Saturday, June 4, 2011

Why Teetotalism?

I don't drink alcohol or take any drugs recreationally, and never have. I realize that that puts me in a fringe minority of the population, especially because it's not for any kind of religious reason. The drive to use psychoactive substances is nearly universal, so I'm an outlier. Why do I value personal teetotalism?

I consider Penn Jillette an inspiration for this decision. Penn's libertarianism obviously doesn't imply personal or political teetotalism, but personal teetotalism does offer a solid rhetorical point for libertarianism: that one can choose not to consume even a legal substance like alcohol highlights that the primary basis of a choice to use a drug isn't the law. Having this rhetorical point isn't a reason for Penn or me to choose teetotalism, but it is an additional compatible argument that disconfirms the omnipresent claims that libertarians advocate for drug legalization only out of a selfish, personal desire to use drugs.

One core reason for Penn's teetotalism is simply that he wants to be smarter, and using psychoactive drugs recreationally obviously makes you stupider, even if just temporarily. James Randi, who is an inspiration to Penn Jillette for his scientific skepticism, is also a teetotaler. Randi articulates part of my justification for teetotalism: having control over your mind and understanding and addressing reality as accurately as possible. This is a big part of my justification. Once you study a bit of the literature on heuristics and biases, you'll realize that your own map of reality is already hopelessly flawed. It seems base to me to handicap myself even more.

It is often said that the young drink to rebel. I just never picked up this habit. Maybe it was just to express my own individuality, rebelling against the popular notion of youthful rebellion? I have always been weirded out by conformity.

It's not just that as a utilitarian I want to appreciate and understand every precious moment of my own existence. It's also that as a materialist atheist I recognize that consciousness arises from a physical process in the brain only. Taking a psychoactive substance isn't modifying the access point to the mind; it is modifying the mind itself.

How does this play out socially? I find that drinkers roughly fall into two categories, those who use alcohol as a substitute for experience, and those who use alcohol as a complement for experience. I should caveat that obviously one person can be a different kind of drinker at different points in time.

Some people drink as a substitute for meaning and happiness. Unsatisfied with their classes, jobs, careers, or personal lives, they drink for a temporary escape. These kinds of drinkers have little to look forward to other than a break from an otherwise unfulfilled life.

Others use drinking as a complement to their own lives. Already having attained, or at least successfully striving for meaning, purpose, and value in their lives, personal and professional, they use alcohol to enhance their lives, enjoying the physiological effects for their own sake, enjoying the taste of the drinks for their own sake, and perhaps using alcohol as a social lubricant.

I think that substitute drinkers often suffer low self-esteem, and that they have a hard time socializing with principled teetotalers like myself. In a social situation, a substitute drinker feels threatened by a composed, happy teetotaler who doesn't use alcohol as a crutch. By juxtaposition, the teetotaler's very presence calls attention to the substitute drinker's void by not validating the substitute drinker's behavior. Since they're Insecure, substitute drinkers more often seek to socialize with other substitute drinkers to validate their decisions. Humans, after all, do have biological drives for conformity.

There's a habit among substitute drinkers to use the nuances of drinks as a vehicle for vacuous conversation. I find excessive deliberation about a drink's attributes, or talk about what a drink says about a person, endlessly insipid.

Complement drinkers on the other hand, well-adjusted and secure, can socialize with teetotalers quite well, because complement drinkers are not threatened by teetotalers. Complement drinkers can be interesting, can abstract, and can carry on conversations about more interesting things than the drink they're holding and what exists only in their immediate vicinity.

Exclusively socializing with other non-religious teetotalers would be a quixotic task, since there are too few, so I do my best to seek out complement drinkers instead of substitute drinkers.

Cross-posted to Whiskey and Car Keys


Tade Souaiaia said...

Every experience modifies the mind itself. If you want to really step up your libertarian game you should refuse to drink alcohol but practice the responsible use of some other highly illegal drug. Then your argument for free choice is so much stronger.

Sergi Martinez said...

This is a very lucid article on teetotalism. I wouldn't have expected to read a comment like the one posted before me, as I haven't read anywhere in the text that the author was in need to 'step up his libertarian game', but that's a reaction common in those who, far from searching ways to attain freedom within themselves, despise those who don't depend on the tools of conformity.