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Moral and Mechanical Reasoning in Attributing Problems to Alcohol

by Ron Roizen

    Not the least interesting issue scientific alcohologists face is understanding how, if at all, alcohol contributes to our theoretical understanding of untoward events like spousal abuse.

    Ironically, the link between alcohol & aggression seems to be considerably more credible within the framework of commonsense thought than in the framework of formal, scientific rationality.

    For instance, most of us don't have to do a full-scale research project to accept the simple assertion that Bill shoved-around Nancy (or vice versa) last weekend partly because he (or she) drank too much.

    Yet when that same assertion is handed over to the care and scrutiny of alcohol science, it encounters some longstanding and seemingly impenetrable conceptual difficulties--e.g.,

    • If alcohol actually makes a direct causal contribution to the event, then why doesn't Bill (or Nancy) get aggressive every time he (or she) drinks that much in similar circumstances? (The "only sometimes" problem.)
    • Why is it that most people at Bill's (or Nancy's) BAC-level don't--or even never--conduct themselves so aggressively? (The "only some people" problem.)

    In short, what seemed easy to understand in acommonsense way becomes oddly indefinite and puzzling in the formal, scientific mode of interpretation.

    This conceptual roadblock has beckoned some alcohol scientists toward a research agenda aimed at determining the myriad conditionals surrounding a putative alcohol-aggression relationship.

    Looking for conditionals--i.e., finding out what other things must be in place for the "alcohol effect" to trigger--offers one way to frame the scientific chagrin surrounding the "only sometimes" and "only some people" problems.

    I, for one, don't see much to be gained in that direction.

    The exercise will probably lead not to new scientific understanding of any general or nomothetic sort but instead to a humbling appreciation of the infinite complexity of human character and circumstance.

    A better understanding of this curious explanatory situation lies, I believe, in another direction altogether--namely, in addressing the puzzle of why commonsense understandings are easier to swallow than scientific ones.

    This puzzle isn't all that complicated, really:

    Commonsense understandings are more palatable because they involve an alternative mode of reasoning different from scientific or (what I'll call) mechanical reasoning.

    How do commonsense and scientific rationalities differ from each other?

    The question is inviting because it affords us an opportunity to learn something about ourselves and how we think from this otherwise remarkably opaque scientific territory.

    Accounting for spousal abuse with alcohol invites us into a mode of thought I'll call moral reasoning.

    Moral and mechanical reasoning follow quite different rules.

    Oddly enough--and despite the sharp differences between them--we don't seem to notice when we slip from one mode of thought to the other.

    An example--albeit a off-the-wall-sounding one--may be used to illustrate one of the aspects moral reasoning in situations ostensibly disrupted by alcohol's presence:


      D is at a party. He's been drinking, and he makes an inappropriate pass at L's wife, S, when they're both alone together in the kitchen.

      S leaves the kitchen and tells her husband, L, who immediately comes out to the kitchen and confronts D.

      "What the hell's going on, D?" asks L.

      D is very apologetic.

      He says he must have had more to drink than he realized, he says he's never ever done this sort of thing before, and he vows that it won't ever happen again.

      D then bows out of the situation as soon as he can--hoping that his long friendship with L, his alcohol-based explanation, and his apology will allow the embarrassing incident to blow over in a day or two.

    Was there moral reasoning at work in D's account?

    Yes, indeed.

    Its presence is evidenced in the uniqueness argument D stresses in excusing his conduct.

    What happened had never happened before and would never happen again, said D.

    There, in fact, lies the epistemological rub:

    Mechanical (or scientific) rationality teaches us that repetition and replication are the gold standard of sound causal knowledge.

    In other words, we really know that a particular cause really does indeed cause a particular effect when we've observed that particular cause time and again preceding and occasioning that that particular effect.

    And yet D's explanation not only invoked the uniqueness of the event but relied upon that uniqueness as an essential part of its credibility.

    Consider the alternative: What if D had instead said something like the following to L?  

      "I'm really sorry, L. This happens to me every time I drink and it'll undoubtedly keep on happening to me every time I do because in my case there's a strong and replicable causal link between consuming alcohol and making inappropriate passes."

    The effect is almost comic.

    And the humor is probably a lovely indicator of the deep epistemological divide between the moral and mechanical rational modes.

    There are other intriguing differences between moral and mechanical reasoning, too. The concept is rich in interpretive implications.

    Perhaps most notably, moral reasoning doesn't seem to be about causal explanation at all.

    Instead, it seems to serve  

    • to re-integrate disrupted social situations;
    • to allow for tacit transactions in which parties make symbolic "withdrawals" or "deposits" to the moral "bank accounts" they maintain with one another;1
    • and more.
    Once again, I can't help but be struck by alcohol science's wonderful capacity for irony:

    If moral--and not mechanical--reasoning lies behind our cultural inclination to blame alcohol, at least in part, for problems like spousal abuse, then alcohol science may not make much progress in understanding this zone of cultural belief until it first learns to think with its heart rather than its head!


    1 To be discussed in a future RANES REPORT.

© 1998 Ron Roizen


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