and private or is there a social dimension? Whose business is it, anyway, that the person chooses to drink?
The question, “Ought I to stop drinking?” is entangled in a web of other questions that become progressively philosophical and abstract. Yet the question remains embedded in a real situation and the answers demand particular choices having real consequences in the lives of real people. In a simpler society, the answer was easier to come by. But in the ever-changing, multi-cultural environment in which we live, the answers aren’t so readily at hand.