Thursday, November 13, 2014

Mr. Spock, Sneak Drinker?

I got one of those late night drunken phone calls. You know the ones. Or perhaps you don’t. Nowadays there is a plethora of other ways to communicate inappropriately while drunk: texts, tweets, facebook comments, etc. Voice communication might be considered quaint in some generational quarters. There remain some, however, who keep the tradition alive. Truth be told, in my more bibulous 20s I made a few such calls myself. Those days, both fortunately and unfortunately, are a long time ago. Nonetheless I received one last night. The caller had some life decisions to make and wanted a sounding board – not advice, so I didn’t offer any. I probably wouldn’t have offered any if asked. If the caller came to a decision, one hopes it was considered also in the sober (and probably painful) morning.

Holding off on implementing a drunken idea until sober is a wise precaution, but is there also sense to holding off on a sober idea until regarding it drunk? There may well be. It has historical tradition behind it. An oft-referenced passage in Herodotus from the 5th century BC tells us that ancient Persians would not make an important decision until considering it both drunk and sober. There are much more recent anecdotal instances when this method proved useful. The SALT treaty negotiated by Henry Kissinger and Leonid Brezhnev in 1972, for example, was a pretty good deal all around, and the Persians would have approved of the way alcohol infused its negotiation as related in Kissinger’s White House Years. But is there any study of the question that is a bit more scientific? Yes, a bit.

At a bar in Grenoble France researchers approached drunken patrons and asked them to fill out a questionnaire on matters of philosophy. Perhaps this sort of occurrence is less strange in Grenoble than in New York or Chicago, because more than one hundred patrons did it.  (See The questions included ethical dilemmas such as the classic trolley and bridge questions which, simplified, ask if you would kill one innocent person to save 5. (Assume no negative consequences to you, legal or otherwise.) Drunks are far more likely to be OK with offing the one in utilitarian fashion. In fact, they are much more coldly logical all around in ethical matters than sober folks. This is curious, since we commonly associate drunkenness with emotionality. Apparently all that emoting is self-centered. The outpourings are about the drunk’s own hates, loves, desires, and fears. With regard to other people the inebriated are surprisingly hardheaded in all sorts of ways. So, the Persians might have been onto something.

Drunks may be logical, which is a counterintuitive result, but one may ask if there is any verity to “In vino veritas,” an intuitive supposition already ancient when Pliny the Elder referenced it in Naturalis Historia. Are drunks really honest? Yes and no. They are less inhibited. So, they blurt out what otherwise they might keep to themselves. To that extent they are more honest. However, when it is in their interest to lie – as when stopped by police – there are few liars as inspired as drunks. Many of the greatest novelists have been heavy drinkers, and fiction, after all, is a kind of lying. The degree to which they are more honest probably shouldn’t be counted in their favor anyway. Honesty, despite its reputation, is not always a virtue; the trouble with truths, especially when spoken by the intoxicated, is that they frequently are unkind, inappropriate, or both.

Of course, one could simply stay sober and retain the ability to cushion the sharp edges of one’s commentary with paddings of prevarication. I, for one, stumble into inappropriateness often enough as it is, so this is a better choice for me. If that means being less logical, well, every choice comes at a cost.

Hesher (2010): Inappropriate but honest eulogy


  1. Offering no advice even when asked is probably wise. I've learned that most people inebriated or sober a lot of the time just want a listener and company. I used to have a friend (deceased now) who I at times wanted to grab by the ears and tell him he is his own worst enemy, and would at times try to give some positive advice, though I don't know it did any good. He was one of those that made a lot of excuses, though overall a pretty nice person, however, he made a few bad mistakes in his past. I think he was mostly calling though to talk, and for the most part, I didn't mind.

    And how well do we really know our friends anyway? Sure I grew up with some of them, but still there always seem to be a side to them that's unknowable. Human logic is illogical at times, I guess.

    1. We often surprise ourselves when subjected to novel situations or stresses, so I suppose it's natural that others surprise us even more. Dr. Jekyll tried to separate out his dark side of course. The experiment didn't turn out well.