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In defence of drinking alone

By Rebecca Roache and Hannah Maslen



Yes they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness
But it’s better than drinking alone

– Billy Joel, Piano Man


Drinking alone is often frowned upon. Those who do it can be quite defensive about it—as illustrated by a Reddit thread entitled ‘Why do people think drinking alone is sad?’, a recent Wall Street Journal article by Lettie Teague called ‘Drinking alone: a bad idea or a toast to oneself?’, and a monologue on drinking alone by the American comedian Peter Holmes. Enjoying several glasses of wine at a dinner party, sharing a case of beers with a friend while watching the football, or toasting an achievement with a round of cocktails, are all considered acceptable. Less socially acceptable, however, is to do any of these things in solitude. Even holding the amount of alcohol consumed constant between settings, drinking alone rather than with friends is often seen as a more troubling activity.

There are two obvious reasons for thinking drinking alone is worse than drinking in company. The first involves the inference that drinking alone is symptomatic of an underlying problem with the drinker; as such, we think drinking alone is worse because it raises concerns about the welfare of the drinker. The second involves a moral disapproval of drinking alone.


The view that solo drinking is bad for solo drinkers

One reason to be concerned for the welfare of the solo drinker is that such a person strikes us as more at risk of pathological alcohol dependency than the social drinker. Whether drinking alone is indeed a reliable indicator of pathological dependency is an empirical matter. It is likely that those dependent on alcohol will more often drink alone, but this does not mean that all those who drink alone have a dependency. Of course, in so far as a person’s solo drinking is associated with addiction, we agree that there is cause for concern. However, we must bear in mind that in such a case, solo drinking is an indicator of a problem, not the problem itself. The real problem for such a person is their relationship with alcohol per se, not that they consume it alone. One does not address the problem of alcohol dependency in a solo drinker by encouraging them to enlist a drinking partner, but by encouraging them to drink less alcohol, and to find a healthier activity to perform the function that alcohol performs in their life.

Another health-related worry is that alcohol is associated with depression. This association holds regardless of whether one drinks alone or in company, but we are perhaps more likely to suspect depression in a solo drinker than in a social drinker. This might be because it is widely known that a symptom of depression is withdrawal from social interactions, so the solo drinker fits our view of what depressed people are like better than the social drinker.

A related concern is that people might drink alone because they are lonely. This thought leads us to pity the solo drinker. If only she had a friend, she would be drinking with them. Or perhaps the alcohol is itself a substitute for a friend. This is what is evoked by Billy Joel’s lyrics, quoted above: the solo drinker does not even have the company of strangers, let alone friends.


The view that solo drinkers are bad

These examples illustrate that drinking alone might be thought worse than drinking in company because it may be indicative of a problem. But what about those cases where drinking alone is not indicative of a problem? As the discussions we linked to in the first paragraph of this post help illustrate, people who drink alone often feel that they need to justify solitary drinking in the face of what appears to be moral evaluation. Where such evaluation occurs, the assumption seems to be that drinking ought to be a social activity: the odd beer alone is fine, but anymore than this requires the presence of others for moral legitimacy.

We wish to challenge this assumption. It is true that drinking is often a social activity, but we suggest that there is no defensible reason why it should be. What is considered acceptable drinking behaviour in company should be considered equally acceptable in private. Moral disapprobation of solitary drinkers is a product of misconceiving social norms as moral principles.


Bias in favour of being sociable

Why is drinking considered a primarily social activity? There are various plausible reasons, including the role that drinking has historically played in our culture and its current role. However, it is surprising that drinking to oil the wheels of social intercourse tends not to attract disapprobation, since certain well-known arguments in applied ethics—specifically arguments in the ethics of human enhancement—would find a natural analogy here.

For example, a common line of argument against enhancement in sport (‘doping’) and cognitive enhancement has it that achievements made with the aid of enhancement are less valuable than those made without enhancement. This is why Olympic medalists who fail drugs tests are stripped of their medals. We might view drinking alcohol in social settings as a form of social enhancement: Ernest Hemmingway once said, ‘I drink to make other people more interesting’, and many of us have had the experience of deepening a friendship with someone over a few beers. Yet people do not generally view friendships cemented with the social enhancement of alcohol as less valuable than those that have developed solely in sober settings. Another example: the suggestion that it might be a good idea to enhance our romantic attachments to our partners through the use of drugs has been met with alarm by some people. Yet nobody is alarmed by familiar ways of using alcohol to enhance our relationships with friends and colleagues. Bonding with a new co-worker over a post-work drink or celebrating an achievement by sharing a bottle of Champagne with friends are not seen as morally objectionable practices.

Even so, viewing alcohol as a kind of social enhancement does not do full justice to the value it has for us. Drinking often involves appreciating—in a gastronomic or aesthetic way—the drink itself, and one can do this alone as well as in company. Indeed, it could even be argued that the tastes and textures of various alcoholic drinks might be best appreciated when one is not distracted by social activity: wine tasting, after all, can be quite a cerebral activity requiring a great deal of attention and reflection.

It is not our intention here to suggest that we ought to disapprove of social drinking. Rather, we want to highlight that, whatever the reason for social drinking being viewed as morally preferable to solo drinking, it is not because there exist no moral arguments against social drinking. Such arguments do exist, but people are not generally inclined to make use of them, because—leaving aside extreme cases where social drinking is problematic, such as when it involves dangerous drinking games like the Neknominate phenomenon of a year or so ago—few of us have the moral intuition that social drinking is objectionable. Why, then, are people inclined to disapprove of solo drinking?

One possibility is that our attitudes are influenced by a general cultural bias in favour of sociable behaviour and against solitary behaviour. This is the view taken by Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking. She has also given a TED talk. According to Cain, Western society (inappropriately) values extroversion over introversion. She identifies various ways in which this bias is manifested, ranging from the qualities that tend to be mentioned in job advertisements—‘outgoing’, ‘team player’, etc—to the way children are educated, which often focuses on group work and interaction. She argues that introverts tend to be misunderstood and undervalued, often being seen as anti-social when in fact they simply need more time alone, and have as much to offer society as do extroverts.

If this bias in favour of extrovert qualities extends to popular views about drinking, this might explain the moral stigma attached to drinking alone. Cain’s work illustrates that we are inclined—without good reason—to view those who often choose to spend time alone over spending time with others as anti-social and shy. The same inclination might be responsible for us viewing solo drinkers with suspicion. To be sure, alcohol causes serious problems for many people. But, among those for whom it does not cause serious problems, it clearly plays a valuable and morally innocuous role in our social lives. There seems no reason why it cannot also play a valuable and morally innocuous role in our solitary lives.



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3 Comment on this post

  1. I think this article confuses two different senses of the word drinking: one is drinking alcohol, the other is drinking a lot of alcohol.

    Perhaps my social milieu is different to the authors’, but I do not see any condemnation or worry about having a drink alone. Having a beer when you get in from work, or having a glass of wine while you cook – these are normal things to do.

    The problem lies with drinking a lot alone, because drinking a lot is associated with strong emotion: either the happiness of a good night, or misery. It is highly unlikely that a solo person is euphoric, therefore the lone drinker is most likely unhappy. Ergo problem. The rest is just a motte and bailey style erroneous argument, I think.

  2. This is an issue for paternalists and other busybodies, but it’s not a problem for liberals. The only way it would be a problem for liberals would be if externalities arose; and even then the issue is the externality, not the drinking (ie solve the externality problem and the objection disappears). Personally I have a deep commitment to being completely uninterested in what people do in the privacy of their own homes. You can drink, do drugs, collect NKVD memorabilia, shout racial epithets at your large collection of lego people, or whatever else tickles your fancy, and it’s neither my business, nor the state’s, nor your nosy neighbour’s. The externalities associated with some activities may be significant enough and consistent enough to warrant intervention – but that’s clearly not the case with having a couple of beers on your own in front of the telly.

    Huge and unconvincing leap from social sanction against private behaviour X to generic, civilisation-wide bias against introverts.

  3. Jeez, I dunno…

    *Of course* solo drinking isn’t morally wrong. And *of course* it needn’t be the cause nor the consequence of some pathology. But that doesn’t mean concern about someone’s drinking alone is misplaced. That depends on a boatload of empirical matters.

    For example: are frequent solo drinkers typically more troubled than people who seldom drink alone? I have no clue, and I don’t think my guesses are worth anything. Is frequent solo drinking associated with alcohol dependency? If so, that’s a cause for concern whichever way the causal arrows point. But once again, I don’t have any confidence in my guesses about the facts.

    If the question is *might* solo drinking be a harmless pleasure, the answer is too easy. Indeed, it may even *typically* be just that. But I think we knew this already.

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