Beyond costs and benefits
We often act like economic beings, weighing up the pros and cons of options looking for the one with the best overall net benefit. But sometimes we don’t, and then we may find ourselves on thin ice.
Here is a thought experiment: imagine that a pharmaceutical company launches a safe pill with the remarkable ability to neutralize all alcohol in your blood within minutes, costing no more than about half a typical alcoholic drink. No matter how many pints, shots or glasses of wine you consumed, swallow one, and in the time to go to the loo, collect any belongings and put on your coat, you’ll be sober as a judge. Pubs, restaurants and clubs, and manufacturers of alcoholic drinks would undoubtedly be elated. So would the many people be who enjoy their drink, and who would enjoy more of it, were it not for the adverse consequences. With this miracle pill, they will wake up their normal witty and clear-headed self the next morning. No hangover. And of course, they will first be able to drive home safely, without risking driving bans and fines — perhaps best of all, no more drunk drivers would mean no more alcohol-related traffic collisions and victims. What’s not to like?
Good or questionable? Or both?
Yet something seems odd about this: a pill to stop you drinking by making consuming alcohol very unpleasant is one thing, but is it really OK to be able to have fun binge drinking all evening, and then with just one small pill wipe away all the downsides? Even if you are not a complete puritan teetotaller and perfectly OK with alcohol consumption — in the company of others, or indeed with the odd solitary glass of Sancerre, or a G&T to relax after a long day — being able to cheerfully guzzle unlimited quantities of booze, untroubled by any downside, feels, well, off. Somehow, alcohol without an implied requirement for temperance seems kind of wrong.
What is intriguing about this tension is that the problem seems to lie in the fact that this hypothetical pill gives us the enjoyment of getting…