Social Philosophy of Alcohol

Of all the intoxicating substances currently recognized around the world, alcohol is by far the most commonly used and abused. Alcohol beverages have been around in some form at least as far back as 4000 BC, and they have been present in virtually every civilization since then. Even today, the use of alcohol and the culture around it are among of the most significant and pervasive aspects of any society.

Alcohol use may have intrinsic societal value

Because alcohol is so ubiquitous in many societies, and has been so throughout the development of civilization, it has been suggested that the use of alcohol may actually have value in terms of helping humans adapt to certain situations and to relate more easily with others. However, these social effects should not be taken as implicit proof of the invariable benefits of alcohol use. In all countries where alcohol use is tolerated, moderate alcohol use is largely considered the norm. On the other hand, excessive drinking and total abstinence are both considered abnormal.

In any case, the use of alcohol is considered largely a social activity in many cultures. In most countries, establishments are specifically set up for the consumption of alcohol, with each environment having its own norms, rules, and formal and informal guidelines for defining socially acceptable behavior.

The unspoken ‘laws’ of alcohol use

Although most countries have implemented some form of legal framework by which the sale and consumption of alcohol can be regulated, it is interesting to note that the unspoken rules and even the rituals of alcohol culture often carry much more weight than the rule of law. In most societies, ‘rules’ that ‘control’ the amount of alcohol consumed and acceptable behavior after consumption are far more influential than legally enforced rules. In many instances, someone who has been drinking is more likely to stop after being told that he has ‘had enough’ rather than to stay within the ‘2-drink’ limit for drunk driving or DUI.

Even with the similarities in the physical and social aspects of alcohol-related establishments around the world, most establishments tend to reflect local attitudes and policies toward alcohol. In places where alcohol use is largely an accepted social activity, drinking establishments tend to be open and expansive. In contrast, drinking establishments in places wherein alcohol use is less tolerated are more likely to feature closed designs.

Alcohol-related problems

Despite the tragedy and devastation caused by alcohol abuse, it should be noted that the gamut of problems typically associated with alcohol abuse–including physical, psychological and social issues–affect only a very small percentage of alcohol users. This has been found to be the case even in countries wherein alcohol-related problems are pervasive. This may imply that the problems associated with alcohol use are dependent on factors other than alcohol itself. In fact, factors such as belief systems, societal attitudes, social norms and expectancies about alcohol use are known to be influential or mitigating factors in issues typically associated with alcohol use.

This theory may be supported by the realization that societies with a more accepting attitude toward alcohol generally have much lower rates of alcohol-related problems–such as drunk driving–than those in which alcohol use is less accepted. Countries in which alcohol use is shunned or considered negative are likely to have higher rates of alcohol-related problems than countries in which alcohol use is largely seen as a positive social activity.

The implications of this realization are significant. In some European countries–many of which had previously had largely positive attitudes toward alcohol use–increasing rates of alcohol-related problems such as vehicle accidents is seen as a consequence of the shift toward more negative societal attitudes toward alcohol. As many European countries begin to adopt other countries’ attitudes toward alcohol, some fear an even wider spread increase in alcohol-related problems.

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