Friday, November 28, 2014

Drunk Ethics

Anyone who has been drunk, been in the company of people who are drunk, or even seen some good drunk acting in the movies, will know that your ability to think clearly is not at its best. 

There are some possible silver linings of thinking while drunk though, aren’t there?  It makes your mother-in-law easier to deal with (I can only say that because I don’t have one :-)).  It makes you more confident – perhaps with good and bad consequences depending on the situation. 

A new study out of Grenoble France by Aaron Duke finds another possible silver lining of thinking while drunk.  If you are familiar with the classic trolley problem, you know that people are hesitant to take any active steps to harm someone, even if this action could save several other people.  But if you can create enough psychological distance between the person and the harm, they can do it.  There are a lot of nuances to this finding and no clear choice that is universally the most ethical.  That’s what makes it such a rich research area in ethics.

So Dr. Duke and his colleagues wanted to know what happens with drunk people.  Does the psychological distance created by blurred thinking have this same effect?  Turns out, it seems so.  The more drunk that people (who they recruited in bars) were, the more willing they were to save the larger number of people at the expense of the one person, even if it required the direct action of pushing the person onto the tracks.  They were more utilitarian.  (The researchers say “rational,” but you know how much I dislike that term).

The researchers admit that there is an alternative explanation.  It could be that drunker people don't take a hypothetical in a bar too seriously and so they have less of an emotional aversion to thinking about actively harming the one person.  Their greater rationality isn’t real.  

But it is an interesting case to imagine the possibilities.  If drunk people make more utilitarian ethical decisions, perhaps we want jurors to be drunk when deliberating?  What other applications can you think of?