UK health minister Matt Hancock said in parliament this week that we ought to follow his example and “drink responsibly”, as part of a contentious wider plan to use the idea of personal responsibility to ward off health problems.
Responsible drinking is the long-time boilerplate of alcohol producers used to deflect responsibility for harm that befalls their customers. But, like it or not, and many health professionals do not, the idea is prevalent and many people will instinctively connect with it.
After all, being responsible for things helps us live together peaceably for longer, deterring us from causing others needless harm and fostering mutual trust. The advantages of “being responsible” are something we learn throughout our lives, the rudiments coming to us in childhood.
We learn that being “held responsible” through customs, rules, laws and understandings allows those around us to penalise us for doing things which harm them, as we can in return. And we learn that to “feel responsible” means accepting and welcoming this kind of deal.
We also realise we often have no choice about the kind of rules we have to follow. Most of society’s rules and laws apply to us without our consent, like physics and biology. So being told to “be responsible” is largely reminder of an unavoidable fact of life.
In the context of alcohol drinking “being responsible” then means we should carry on conforming even if we are inebriated, despite the disabling psychological effects which can make it difficult if not impossible.
Taken to its limit this paradoxical injunction would mean not drinking any alcohol at all. But, if can allow ourselves a small risk of irresponsibility, we can stick to the UK guidelines of 14 UK units (140ml) a week. This keeps the chances of mishap low.
Alcohol producers and health ministers should recommend consumers stick to these guidelines directly, rather than appeal to our sense of responsibility, an emotionally-stirring reminder of our bonds with society which offers little practical help.
An unfathomable target
Responsibility is a shifting target. Even when drinking well within the low-risk guidelines it is tricky to know where our responsibilities lie. We are all held responsible and feel responsible for things in many ways which often overlap and conflict.
We might rush to the supermarket and reach for a bag of coffee on the top shelf so impeding an elderly shopper, an oversight for which we might feel responsible and offer sincere apologies. We might then resolve to be more careful before attempting such manoeuvres in future.
Learning opportunity taken, we might then walk from the shop with the bag of coffee hidden under our coat, fully aware of it being petty theft. But we might argue we were charged for two bags rather than one the last time we and prioritise our need to leave to conduct a life-saving operation.
Then, driving to work, we might swerve to avoid an oncoming vehicle, hitting the wing mirror of a parked car. We feel we were not responsible for the damage, but still leave our details for the owner of the parked car to make an insurance claim, knowing we are legally responsible.
Responsibilities are, then, attached to actions and events in different ways with different weights by different people and institutions, through different, rules, laws and customs, depending on circumstances and our own mental and physical limitations. Clear-cut cases are an exception.
This makes attaching responsibility a fascinating topic consuming large amounts of human effort. Armies of sociologists, lawyers, psychologists, philosophers, journalists, commentators and historians try to do it. We should doubt our chances of drawing definitive conclusions alone.
A sense of responsibility does and should help guide our behaviour, along with our self-interest and ideals. But it is there to regulate our relationships not our consumption of things. And it is particularly unsuited to be a yardstick for our consumption of a social, psychoactive drug.
Aim for environment
No amount of repetition can change the inadequacy of our sense of responsibility as a mechanism for protecting our health. An enhanced capacity for responsibility is more likely to be a welcome result of low-risk drinking than the other way round.
We can help ourselves and others by fostering our own micro-environments around alcohol drinking: We can limit to a low risk level; We can avoid difficult and risky things if ever inebriated; And we can learn techniques to feel carefree without drinking alcohol.
We could replace “drink responsibly” with new two word mantras, like “drink carefully”, “drink mindfully” or “find alternatives”, more likely to encourage healthier decisions around alcohol. Joining online clubs and finding support groups can help refocus on priorities.
Responsibility is not an effective way to reach alcohol goals, but fulfilling our responsibilities is among the likely rewards of low-risk drinking. We can adopt clear, effective strategies to improve our mental and physical health, even if health ministers do not. ■