The Beach Bum: 10 Tricky Philosophical Questions It Raises

9. Is Substance Abuse A Moral Problem?

The Beach Bum Matthew McConaughey
Vice Studios

While many criticize the oft-cited disease concept, the medical community generally accepts that addiction is not a moral issue. Those who argue against addiction as a disease accept it rather as a compulsive behavioral disorder. But what about those whose preference for drugs and alcohol is undiagnosed? One cannot become addicted without first choosing to use. When viewed on its own, away from the context of addiction, does substance abuse constitute a moral failing?

It's difficult not to associate such questions with The Beach Bum, as the majority of its characters are nearly always operating in an altered state. The IMDB Parents Guide estimates that substance use occurs on-screen for at least 90% of the film, and they might actually be lowballing it.

Moondog justifies his neverending haze by offering a recitation from Charles Baudelaire's "Be Drunk," which actually refers to more than alcohol. Whether drunk "on wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish," Baudelaire advises that one should always seek to relieve themselves from the burdens of time.

This is followed by Moondog committing a major act of vandalism, because sometimes you can't break free from the shackles of time without first beating the tar out of your daughter's mansion. He's sentenced to twelve months of rehab when the judge blames Moondog's drinking rather than blaming Moondog.

Ironically, it's Moondog's constant substance abuse that calls this sentence into question. He's intoxicated when he's at his worst, but also when he's at his best. How much of either can be attributed to external factors when those factors are always at play? A man who remains free of inhibitions is a man who's always himself. This is why addiction recovery typically incorporates moral instruction. Moondog's intoxication is not the sole determinant of his values, nor would abstinence cause them to change overnight.


Kieran enjoys overanalyzing and arguing about pop culture, believing that heated debates can (and should) be had in good fun. He currently lives in Fort Worth, TX, where he spends his time chatting with strangers on the bus and forcing them to look at pictures of his dog.