Why do people get intoxicated? What is the purpose? After all, it seems paradoxical. Being intoxicated alters our perception of reality, deadens our capacity to think, and makes it harder to pursue our goals. Yet, the desire to get high is a persistent feature of human life. We explore this paradox, arguing along the way that the desire to be intoxicated is, in fact, perfectly rational.
The Paradox of Intoxication
People have been getting high (on purpose) for millennia. The earliest archeological evidence—traces of a wine-like drink made from berries, rice, and honey left on a neolithic pot—dates from circa 7000 BCE (Slingerland, 2021, p. 17). In South and Central America, we have found large stone carvings depicting psilocybin mushrooms dating back to 3000 BCE (Slingerland, 2021, p.19).
The persistence of intoxication in human societies is somewhat paradoxical. Intoxication generally impedes our abilities, making it harder for us to survive. Making intoxicants also requires the use of valuable resources which, historically, would have been scarce (e.g. fermenting or distilling grains or fruits to make alcohol). In Ancient Sumer, “it is estimated that the production of beer, a cornerstone of ritual and everyday life, sucked up almost half of overall grain production” (Slingerland, 2021, p. 38). From an evolutionary perspective, shouldn’t a desire to get intoxicated have been selected against?
From a wider perspective, intoxication also makes it harder to do the sort of things that we need to do to thrive (as opposed to just survive). Most valuable pursuits (e.g. knowledge, making and consuming artistic goods) require the exercise of our rational capacities. Intoxication impairs our cognition, and many intoxicants can cause nausea, vomiting, and impaired physical abilities when taken in sufficient amounts. Intoxicants such as alcohol, cocaine, and MDMA also come with hangovers. All of these effects can make pursuing valuable goals harder. Seen from this perspective, the question arises: why devote time to getting drunk or high? Yet the desire persists, and this calls out for an explanation.
The Value of Intoxication
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If intoxication were all bad, the desire to get high would be completely unexplainable and irrational. The key to understanding the paradox of intoxication lies in recognizing that, along with the substantial costs associated with getting high, there are also benefits. If these benefits are large, and there are few other ways of achieving them, devoting substantial resources to impeding one’s capacities and risking making oneself sick might be rational. But what might these benefits be?
The first obvious benefit people derive from consuming intoxicants is pleasure (Nutt, 2012, p. 65; Hart, 2021, p. 32). Simply put, many people enjoy getting high, and getting pleasure and enjoyment from something is a fantastic reason to do it. There is a widespread tendency to devalue pleasure, especially when we think self-critically. This is especially true of bodily pleasures. Sometimes this might be due to prudishness. Other times it is down to a deep-rooted, often religious, belief in the virtue of self-abnegation: we are here to suffer, not to enjoy ourselves.
This, however, seems to be a mistake. Hedonists believe that pleasure is crucial to well-being, and something that (other things being equal) ought to be pursued. It is not improbable that, if anything in the universe turns out to be intrinsically valuable (i.e. valuable in and of itself), pleasure is a good candidate.
If pleasure is the only thing on the balance sheet, we are still on shaky grounds. Even if pleasure were the ultimate value (as utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham claim), the goal shouldn’t be achieving short-term pleasure at the expense of long-term goals. Rational agents would aim to maximize pleasure over the course of their lives. If, as is often argued, getting high precludes us from pursuing longer-term goals that will give us longer-term pleasure (what J.S. Mill would call the “higher pleasures”), the desire to get high is still irrational as it involves giving the present too much weight.
If we want to argue that the desire to get intoxicated is rational, we need something more. In his book Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilisation, Edward Slingerland argues that, far from being an evolutionary anomaly or mistake, “getting drunk, high, or otherwise cognitively altered must have, over evolutionary time, helped individuals to survive and flourish, and cultures to endure and expand” (Slingerland, 2021, p. 11).
Slingerland argues intoxication does this by helping us solve distinctly human challenges: “enhancing creativity, alleviating stress, building trust, and pulling off the miracle of getting fiercely tribal primates to cooperate with strangers” (Slinger, 2021, p. 12). Let us take up these arguments in turn.
As humans, our survival depends on our creativity. Other animals have talons or great speed. To survive, we need to invent and solve problems. Although rational thought can often help us solve problems, there are some problems that can only be solved by lateral thinking. This is where intoxication comes in: it helps us think outside the box (Slingerland, 2021, p. 78; Polan, 2018, p. 319). By dampening our rational thought processes, we can open up space for creative, innovative solutions that we might have overlooked if we weren’t intoxicated.
Experiments with LSD in the early 1960s lend some support to this hypothesis. When engineers, scientists, artists, and architects who were stuck on an intellectual problem at work were given controlled doses of LSD, participants were able to re-conceptualize the problem and come up with innovative potential solutions (Polan, 2018, p. 178).
Human society requires cooperation. Even with high levels of creativity, none of us would be able to produce what is needed to survive and thrive alone. Without the assistance of others, our life would be (to use Hobbes’ phrase) “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Cooperation, however, opens us up to risk. By relying on others, we make ourselves vulnerable to their actions. What if we help them and they break their agreement to help us in turn? What if they don’t do their fair share of the work needed to maintain our common spaces?
These sorts of challenges are endemic to cooperative projects. Intoxication can help us override our rational, calculating thought processes and make us more able to trust and bond with others (Slingerland, 2021, p. 106). When we are intoxicated, we have less conscious control over our actions. Unconscious expressions like body language and emotional expression become more prominent. Intoxication, therefore, increases the spontaneity and authenticity of our reactions. Getting intoxicated with others thus helps us prove to others we are trustworthy and have nothing to hide, showing we are good people to cooperate with (Slingerland, 2021, p. 138).
4. Stress alleviation
Getting along with each other and solving problems together is stressful. Drinking alcohol or smoking cannabis can help us escape from the trials and tribulations of everyday life (Slingerland, 2021, p. 117). Getting high also helps smooth over the edges, calming us down and making us more tolerant of others. Intoxication also helps us escape the self for brief periods, allowing us to focus more fully on the situation and less on what is going on inside our heads.
Intoxicants, when taken together, can also help people bond. For example, pubs and bars serve as “a hip for casual, informal, and spontaneous social interaction” (Slingerland, 2021, p. 189).
In recent years the anthropologist Robin Dunbar found that those who frequent the same pub often “were more engaged with, and trusting of, their local community, and as a result they had more friends.” (p. 189)
A Plea for Moderation
Having spent the majority of the article making the case for the value of intoxication, it seems appropriate to conclude on a note of caution. Whilst it is true that intoxication can be rational and beneficial, it isn’t always. Sometimes what is needed is not out-of-the-box thinking but the implementation of an existing strategy. Sometimes we don’t want our minds to find innovative solutions, we need to focus on the task at hand.
Although some level of intoxication helps lubricate the wheels of social interaction, too much can go the other way. People talk past each other, don’t listen, and get quarrelsome when drunk. Some communal cannabis consumption can help with bonding, but too much can impede conversation. As with many other valuable things, we can have too much intoxication. The key here is to approach everything in moderation, even moderation itself.
Hart, Carl H. (2021) Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear. Penguin, New York.
Nutt, David. (2012) Drugs Without the Hot Air: Minimising the Harms of Legal and Illegal Drugs. UIT Cambridge, Cambridge.
Polan, Michael. (2018) How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics. Penguin, London.
Slingerland, Edward. (2021) Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilisation. Hachette Book Group, New York.
Gage, Suzi. (2020) Say Why to Drugs: Everything you need to know about the drugs we take and why we get high. Hodder and Stoughton, London.
Grim, Ryan. (2009) This is Your Country on Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America. Wiley and Sons, Hoboken.
Grisel, Judith. (2019) Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction. Scribe, London.