On Driving and Drinking

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No, this post does not offer advice to the aspiring hoodlum. Rather, the reversal of the common imperative against drinking and driving in the title indicates the need for a reevaluation of its ethical import. To be clearer, my title and the following post show that there is an inherent problem in asking people to not drive — or perform any other action that requires moral judgment — following the consumption of alcoholic beverages. This is also no tirade again alcoholic drinks, which I personally and occasionally quite enjoy, but a qualification of the conditions under which alcohol should be consumed. The point of this qualification is quite obvious, even envious, but often ignored: the active component in alcoholic beverages removes moral defenses, in the grip of which the demand for good judgment is inconsequential, not to mention absurd.

I take my cue for this argument from two claims, one of which is to be found in our own time on popular radio, the other — across the ocean of history and signification — in the Nichomachean Ethics of Aristotle. The recent radio infomercial, which can still be heard in Israel, makes this observation (roughly paraphrased from Hebrew): When you drink, you are no longer the one driving the car, but the alcohol; furthermore, you are equally no longer in control of yourself, so OF COURSE, having drank, you feel overconfident in your ability to drive — that’s what alcohol does, it removes doubt! This infomercial thus seeks precisely to emphasize the lack of control caused by booze, and the need to avoid any crucial decision making while under the influence. “You’ve drunk? give the keys to someone else,” the conclusion goes.

However astute this observation is, it remains hindered by the effect it tries to point to and avoid: if the judgment of an even slightly drunk person cannot be trusted, since it is the less reasonable parts of one’s psyche that take charge of one’s decision making, why should we assume that his judgement about his judgment is any different? Why should we assume that one will, in fact, hand over his car keys, with the understanding that his judgement is impaired? If you feel that this argument is getting somewhat tedious and circular, your are correct (or drunk), for that is exactly what happens when reason — the logic of cause and effect — is taken out of the picture, when the bearings of our morality become blurred. And this is why we need to reintroduce moral causality, which is also to say accountability, into the equation. Enter Aristotle!

In the Ethics Aristotle develops his theory of moral virtue, that is of what it means to be a good person and citizen. One of the fundamental principles of this theory is that virtue is inextricably tied with intent, that “praise and blame come about for willing actions,” and that statutory “honors and punishments,”  therefore, should likewise heed the distinction between willing and unwilling actions. This distinction, moreover, remains pertinent to legal proceedings in our own day and age: the number of years one is to spend in prison for homicide, for example, can vary greatly in accordance with whether the accused has premeditatively murdered or unintentionally killed another human being. What wish to further inquire, then, is whether drunk driving is a willing or an unwilling action, given the effects of intoxication on our moral accountability. In particular, I wish to point to a moment in the Ethics, where Aristotle himself discusses the extent to which misconduct under the influence is a form of “ignorance,” which, for Aristotle, is yet another name for unwilling or unpremeditated behavior.

Indeed, according to Aristotle, “[w]hat is done on account of ignorance is… not a willing act,” since the one who does such an act “[doesn’t] even know what he [is] doing,” and the best indicator of that, Aristotle goes on to say, is repentance: an unwilling act qualifies as such “by its painfulness and in one’s regretting it.” We can certainly argue as to whether remorse is an indication of innocence (a quick look at the growing number of those who, upon facing criminal charges, suddenly turn “religious” testifies to the weak tenability of such a claim), but Aristotle’s next point is more interesting: “Acting,” Aristotle continues, “on account of ignorance seems different from acting while being ignorant.” What is the difference between ignorance and being ignorant? Well, ignorance, as we have seen, has to do with not being fully aware of one’s actions. This is similar to someone who is drunk and so cannot be fully accountable for his actions. To be ignorant, in contrast, amounts to not knowing or complying with “what one ought to do and what one ought to keep away from — for example “someone who is drunk or angry, ” since “unwillingness is not meant to be applied because someone is ignorant of what is advantageous, for ignorance that is involved in choice is the cause not of something unwilling, but of depravity.” Put another way, we cannot qualify as unwilling the results, however inadvertent, of actions that are immoral to begin with.

What Aristotle helps clarify is that, while we cannot hold the drunk entirely accountable for his subsequent choices (just like in many cases today we do not hold the wishes of the heavily medicated patient to be real “choices”), we may still do so with his initial one: the choice, before taking a single sip, to drink. Now, again, this is not a call for temperance or a second Prohibition. But when you know that you might be driving, then your decision to drink is immoral, for at this point your judgment is still unimpaired. The same applies to the obverse, which amount to a reformulation of the aforementioned radio infomercial: If you intend to drink, leave your keys, and your car, at home! Instead, take a bus, call a cab or catch a ride with a friend who has read Aristotle.

 

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