Ethical issues in alcohol policy: initial results of a qualitative study

Dr Mary Walker1

1La Trobe University, Bundoora, Australia

Alcohol causes significant health harms that may be chronic (e.g. contributing to cancer risk) or acute (e.g. traffic accidents). It causes social harms including crime, domestic and stranger violence, and child neglect. Alcohol is also a social lubricant and its use is deeply embedded in many Australian social practices. This makes policy about recreational alcohol use challenging as we seek a balance between limiting harm, and personal liberty to drink recreationally and participate in valued social practices.

As yet, ethicists’ attention to alcohol policy has tended to focus on addiction rather than recreational use, and there may be resistance to ethical analysis of alcohol-related harms given the history of moralisation surrounding the topic. But both recreational drinking and policies that aim to intervene in it raise ethical questions. For example, does intoxication alter moral responsibility? Are alcohol use or intoxication ethically questionable? Why are our judgements and expectations about intoxication different by gender and class? When are alcohol-control policies unfair, and when are paternalistic policies justified?

To begin to engage with these issues I am undertaking qualitative interviews with key informants in alcohol research and policy in Australia. The research aims to identify what the major ethical issues related to alcohol policy are, and understand how ethical issues are discussed in this area. This talk offers initial results of this research.


Mary Jean Walker is a Lecturer in Philosophy at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. She works on bioethics, philosophy of medicine, and theories of identity.

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